During one of my internships when I was in Fordham University’s Social Work program, my supervisor was a psychologist who was also a secular Jew. Although he knew a lot about psychology, he didn’t know much about Judaism. Even so, as the child of survivors he was proud that he was a Jew and would often speak about it. I mostly listened and nodded. It wasn’t much use arguing or debating him anyway.
On one occasion the good doctor told me that he loves Judaism because it’s a religion of action. “You know those other religions dictate what you should think and tell you what your attitudes should be. Judaism on the other hand, because it doesn’t dominate your thinking or tell you what your attitudes should be. It only tells you about certain things you have to do, but that’s about it.”
I was not about to launch into a harangue about mussar and the mandate that one control his thoughts, and so I just nodded. It was fascinating to me that although we were both Jewish, our understanding of the religion was quite distant.
This week in shul a congregant asked the million-dollar question – why were the Jews deserving of extermination under the rule of Haman? What sin(s) could they possibly have committed that were so serious as to warrant the unprecedented decree calling for the genocide of the entire nation?
It’s such a good question that the Gemara itself discusses it. In a discussion between Rav Shimon Bar Yochai and his students it emerges that their culpability resulted from the combined sins of attending the feast of Achashveirosh and the nation’s having bowed to an image of the evil Nebuchadnezzar a few decades prior. But even so, the question remains as to why the punishment was so severe?
A couple is sitting in front of their rabbi. It is quite apparent that the situation is extremely tense. Their marriage is deteriorating, and they are making a last-ditch attempt to save it. The husband asserts that he doesn’t know what her problem is. He does everything he is supposed to do and provides well for their family. She replies that it’s not any one thing in particular, but it’s his general attitude. There is no feeling between them. They live a parallel existence but it’s not much of a marriage. How do you put that into words?
The Torah does not merely demand that we ‘do certain things.’ The Torah demands that we develop and foster a passionate connection with it. The Jewish people are termed the brides of the Torah in a dynamic relationship.
At the time of Purim the Jews began to view themselves as ‘just another nation,’ albeit with a responsibility to perform mitzvos. When it’s all only about action, the relationship deteriorates. Perhaps they did not actually ‘do’ anything so bad per se, but the deterioration of the connection is more egregious than any negative act. Rav Dovid Soloveitchik (Me’or Hamoadim) explains that at times exhibiting negative character traits can be more severe than actual sins, and that was the reason the nation was liable for such severe punishment.
The salvation of Purim generated within the nation renewed emotional connection. It reignited the spark of connection and relationship with Torah and G-d. It was only when they reignited that spark that they were worthy of the completion of the rebuilding of the second Bais HaMikdash, which happened shortly thereafter.
As in those days, in our days too.