Purim, A Personal Story, and Why There is No Third Option

We last left off with a question: Why do we call Purim by a name that commemorates the weapon of choice that we were fighting against? Amalek once again attacked us with the “coincidence” ideology, and we fought back by seeing Yad Hashem. Why call it Purim after Haman’s lottery? A lottery, after all, is the ultimate in chance and coincidence, which was Haman’s tool of terror.

To answer this question we have to rethink our premise and ask: is Purim really named for Haman’s lottery? The answer I want to present here is very textual but bear with me to discover a new dimension to the story.

Let’s first look at the possukim that name the holiday.

כִּי֩ הָמָ֨ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֜תָא הָֽאֲגָגִ֗י צֹרֵר֙ כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים חָשַׁ֥ב עַל־הַיְּהוּדִ֖ים לְאַבְּדָ֑ם וְהִפִּ֥יל פּוּר֙ ה֣וּא הַגּוֹרָ֔ל לְהֻמָּ֖ם וּֽלְאַבְּדָֽם׃        

וּבְבֹאָהּ֮ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּלֶךְ֒ אָמַ֣ר עִם־הַסֵּ֔פֶר יָשׁ֞וּב מַחֲשַׁבְתּ֧וֹ הָרָעָ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־חָשַׁ֥ב עַל־הַיְּהוּדִ֖ים עַל־רֹאשׁ֑וֹ וְתָל֥וּ אֹת֛וֹ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֖יו עַל־הָעֵֽץ׃

For Haman Ben Hamadata, enemy of the Jews, planned to destroy them, so he did a pur, that is, a lottery, to discomfit them and destroy them.

And when she came before the king, he said through written law to enact the evil he had devised against the Jews upon his own head, and they hanged him and his sons on the tree.

The next possuk continues:

עַל־כֵּ֡ן קָֽרְאוּ֩ לַיָּמִ֨ים הָאֵ֤לֶּה פוּרִים֙ עַל־שֵׁ֣ם הַפּ֔וּר 

That’s why these days are called Purim, because of the pur…

Now, we usually take that to mean that the name Purim is because of Haman’s lottery. But the placement of the possukim is odd. Shouldn’t the third possuk be placed between the first two?

It would then say, “For Haman wanted to kill the Jews, so he made a lottery to destroy them–that’s why we call this holiday Purim–And when she came before the king he changed the decree and the evil he had planned was enacted upon him instead.” In fact, the Megilla can skip the second possuk altogether, and just say: “Haman wanted to kill the Jews using a pur, which is a lottery, and therefore this holiday will be called Purim.”

By including a second possuk describing Esther’s actions and placing the עַל־כֵּ֡ן קָֽרְאוּ֩ לַיָּמִ֨ים הָאֵ֤לֶּה פוּרִים֙ עַל־שֵׁ֣ם הַפּ֔וּר immediately thereafter, the possuk implies that there is something to be learned here. We know that in the Torah, placement and usage of a specific word are never insignificant. Let’s analyze some of the relevant possukim that discuss Esther’s actions to see how the name Purim refers specifically to something she did.

One of the skills used to analyze Torah texts is comparing texts that use similar language and trying to glean what each scene reflects upon the other. As we look at Esther’s actions, we’re going to take a fresh look, as if we haven’t heard this story before, and ask inquisitive questions, including, “where have we heard these words before?”

Let’s start at the interaction we see between Esther and Mordechai regarding the decree.

כִּ֣י אִם־הַחֲרֵ֣שׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי֮ בָּעֵ֣ת הַזֹּאת֒ רֶ֣וַח וְהַצָּלָ֞ה יַעֲמ֤וֹד לַיְּהוּדִים֙ מִמָּק֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר וְאַ֥תְּ וּבֵית־אָבִ֖יךְ תֹּאבֵ֑דוּ וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת

                                                                כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת׃

Esther responds to Mordechai’s initial demand that she approach the king and beg by saying that she has not been called in for thirty days, and if she dare approach him in his private room, she will be executed on arrival. She suggests that they wait, because surely she will soon be called. To this, Mordechai responds with the quoted possuk:

For if you remain quiet, yes quiet, at this time relief and salvation will be given to the Jews from a different source, and you and your father’s house will be destroyed, and who knows if it were not for this situation that you came to be queen?

This raises an immediate question. Should Esther have been too scared to act; had she failed to take the very real risk of approaching a volatile man with a penchant for discarding disobedient wives; had she simply lost her nerve and not done it–what would have happened? Mordechai clearly says that the Jews would be saved by another messenger of Hashem. The only result would be that Esther would have lost the opportunity, and perhaps failed the nisayon for which she was placed in the palace.

Is that really, in and of itself, a capital offense? Would her passive act of inaction truly be enough to warrant Mordechai’s dire warning of destruction befalling her and her lineage?

The Torah is very sympathetic to fear and the shortcomings it encourages. Before every war, as the soldiers were about to go into battle, those who were scared were released to go home. If Esther had failed to act out of fear, and the Jews would have been saved regardless, why is Mordechai threatening her with destruction?

Let’s dig in deeper and ask ourselves, where have we heard these words before? There is,  in fact, only one other place in the Torah where this exact double verb (used for emphasis) הַחֲרֵ֣שׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי֮ is used. And in fact, in that very passage, there are many seemingly minor textual similarities to our text here.

For one, the passage talks of a na’arah, a young girl, who has gone to her husband’s house. The Megillah, too, refers to Esther as a na’arah, and she, too, has left the home of her guardian to go to her husband, the king. Many other elements are the same: both passages refer to bais aviha, her father’s house, and both discuss an urgent, time-sensitive matter, where action must be taken right away. In both situations the predicted result of unwarranted silence is disasterous.

Where is this passage and what is it talking about? Let’s examine:

The passage is in Parshas Bamidbar and the topic is the halachos of Hapharat Nedarim– a series of laws that allow a husband to annul a vow that his wife has made. The possuk says that if a husband hears of a restrictive or otherwise difficult neder that his wife has made, on the very day that he hears he can affirm the neder, thereby making it restrictive on her, or he may,  on that day only, annul it. The possuk then somewhat strangely gives a third scenario:

וְאִם־הַֽחֲרֵשׁ֩ יַֽחֲרִ֨ישׁ לָ֥הּ אִישָׁהּ֘ מִיּ֣וֹם אֶל־יוֹם֒ וְהֵקִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־נְדָרֶ֔יהָ א֥וֹ אֶת־כָּל־אֱסָרֶ֖יהָ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָלֶ֑יהָ הֵקִ֣ים אֹתָ֔ם כִּי־הֶֽחֱרִ֥שׁ לָ֖הּ בְּי֥וֹם שָׁמְעֽוֹ: וְאִם־הָפֵ֥ר יָפֵ֛ר אֹתָ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵ֣י שָׁמְע֑וֹ וְנָשָׂ֖א אֶת־עֲו‍ֹנָֽהּ

And if her husband, will be silent, yes, silent on that day to the next day, her vow (or restriction) is affirmed upon her because he was silent on the day he heard. And if he tries to annul, yes annul it,  after he has heard [and remained silent for that day] he will bear her sin.

What is this third scenario? In this scenario, the husband neither affirms or annuls her vow on the day that he hears of it, and is silent. In this case, the Torah tells us that the vow is by default upheld, and if she later cannot uphold it, he, the husband, bears the sin.

Similar to our question about Esther, let’s ask here, why does the husband have such a dire consequence for simply refraining from either affirming or annulling? He’s not sure what to do, so he refrains from acting. Why is that so bad?

To understand this, we have to look at the word the Torah uses to describe his silence. There are two shorashim in Hebrew that mean silence. One, ש.ת.ק, is used for both animate and inanimate objects. The second, ח.ר.ש, is used exclusively for people. This second verb is the same root of the Hebrew word that means ‘deaf’. The implication here is that when the Torah uses the ח.ר.ש verb, the subject is a person who is choosing not to hear what is going on and choosing to remain quiet.

For the husband in this scenario to see his wife in a restrictive and oppressive situation, and to remain quiet, neither affirming nor annulling is not an innocent act of passive inaction–to remain quiet, he is actively overriding the care, concern, and responsibility he owes his wife. That is his sin, and his negligence. If at a later date the vow cannot be kept and cannot be annulled, the Torah tells us that the sin is on him.

To sum it up: Three scenarios with the husband are presented: in  the first case he affirms, and the obligation then falls on his wife to keep her vow. Alternatively, he can annul the vow, and his wife is absolved from it. The third situation is one where the husband essentially acts like he didn’t hear–and the Torah is telling us that is not an option. When you are called upon to act, you can’t decline the offer and expect not have consequences, and to stay at the same level.

So too Esther. Mordechai tells her that a decree has been made against the Jews, similar to a vow. And the decree is not sealed yet–there is a period of time in which she, using her position in the palace, can annul it. Mordechai calls on the ancient words of the Torah to tell her, “Don’t think you have three choices here: affirm, annul, or stay out of it all by keeping silent. Be assured that if you don’t act, salvation will be brought from another source, but if you stay quiet now you are actively and sinfully affirming the decree. And that is a punishable action.”

The message here is that when an opportunity is given to you, and when you are put in a position of choice, there is no such thing as a “maybe”. Sticking your fingers into your ears and  pretending you don’t hear doesn’t allow you to later claim innocence. Feigned ignorance is not bliss–it’s a willful act of negligence.

Mordechai is telling Esther that inaction is not an option. Her actions will not affect the outcome for the Jews. Hashem, after all, has many messengers. But if Esther will actively make deaf her ears to the grief of the Yidden, and silence her conscience as she herself is safe in the king’s palace, she will have affirmed the decree of Haman, and will have sinned.

But Esther rose to the occasion. She risked her life to take action, and annulled the decree.

Go back and at the word that is used when the husband annuls the decree. The words used are הָפֵ֥ר יָפֵ֛ר. The shoresh of this doubley-emphasized verb is פ.ו.ר — the same shoresh as Haman’s lottery, his uniquely named פּוּר֙. We now can understand why the possuk says עַל־כֵּ֡ן קָֽרְאוּ֩ לַיָּמִ֨ים הָאֵ֤לֶּה פוּרִים֙ That’s why these days are called Purim, right after a description of Esther’s actions. The possuk continues, עַל־שֵׁ֣ם הַפּ֔וּר –a hint to the annulment that Esther enacted. Thus we see a deeper level in how Purim got its name: in recognition of Esther’s annulment of the decree.

Here in America there are all types of people. There are religious people who believe in G-d. There are atheists who don’t. And then there are those who call themselves agnostic, which means that they don’t know. Practically speaking, the third is not an option. A person can believe there is a Superior Power, and live his life accordingly. A person can deny that G-d exists and live his life accordingly. But if a person decides on a philosophy of “I don’t know” — how does that translate into an action plan for life? Each day, he has to act either in a way that confirms or denies G-d’s existence. In daily life, there is no middle ground, there is no maybe.

So when an opportunity is presented, and you have to risk everything to answer a Heavenly call to affect a situation–a decree–pretending you don’t hear the call to action is not an option. Mordechai ends the passage by telling Esther וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת– you don’t know if this is your big nisayon, your reason for being in the palace in the first place.

A few days ago, my kids and I were having a discussion. I don’t remember how the discussion started, nor do I remember the details. It must have been something about a person passing a big nisayon, or a person, perhaps even one of my kids, passing a small nisayon. But at the end of the conversation, my 10-year-old, a precocious and sweet child, leaned back on the couch and dreamily said, “I can’t wait to see what my nisayon in life will be…what will be the major thing that I’m going to do and what Hashem is going to test me with.”

Esther Hamalka’s story reverberated in my mind as I answered him: We’re not always zocheh to know why Hashem puts us where he puts us, and life is not always clear–we don’t have the special sound effects of a R’ Fischel Shechter CD to tell us that something important is happening! You and I, I told my son, might not have major, exciting stories about escapes from Iran (as my husband and my parents did) or thrilling and scintillating miracle stories. But every day, in every choice and action, Hashem is calling to us and  testing us, if only we allow ourselves to hear. And each time we pass a “small” nisayon, we’re raised up, even if it’s just a small step, on a life-long ladder of growth. Although it might not seem as awesome and powerful as imagining one big, showy nisayon, this is the reality of daily life. There is no maybe. There is no middle ground, of ignoring the actual nisayon while waiting for a bigger, more palatable one. You, my dear, are the sum of all your “small” accomplishments.

Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tip Toe if you must, but take the step.”

Wishing you all a Freileichin Purim, and may our prayers and celebration this Purim annul any bad decrees for Klal Yisrael!

truly, clearly, and sincerely yours…

Esther 🙂

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(The beginning of this post is primarily based on a series of Purim classes given by Rabbi David Fohrman.)

2 Comments on “Purim, A Personal Story, and Why There is No Third Option

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