A Brutal King Like Haman
Some time back, a friend of mine approached me after davening and commented that my recent articles (in other publications) on the Iranian nuclear program and the American government's acquiescence in Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons were against "da'as Torah." My initial reaction was that he had taken temporary leave of his senses.
Though needless to say the pieces in question were works of incisive analysis, they were very much within the range of the contemporary debate about the nature of the Iranian program and the feeble American response. What, I wondered, could have so incensed my friend?
Then it dawned on me what he had meant. Rabbi Moshe Shapira had spoken about the significance of the threat to the Jews of Israel from ancient Persia, and his comments had nowhere appeared in my pieces. (The friend in question and I were been long time members of one of Reb Moshe's many weekly chaburos.) Instead I had treated the Iranian nuclear program purely as a subject of geopolitical analysis and ignored the metaphysical aspects.
My defense would have been twofold. Though in describing the magnitude of the Iranian nuclear threat, I had not explicitly cited Reb Moshe's words, I had at least provided the raw material for anyone seeking to strengthen his or her davening or resolutions to do teshuva. Secondly, opining on the manner in which the Divine Hashgacha is working at any given moment is far above my pay grade. I'm thoroughly unqualified to pronounce on Hashem's calculations, and reluctant even to quote Rabbi Shapira or other contemporary masters on the subject out of fear that I have not sufficiently understood the depths of their words.
Still, I hear my friend's point, even if I thought he might have found a nicer way of expressing it. It is, after all, part of the evil of Amalek to cause us to forget to the Divine dimension of events. After all the miracles of yetzias Mitrayim and the krias Yam Suf, all the nations of the world trembled before the bnei Yisrael, for it was clear to all that Hashem Himself was fighting our battles. The nations of the world were far too awestruck by Hashem's power to even contemplate waging war on the bnei Yisrael.
Only one nation dared to attack: Amalek. True, Amalek was also thoroughly defeated by Yehoshua in battle. But he left his impact. Amalek, in the words of our Sages, was like a man who jumped into a boiling bath. Though he was scalded to death, he cooled off the bath for others.
Amalek destroyed the nations' awe of Hashem from the time of yetzias Mitzrayim, which had made a military attack unthinkable. He thrust the bnei Yisrael back into the realm of history and removed them from any transcendental context.
After Amalek's attack on the weakest among the bnei Yisrael and his defiant gestures upwards to Heaven, a military attack was no longer beyond the realm of contemplation. Subsequently, the bnei Yisrael would have to fight numerous battles prior to reaching Eretz Yisrael and in the conquest of the land. For each subsequent nation that challenged the Jewish people could convince itself that Amalek's defeat could be attributed to faulty tactics and that by employing better tactics it could achieve an opposite result. The bnei Yisrael not longer appeared invincible by virtue of Hashem's waging war on their behalf.
I MET RABBI SHEFTEL NEUBERGER, menahel of Ner Israel Rabbinical College two weeks ago in Los Angeles. And he offered an interpretation of Megilas Esther that perhaps has bearing on the Iranian situation today. Rabbi Neuberger posed the following question: How was Mordechai able to convince all the Jews of Shushan to fast on behalf of Esther? After all, the same Mordechai had failed entirely nearly nine years earlier to prevent the Jews of Shushan from going to Achashverosh's feast. Why did Mordechai succeed in persuading them now when he had failed to do so earlier?
At the time of the Achashverosh's feast, Rabbi Neuberger answered, the Jews felt abandoned by Hashem. The destruction of the Temple and, more immediately, the ostensible lack of fulfillment of Yirmiyahu's promise of return from exile after seventy years seemed to them an indication that Hashem had ended His covenant with them – that they were effectively in the situation of a woman whose husband has given her a bill of divorce. And thus Mordechai's warnings against attending Achashverosh's feast had little effect, for the Jews of Shushan feld they had nothing left to lose.
Ironically, the decree of annihilation promulgated by Haman served to convince the Jews of Shushan that Hashem's love for them undiminished and that no decree of divorce had been given.
What was the proof? If Hashem had become indifferent to their fate and no longer cared whether the Jewish people continued to exist or not, He had no need to intervene at all. From the beginning of the fourth perek in Kiddushin, we can derive how problematic determining yuchsin (geneology) had become within a relatively short time span in Bavel. It would have been sufficient to let developments follow their natural course, and within one or two generations the Jews would have pretty much disappeared as identifiable Jews, just as the non-Orthodox segment of American Jewry – among which over four out of every five intermarriages are intermarriages – is today in a demographic free fall.
By permitting themselves to partake of a feast at which the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash were displayed, the Jews of Shushan revealed themselves to lack even the minimal "Jewish pride" to help protect them against complete assimilation and intermarriage.
Because Haman's desire for a world without identifiable Jews would have taken place anyway, Mordechai argued, his exterminationist decree must represent something else entirely – a Divine intervention to cause the Jews of Shushan to do teshuvah. Rather than having abandoned them, Hashem still cared so deeply for the Jewish people that He manipulated events – Vashti's being deposed, Haman's elevation, Esther's entry into the royal household – in such a way as to virtually force the Jewish people to repent.
When the Jews of Shushan recognized that the perilous situation in which they found themselves was a clear sign not of Hashem's abandonment but of His enduring love for them, their hearts were opened to Mordechai's message of repentance, and they fasted for three days and prayed as he instructed them.
Perhaps that is the same message that Hashem is sending us today, as events lead in a remarkable way – e.g., the abandonment by the Obama administration of any serious effort to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power – to a mortal threat to the Jewish people. Hashem cares so much for us that He wants to force us to do teshuvah.
A Moshol for Every Ba'al Teshuva
At a recent yahrtzeit gathering for Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, one of the founders of Ohr Somayach and subsequently of Machon Shlomo, his son-in-law Rabbi Pinchos Auerbach shared an important insight.
Rabbi Rosenberg used to conduct a weekly question and answer session, known to Machon Shlomo students as "Questions and No Answers," in which he would show students that the question they thought they were asking was not what was really bothering them.
At one such session, after Rabbi Rosenberg had one leg amputated, a student asked him something to the effect, "What's it feel like to lose a leg?"
Though the question was both invasive and in poor taste, Rabbi Rosenberg thought for a moment or two before replying calmly. "I feel I understand my students much better," he answered.
He explained that he had had to relearn every skill that he had once possessed, and even the simplest act, like walking across the room, now required advanced planning.
And that is exactly how it is for a ba'al teshuva. The simplest acts, such as eating, must be now be performed in accord with entirely new rules that require study and a good deal of thought to ensure that one is complying with the rules. Everything that was once taken for granted must now be thought about anew.
Noted in Passing
On the assumption that at least a few Mishpacha readers missed Ken Kurson's lengthy February 4 piece in the New York Observer quoting New York Times reporters on the paper's unreadable editorial page, I want to share the fun. My judgment of the Times editorial page is apparently shared by Times reporters, one of whom described the paper's three daily unsigned editorials as "completely reflexively liberal, utterly predictable, usually poorly written and totally ineffectual." Another opines, "The fact of the matter is that the Wall Street Journal editorial page just kicks our[s] . . . I mean there is no contest, from top to bottom, and it's disappointing.
While few readers are likely familiar with editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal, who is the focus of the piece, nearly everyone has suffered through at least one, if not a dozen, Thomas Friedman columns, many of them highly critical of Israel. Algorithms have been developed to generate at the push of a button imitation columns of the man dubbed the "worst writer in the English language," by the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto.
There is a year around cottage industry of Purim spiels imitating Friedman's pseudo-profundity. Gawker media blog's Hamilton Nolan recently posted a piece entitled, "Thomas Friedman Travels the World to Find Incredibly Uninteresting Platitudes."
One reporter described the entire newsroom as "embarrassed by what goes on with Friedman. I mean anybody who knows anything about most of what he's writing about understands that he's, like, mailing it in from wherever he is on the globe. He's a travel reporter. A joke." A former Times writer returned to the embarrassment theme, "As for the columnists, Friedman is the worst. He hasn't had an original thought in 20 years; he's an embarrassment. He's perceived as an idiot who's been wrong on every major issue for 20 years . . . " (Some Paul Krugman non-fans would argue that the contest for worst columnist is close.)
Friedman's three Pulitzer Prizes serve only to remind us that the Nobel Peace Prize once went to Yasir Arafat.
Related Topics: Intellectuals, Jewish Ethics, Personalities, Purim
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