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“In those days, when King Achashveirosh sat on his royal throne which was in Shushan the capital, in the third year of his reign, he made a feast for all his officials and servants, the army of Persia and Medea; the nobles and officials of the provinces being present, when he displayed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honor of his splendorous majesty for many days, a hundred and eighty days.
“And when these days were fulfilled, the king made a seven-day feast for all the people who were present in Shushan the capital, great and small alike, in the courtyard of the garden of the king’s palace. There were [hangings of] white, fine cotton and turquoise wool, held with cords of fine linen and purple wool, upon silver rods and marble pillars, the couches of gold and silver were on a pavement of variegated marble. The drinks were served in golden vessels of diverse form, and royal wine in abundance, in accordance with the king’s wealth. And the drinking was according to the law; there was no coercion, for so the king had established for every officer of his house to do according to each man’s pleasure.”
So begins Megillas Esther, the quintessential Book of Exile and – not inconsistently – the last book to be added to the Torah.
Why does it begin with a banquet? What’s the big deal about a banquet? And we know that all the food was kosher, because we are told “the drinking was according to the law; there was no coercion.” Rashi tells us (Megillah 12a) that Mordechai was there, supervising the cupbearers.
But this paragraph sets the tone of the Megillah, and the theme is very clear: “Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the entire kingdom of Achashveirosh…” And remember, “all the Jews throughout the kingdom” means all the Jews in the world, because the kingdom covered the entire world.
Why should a kosher banquet cause a decree to be promulgated against every Jew in the world? What is going on here?
We are living in dangerous times, and that is why this Megillah is needed for us right now. It is essential that we discern subtleties and see with clear eyes, because we are standing on a precipice and our very existence depends on knowing how close we are to the edge.
We recently read that when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Sinai, a “cloud covered the mountain” (Shemos 24:15). Why was a cloud in close proximity to the Source of all light? It reminds one of the maxim concerning “darkness before the dawn.” This is obviously a general truism if it is found in the Torah. (Our sages compare the end of the exile to the darkness before dawn.) Why must there always be darkness before light?
I suggest this darkness represents the trials we must go through before we achieve closeness with Hashem. We are very attached to our place in this world. We have extremely tight affinities, even obsessive passions, for the things of this world. Our yetzer hara pushes us to love the objects of our desire. In order to come close to Hashem we have to break away from our attachments, our desires, our lusts, our love for “olam hazeh.”
This powerful gravitational pull toward material objects and the tension of trying to break away from it is the darkness that stands in the way of unity with our Creator.
Bonding with Hashem is the object of our creation. “Our sages of blessed memory have instructed us that man was created for the sole purpose of reveling in the Eternal and delighting in the splendor of the Divine Presence” (Mesilas Yesharim/Path of the Just, Chapter One).
One of the greatest dangers of Galus is that we are surrounded by the culture of nations whose entire way of life is different from ours. For example, our Sages say concerning Shabbos, “You did not give it, Hashem, to the nations of the world, nor did You make it the inheritance … of the worshippers of idols. And in its contentment the uncircumcised shall not abide, for to Israel, Your people, You have given it” (Shabbos Shacharis). They have no comprehension of what Shabbos is.
On a recent flight to Israel I sat next to a chassid who kept looking out the window and humming the most beautiful melody, “Shabbos Kodesh…Shabbos Kodesh” – and when he first saw the lights of Israel he started singing, “Eretz Yisrael…Eretz Yisrael!”
Who else but a Jew could thrill to these words?
We have been learning about the Mishkan in recent Torah portions. The first vessel discussed is the holy Ark. “Rav Yosef taught in a beraisa, ‘… [both] the [second] tablets and the first tablets are placed into the ark’ ” (Menachos 99a).
The Ark is the center of the universe and the source of our unity with Hashem. Its contents must therefore be incredibly significant. So why should it contain the broken tablets? Of what significance are they?
There are many possible explanations, but I would suggest that our entire relationship with Hashem depends on something being broken. Like walking through that dark cloud surrounding Har Sinai, we apparently have to break something to get close to Hashem.
We all know that Moshe Rabbeinu broke the luchos when the Children of Israel were dancing before the Golden Calf. So they remind us of our strong attachment to that which is false and impure. Even when Moshe took us out of Egypt, only one-fifth of our ancestors wanted to leave with him. Four-fifths were so attached to idolatrous Egypt – the nation that had killed our babies! – that they preferred to remain behind in that hell rather than follow Moshe Rabbeinu and meet Hashem at Har Sinai. (See Rashi on Shemos 13:18 and 10:22.)
The yetzer hara is incredibly strong, and this is the source of all our troubles, for our sages tell us that “there is not a single punishment that comes to the world that does not contain [a small amount of punishment derived from the worship of the Golden] calf…” (Sanhedrin 102a).
* * * * *
Let us return to Achashveirosh’s banquet.
Kosher food was available. What was the problem?
The problem is exactly our problem today.
The Megillah is describing our own world. We live in Shushan. We are eating at the banquet. It is glatt kosher, but it is their banquet. And this, apparently, is very dangerous.
It would seem that this is the reason Megillas Esther is the Torah’s “parting word” as the Children of Israel head into Exile. Hashem is warning His children about the chief danger that lies ahead for us, down this long and dangerous road.
Jews over the centuries had been able to resist the most terrifying decrees. When it came to being killed al Kiddush Hashem, God forbid, they accepted death rather than abandoning our holy heritage. But when the nations of the world invited us to become “equal citizens,” that is when we failed. When social acceptance, wealth, comfort and fulfillment of material desires were presented to us, they became our stumbling blocks. After centuries of heroic resistance, we could not resist the “friendly hand” extended by our enemies.
My wife, Leah, and I were privileged recently to speak in the former Soviet Union. We spent Shabbos Parshas Yisro in the famous Yeshiva Toras Chaim in the village of Hripan, some forty miles outside Moscow. We left the capital several hours before Shabbos and arrived at the village where, we had been told, “anyone can direct you to the yeshiva.” In fact, no one in the village seemed to know where the yeshiva was. Finally, our driver inquired at a small store. A young man emerged and told him he could direct us.
The young man entered our van and began acting in a very strange manner. He was all smiles and wanted to shake hands with all of us. Then he offered us ice cream he had brought out of the store. It all was just too friendly. He directed us down a village street and then he got out of the van and pointed farther down the road, telling the driver he should just continue on and we would arrive at the yeshiva.
So we drove down that road, and it led…nowhere. Into a snowbank, actually. It was a trick. The young man had intentionally put us on a road to nowhere. It was a few hours before Shabbos, and we were barely able to extricate ourselves from the snowbank. Finally, after several attempts, we located someone who was able to direct us accurately and we pulled up to the yeshiva with a sense of relief and gratitude to Hashem.
We had a sudden glimpse, a small taste, of what it was like for our ancestors in the “old days” in Europe, with the inhabitants of the land actively plotting against us. In the United States we had never seen the hatred and deception exhibited by that smiling anti-Semite.
The societies in which most of us live today would have us believe they are our friends. They have gulled us into thinking they are just like us and we are just like them. And we have fallen in, just the way the Jews in Shushan fell in. Mordechai had warned us against attending the banquet, but we didn’t listen. And just as this brazen young man directed my wife and I down a road to nowhere, so our taivas, our powerful desires, are leading us on a spiritual road to nowhere.
Let us remember what happened in ancient Egypt. As noted above, four-fifths of the Children of Israel died during the Plague of Darkness because they didn’t want to leave Egypt – even though they were being tortured. They didn’t want to follow Moshe Rabbeinu on the road to Har Sinai. Can you imagine? The greatest man in history was waiting to take us to greatness, to freedom, to meet God, and we preferred to remain behind in the country that was breaking us. What was wrong with us?
What was wrong with us? Again, it was the same thing that is wrong with us now.
We slavishly run after a culture whose essence is emptiness, a road to nowhere. “For the gods of the peoples are worthless…but Hashem made heaven and earth” (Pesukai D’Zimra).
Yes, the wine is kosher and the food is kosher, but the desire to mingle with the surrounding culture, the desire to impress them, the worship of their sports heroes, their business heroes, their entertainment heroes, their music, their money, their cars, their homes, their vacations, their values, their technology – all this is treif, treif, treif.
The tragedy of tragedies of Galus is that we have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten that we are unlike other nations. We are the berachah for the entire world but we can only be that berachah when we live as we were meant to live. Our ancient enemy Bilam understood very well who we are when he said, “Hen am levadad yishkon… Behold, it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9).
Bilam hated us but he saw the unique greatness that is ours and ours alone. Megillas Esther – the quintessential Book of Exile, the book that was written at the precise moment when we were about to be cast among the other nations for so many millennia to come – identifies with precision exactly the weakness that we must at all costs avoid as we struggle to regain our lost heritage and return to our ancient greatness.
At this climactic moment in history, let us not forget that the enmity of the world is buried but not forgotten. Like the smiling Russian, the nations are waiting for their opportunity. The prophets, thousands of years ago, told us what would befall us at the end of days:
[An] entire army, horses and riders, all of them clothed in splendor, a vast assembly with buckler and shield, all of them wielding swords…many people will be with [Gog]…. In the end of years [they] will come to a land…gathered from many nations, upon the mountains of Israel that had lain desolate continuously, [to people] who had been brought out from the nations, all of them dwelling in security. You will attack, like a storm you will come; you will be like a cloud covering the earth, you and all your cohorts and the many nations with you…. Thus said the Lord…on that day…I will punish [Gog]…I will be exalted and I will be sanctified… [Yechezkel 38]
May Hashem bless us with understanding and courage to “distinguish between Israel and the nations.” May we soon penetrate the dark cloud covering the summit of Har Sinai. By cleaving to our Father in Heaven we will see the clouds suddenly disperse and, like the Jews in Shushan haBira, we too will have “light and gladness and joy and honor.”
About the Author: Roy Neuberger's latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim) is available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian, and Georgian. An e-edition is available at www.feldheim.com. Roy is also the author of "From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Russian, and Georgian) and “Worldstorm.” Roy and Leah Neuberger speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com.
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