Much has been written about the five stages of grief and how we process hard news. I’m not sure if this was the denial phase or the bargaining phase, but I remember quite clearly that at a certain point I was sure that this could. not. be. my reality. I was certain that life could not, would not continue this way, and that surely, Moshaich was about to come and save me from this nightmare reality. Moshiach, and the healing he would bring, was no longer just a dream for the future, it needed to happen NOW. And when it didn’t, when day after day, I faced reality, it slowly sank in that there was no quick fix in store for me, and that led straight to the depression phase.
The least helpful comment ever made to me during this time is memorable both for its tactlessness and for its supreme ignorance, and yet it was that that pulled me straight out of depression and into acceptance, back to the warmth of G-d’s loving embrace. The person I was speaking to, and older family member, sighed loudly, and mournfully declared his pity for us, then said, “and you know, this happened only as G-d’s retribution for our sins!”.
Everything in me rejected this statement. This wasn’t something that happened as a vengeance from Hashem—Hashem is kind, forgiving, and patient. This wasn’t something that happened when Hashem wasn’t there, for He was always there, and always careful.
Instead, I knew then that these were growing pains, necessary for a better outcome. Imagine a baby, learning to walk. He takes one step, then the next, and his parents watch with bated breath, quiet so as not to jolt him into falling. As he completes the third step, he falls down, onto the safely cushioned carpet, and wails—but his parents erupt in cheers: Good Job! YAY! Look at you!!
The baby, in his innocence, may think that the parents are cheering his fall, when in fact they are only cheering the steps he took, encouraging him to rise and try again…
As Haman sets his plan into action, to eradicate the Jewish people, nation of Mordechai who so determinedly wouldn’t bow before him, he offers Achashvairosh 10,000 kikar kesef as a compensation. This offer was made to sweeten the deal and offer extra incentive if Achashvairosh were to balk at the thought of the lost taxes and benefits that would follow an entire demographic being wiped out.
Chazal also attribute a deeper reason to Haman’s offer, in keeping with Haman’s superstitious calculations regarding the time and month and details of his plot. Haman, Chazal teach us, sought to counteract the shekalim that B’nai Yisrael would give annually, a half a shekel hakodesh per man starting at the age of 20. With this money, Haman thought he would negate the merit of B’nai Yisrael, and free the path to their destruction.
The Torah records that B’nai Yisrael first gave this contribution at the time of the building of the mishkan. The money collected then from the 600,000 members of the machane Yisrael, the Jewish encampment, equaled 300,000 shekalim hakodesh, which is 600,000 regular shekalim, and is the equivalent of 100 kikar kesef.
Two questions arise: How did Haman come to his count of 10,000 kikar kesef? And, clearly his superstitious reasoning didn’t have the power he thought it would—what was his mistake?
The first question is answered simply with some fast math: Haman figured that an average man would live no longer than the age of 70, giving him 50 years of being included in this count. Thus, 50 years of annual contribution, from the 600,000 souls that make up our nation, is 15,000,000 shekalim hakodesh, which is 30 million shekalim. Each 300,000 is equal to 100 kikar kesef, so the 30 million shekalim, that Haman figured the nation would give over the span of a generation, equaled to 10,000 kikar kesef. That was Haman’s calculation, designed to give him an edge over B’nai Yisrael.
To answer our second question, the flaw in Haman’s thought process, we have to first take a look at what the shekalim really meant. We’ll see that Haman’s mistake was nothing new…
The unique factor about the machatzis hashekel, the half-shekel contribution that all males above the age of 20 gave as a census donation, was that it was just that: half of a shekel. Meforshim explain that the message was a message of inclusivity—no one Jew alone is able to enact the entire Torah; for that, we need a cohesive, cooperative group that comes together in service of Hashem. No man alone is complete, nor is perfection expected of one sole person. The beauty of B’nai Yisrael is in the unity. In fact, we’re told al pi kabbalah that there are 600,000 whole souls that are divided among all of B’nai Yisrael at any time. The word Yisrael, in Hebrew, is also an acronym for: יש שישים רבות אותיות לתורה , the concept that there are also, al pi kabbalah, 600,000 letters in the Torah. (I stress that this is a concept that is al pi kabbalah because these concepts are hard to understand on their face—a simple count tells us that there are not, indeed, 600,000 letters in the Torah, and there are many, many more members of B’nai Yisrael than the stated 600,000 souls. I do think, though, that while we don’t fully understand what this means, the concept remains nonetheless.)
Beyond this lesson of inclusivity, there lies an even greater lesson in the original commandment was given. The pesukim (that we read just two weeks ago on Shabbos Shekalim), tell us that the 600,000 half-shekalim that were collected were melted down and used to build the interlocking sockets of the mishkan that connected the beams, aptly demonstrating the concept of unity-for-completion that the coin was supposed to represent. But the Torah records more coins, too. A total of 1,775 additional shekalim were also collected, from 3,550 people who had been sent out of B’nai Yisrael’s encampment. (These, the meforshim explain, were mainly members of the tribe of Don, who had sinned with idol worship and were banished outside of the protection of the Heavenly Clouds.) Though these Jews had sinned and rejected G-d, their coins were not rejected and were not shunned from inclusion in the holy mishkan. The possuk tells us that their coins were used to build the hooks that extended outwards and connected the pillars of the mishkan. (In the mystical count of the letters of the Torah that we mentioned before, these Jews are also represented, and not excluded, with the letters of the last eight pesukim that tell of Moshe’s death, written in tears by Moshe and filled in by Yehoshua.)
The lesson is that Hashem does not reject members of His people because of their shortcomings and sins. Each member of His nation is precious to Him, and each has an everlasting value. Haman observed coldly from the outside and calculated his plans for our demise, but he did not see the love that Hashem had for each Jew…But this is not too surprising, as he was only repeating the mistake of his ancestor, Amalek.
The shabbos before Purim, we read an additional portion of the Torah, from the section in Sefer Devarim where Moshe recounts the attack of Amalek. In this retelling of events, there seems to be a detail that is not mentioned previously (when the attack actually happened): Moshe says, and we repeat year after year before Purim, “Remember what Amalek did to you on our way out of Egypt. He came upon you on the way, and striked out against the stragglers behind you…”.
Amalek, for all of their belief in coincidence and happenstance, chose carefully when and where to attack B’nai Yisrael. They had witnessed the miracles and punishments that had happened, and were on the look out for the perfect time. When they saw that there had been a large group Jews sent out of the camp, stragglers, seemingly unprotected, they thought that the moment was ripe: they could now cut into G-d’s nation and break the spell of fear that had fallen upon the world, at little or no cost to themselves. After all, they were going to attack only the rejected sinners!
This was Amalek’s fatal mistake. Even those who had sinned and had suffered the consequence of being removed from the camp were not rejected by Hashem. These “stragglers” were not free for the taking, as Amalek thought! They were still Hashem’s precious children, and were still under His protection. And they too, when they say Moshe’s hands rise up towards Heaven, turned their hearts and souls back to their source, and prayed to Hashem, and only Hashem, for help. And B’nai Yisrael thus emerged victorious from this battle, defeating Amalek in the first battle of a war that will last until the final redemption.
Different Day, Same Mistake
Haman, too, waited around for a long time for what he saw as a fatal flaw. The Jews in Mordechai’s time disobeyed his instructions, and attended a party that seemed to be the ultimate betrayal of Hashem, the Bais Hamikdash, and their roots: a party celebrating the fact that Hashem had not yet redeemed them, and that the 70 years had passed according to Achashvairosh’s count.
This betrayal was the opening Haman had been waiting for. He knew of the close connection that B’nai Yisrael enjoyed with Hashem, and knew that many had been unsuccessful at destroying them. He thought that he had now found a weak spot that would allow him to attack the stragglers, the sinners, and succeed. Haman, the generation’s iteration of the evil of Amalek, upon seeing the magnitude of the disconnect these Jewish party goers had, now had impetus to attack. His 10,000 kikar kesef did not take into account the “stragglers” because he thought that they were irrelevant, already disowned and unloved by Hashem. He saw no reason to try to counteract them as well—he was only worried about the “good” Jews. Haman set out with this thought, on his perfectly calculated day in Adar, the straggling month at the way end of the year, to change the course of history and destroy our nation.
A Generation of Stragglers
Haman didn’t realize in choosing Adar that the Jewish year is cyclical—an Adar, a month of uninspired straggling (demonstrated in nature as winter drags on), is always followed by a Nissan, a month of fresh life, growth, and redemption. He didn’t realize that B’nai Yisrael, by the very essence of their identity, have inherited a permanent share of Hashem’s love and protection. He didn’t realize that stragglers, too, can turn their hearts to Hashem and repent in a split second, and be lovingly embraced once again. These, all of Haman’s misconceptions, are what we celebrate on Purim.
The megillah that we read on Purim has a unique law. Though all sifrai Torah, mezuzah scrolls, and tefillin parchments must be written according to specific instructions and periodically checked to make sure no letters have been rubbed out or damaged, rendering them unfit for use, the laws of the megillah differ. A megillah can have up to half of its letters rubbed out and still be kosher for use. Those letters represent once again that Hashem is accepting of us, as we are, and offers His love and protection to us unceasingly. No Jewish soul is left out of His embrace for a momentary sin, and no vengeance is stronger than His love.
Our generation is fast approaching the set deadline for when Moshiach, the harbinger of the final redemption, is to come. In fact, commentators who have split the centuries and predicted different eras have placed our generation at the point of Adar. We are the generation that many would assume has been abandoned and left alone—and yet we are anything but.
Many months after the incident with the careless comment, I carried Temima downstairs one morning. I had yet to put in her hearing aids, and was instead focused on getting the older kids out the door and onto their buses. Finally, the house was calm, and I realized that Temima’s speech therapist would be knocking momentarily, and I had yet to dress her and put her hearing aids in. Not thinking, I called her name and said, “Temima! Come get dressed!”, and low and behold, she turned away from the window and started coming to me.
I was shocked and mystified, and deep in my mind a hope I didn’t know existed bloomed. I turned my face away so she couldn’t see my mouth, and again called her name, noting with certainty that she turned her head towards my voice. My mind raced: Had Moshiach come overnight, and I just hadn’t heard yet? Surely the school buses wouldn’t have come if that were the case? Should I call someone and check? Maybe I was dreaming?
As Temima reached me, the answer was clear, and was both comical and, to be quite honest, a bit of a let down. She had somehow been put to bed the previous night with her hearing aids in. No miracle, no Moshiach, no nothing…but I just laughed, having reached the point where I knew that despite the lack of a miraculous quick fix, Hashem was there, cheering on each step, encouraging us after each fall.
Our mesorah tells us that each soul is made of a small part of Hashem, a חלק אלוק ממעל, infused into the human body to elevate it. This soul is untouchable—we say daily in our morning tefilla, “אלוקי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא—My G-d, the soul that You have placed in me, it is pure.” A key component of our success in this world is understanding that we have within us, always, an unalterable purity that connects us to Hashem, no matter what.
This is important to remember, as a nation, because our enemies always reflect our own weaknesses. Shortly before Amalek attacked us in the desert, B’nai Yisrael wondered, “Is Hashem indeed in our midst, or not?”. This caused the very nation that personifies that doubt, the original nation of agnostics at a time of polytheism and monotheism, to attack and to try to convince us not with a resounding ‘no!’.
During our low times, if we do feel this doubt approaching, if we wonder if our lives have become disconnected from Hashem, or have become just a stage for His supposed vengeance, it is important to not let the doubt of Amalek in. On Purim, we celebrate that even when we were not at our best, even when we were stragglers, Hashem’s love and protection remained. And as it was then, so it is today…בימים ההם בזמן הזה …
May we merit to feel Hashem’s love always, as He cheers our progress, and may we be so confident in His love that we are spared the doubt and confusion that Amalek, in each generation, seeks to spread…a Purim Sameach to all!