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April 25, 2014 / 25 Nisan, 5774
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Shining Stars, Divine Decrees

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The month of Adar is the final one on the zodiacal cycle in the year that begins with the month of Nissan (Aries), which marks the birth of creation and is symbolized by the gentle white ram.

Next comes Iyar (Taurus) whose sign is the black bull – the dark of the night that follows day. The twins of Sivan (Gemini) signify both the light and darkness of man’s world. The weak creature of the sea, the crab, is the sign of Tammuz (Cancer) and is representative of man’s yetzer hora, which when triumphed over results in a lion’s strength, as heralded by Leo of the month of Av.

Elul (Virgo) comes to symbolize man’s happiness, like a bride at her nuptials, while the scales of Tishrei (Libra) then measures man’s deeds, whose sins cause him to descend like the scorpion of Cheshvan. But teshuvah catapults him from Purgatory like an arrow from the bow of Kislev (Sagittarius). Man then emerges like a newborn kid, signified by the goat of Teves (Capricorn). The cleansing waters from the pitcher of Shevat (Aquarius) purify him and he reaches his zenith in the month of Adar (Pisces), symbolized by the ever-proliferating fish, dagim, that serve as a paradigm for unpretentiousness.

Much wisdom can be gleaned from the fish concealed in their watery abode, away from prying eyes and from the danger of the evil eye. Likewise, there is much more to the Purim story than meets the eye – the words in the megillah merely touch the surface and convey mostly the might of the miracle.

Most prominent and revealing among the hidden aspects of the story of Purim is the name of the saga’s heroine. “Esther” has its root in satar, hidden, and alludes to her exceptional modesty. Its meaning also reflects upon her act of hiding before being taken to Achashveirosh the king and, subsequently, her keeping her true identity a secret.

Hadassah, her other name, is suggestive of her virtuous character, for the righteous are likened to haddassim, the fragrant myrtle bush that endures through summer and winter – like the tzaddikim who prevail both in this world and the next.

How was it feasible for Esther to have kept the king in the dark about her true origin? Her allure had all the nations clamoring to claim her as one of their own. The king, in fact, sent lavish gifts of gratitude to all of them, figuring in this way to cover all ground.

Mordechai is mentioned in the megillah as ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish ish Yemini, which references his descending from the tribe of Binyamin, Yaakov’s youngest son. Out of some 40 predecessors, how is it that Yair, Shimi and Kish are singled out? Close scrutiny of the names reveals their special qualifications. Yair has “ohr” (light) as its root, Shimi is related to “shema,” the faculty of hearing, and Kish is from “hikish” – to knock. Mordechai lit up the eyes of the downtrodden Jews of Persia with his prayers and Hashem heard Mordechai’s supplications as he knocked on the heavenly gates of mercy.

* * *

When a defeated and shamefaced Haman updated his wife, Zeresh, on the events that led him to the lowest point in his life, his wife observed: If Mordechai is of the seed of Israel, you will not be able to bring him down.

The Jewish people are likened to the sand of the earth and the stars in the sky. When they slump, they descend to ground level, and when they rise, they soar to the heights of the stars. As was proven with Yaakov and Esau, when one goes up, the other comes down. Hence, Zeresh sized up her evil husband’s destiny: It would seem the Jewish nation has begun ascending and will thus continue to rise higher and higher while you are plummeting downward.

The mayor of the city of Worms in Germany was a boorish and unsavory sort. In addition to looting the wealth of his constituents, Adolphus was known to harbor an intense hatred of Jews, constantly saddling them with taxes and penalties on trumped up charges.

As Adolphus was leafing through some dusty old files one day, he discovered he was a descendent of one of Haman’s sons. He immediately summoned the Jewish town elders.

“You ungrateful people reside in our land yet practice a foreign religion,” he said. “You, who are responsible for the hanging of my pious ancestor and righteous uncles, have the nerve to celebrate their untoward fate with a holiday. From here on in, you will commemorate your holiday day with mourning instead of rejoicing. You are not to read the scroll of Esther, and if you defy my order you will not live to see a new day.”

No amount of pleading swayed the tyrant, and on Taanis Esther the heavy-hearted Jews beseeched their Creator to save them from having to mar the sanctity of their beloved festival.

The synagogue’s interior on that sad night was devoid of light or sound, as were the homes whose despairing occupants huddled behind drawn curtains in fear of the guards outdoors who were on the lookout for the slightest hint of merriment.

Some families managed to take cover in cellars to read the megillah through their tears – while Adolphus held a banquet for his buddies, whooping it up in celebration of his accomplishment. They gorged themselves with food and drink and mocked the Jews and their Torah.

In the midst of all the revelry, Adolphus was suddenly jolted by the appearance of a group of young Jewish boys advancing toward him as they swung makeshift swords, hammers, pistols and noisemakers. Adolphus cowered in fear. His frantic attempts to deflect their blows with his flailing hands were futile; in rapid succession he took a wallop on his mouth and a whack on his neck. Disoriented and grimacing in pain, Adolphus staggered to his feet and bellowed at his guests, “How do you imbeciles just sit there and do nothing to save me?”

The dumbfounded onlookers – who saw no one attacking their host – tried to reason with Adolphus, to tell him no one was trying to harm him, but that just intensified his anger and frustration and he yelled at them to get out of his house.

As the perplexed guests took their leave, the mayor’s wife and children attempted to calm him, leading him to his sleeping chambers with the hope he would sleep off all the wine.

But Adolphus found no respite from his tormentors and resumed screaming in terror, “Someone save me from these Jewish boys who are killing me!!”

As if in response, a man suddenly materialized before him. A bejeweled crown sparkled brilliantly atop the head of the imposing figure clothed in royal attire.

“I am Mordechai the Jew,” spoke the stranger. “It is I who declined to bow down to your ancestor Haman, for a Jew bows to no one but to his Father in heaven, the Ruler of the universe. In his rage over my refusal to recognize his self-aggrandizement, your forefather plotted to obliterate our nation and to hang me from a tree.

“But God planned otherwise and created confusion in Haman’s mind while illuminating Achashveirosh so that the king would act with goodwill toward our people. Achashveirosh ordered that Haman swing from the very tree he had readied for me; the king bestowed great honor upon me and our nation was uplifted and saved by our mighty God.

“To mark that joyous time, we celebrate Purim each year – and you, as a descendent of Haman, have the audacity to mimic his villainous ways. Not only do you ceaselessly harass your Jewish citizens, you have the gall to impose upon them a mandatory day of mourning while you party and indulge in ridiculing them.

“If you will not rescind your ordinance, the boys who were sent here to retaliate will continue to pummel you until there will be nothing left of you.”

Adolphus shivered with fright but managed to beg for a reprieve, admitting to his errant ways and giving his word that he would overturn his edicts, if only Mordechai would call off the youth who were causing him such agony.

“Your sin is far too grave to be forgiven,” Mordechai responded. “Since you transgressed with your tongue by speaking ill of our nation and our holy Torah, you will henceforth suffer a speech impediment and stutter whenever you open your mouth to speak. And if you fail to keep your promise and persist in afflicting the Jewish people, you will bring upon you and your family more pain.”

Mordechai then vanished along with the boys.

Adolphus summoned his family members to tell them what had transpired – in a stammer that left them horrified and incensed at Haman for having brought this calamity on them. They sent for the Jewish elders. Adolphus informed them that they were free to celebrate Purim and that he would revoke all sanctions to date. He asked that they pray to their God for him to be quickly healed of his stuttering.

Joy and exultation overtook the Jewish quarter of Worms as families exulted in the streets on their way to synagogue to hear the story of Esther – the story of hidden miracles and the downfall of their nemesis.

* * *

More than four hundred years ago a ruthless overseer – the right hand of the sultan of Baghdad – ruled the capital of Dimashq (Damascus) in Syria. Known for his insatiable thirst for power and riches, he cast his eyes on the city’s sizeable Jewish community. He summoned the Jewish leaders to let them know he was a progeny of Haman “whom your great-grandparents had executed” and was thus entitled to the 10,000 kikar of silver that his ancestor had invested with the king for permission to eliminate the Jewish nation.

“It is your Esther and Mordechai who were responsible for abolishing the edict, which is the only reason your people are still here today. As a beneficiary and rightful heir, my claim to the treasure is overdue. If you will not make restitution, I will reinstate Haman’s plan and rid myself of all of you.”

The Jewish leaders pleaded with the despot, for even if they would sell their homes and the clothes off their backs, they would still be unable to amass such a fortune. But the stonehearted ruler set a deadline for the thirteenth day in Adar to satisfy his demand, or else.

During that time, in the holy city of Tzfas (Safed) the eminent tzaddik R’ Yitzchak Luria, the Ari HaKadosh, became wise to the danger his brethren in Dimashq were facing. He prayed for them and sent a letter informing them it was their sins that had brought this misfortune upon them – but if they would repent wholeheartedly, they would have nothing to fear. Hashem would save them from the present-day Haman just as He had done in days of old.

The miracle predicted by R. Yitzchak Luria, it turned out, was not long in coming.

It was a stormy night with fierce thunder and lightning. Ferocious winds toppled trees and heavy rains threatened to overrun the city. It was as though the world were coming to an end.

That night, the dictator of Dimashq found himself at the city’s center square where eleven bodies hung from the gallows, with an empty noose next to them – as if awaiting its victim. The tyrant looked on in amazement, wondering about the identity of these people and for whom the twelfth noose was prepared.

“Evil one!” boomed a voice in the stillness. “How is it that you don’t recognize your forebear Haman and his children? The unoccupied noose is for you!”

The despot would have escaped were it not for the executioner who seized him by the arm, threw a rope round his neck and dragged him to the gallows.

“Please, please have mercy and spare me!” the dictator begged.

“You despicable bully; you expect mercy for yourself even while you prepare to decimate an entire people,” castigated the hangman. “I have an idea for you. If you don’t want to join your relatives here, place your signature on this parchment where you declare you have received the 10,000 weights of silver and that you repeal the mandate.”

The ruler trembled as he affixed his signature and authenticated the document with the official seal of his office. As soon as he was done, the wind blew the paper from his hand and carried it away. At that moment, he awoke from his sleep.

The Ari HaKadosh was immersed in solemn prayer in his study in Tzfas when a gust of wind threw his window open and the document from Dimashq flew in. The Ari dispatched a messenger to the head of the Jewish quarter in Dimashq with the precious item along with instructions to safeguard it until the time for its use would arise.

At the beginning of Adar, the overseer summoned the Jewish leaders to remind them of their debt and the impending deadline. The leader of the Jewish community presented the parchment and asked the oppressor to read its content. The tyrant merely glanced at it and started to quiver as the vivid memory of his dream washed over him.

“I concede that you have a great God who stands guard over you,” he told the Jewish leaders. “You may take your leave, observe your festival and rest assured that no one will dare to cause you any harm.”

And so the holy Ari saved an entire Jewish society from extinction with his prayers.

* * *

“God decrees and the righteous man annuls it” (Zohar). The Noam Elimelech says that while a divine decree is set in the universe on high, the righteous person creates a “new heaven” where this decree is nonexistent – consequently facilitating an annulment of the decree.

Thus, the power of choice and the ways of Torah provide us with the potential to rise above astrological influence.

Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.

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