Purim -A Day of Community

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen and Reuven Ziegler

Translated by Kaeren Fish


At the beginning of Massekhet Megilla (2a), the Gemara seeks a source for the reading of the Megilla on the various dates associated with Purim. It raises several suggestions, and as part of the discussion about the 13th of Adar, the Gemara states: "Rav Shemuel bar Yitzchak said: The 13th is a yom kehilla (day of gathering, or day of community) for everyone." Concerning this day, there is no need for Scriptural support: the reason for reading the Megilla is obvious. What, then, is the meaning of the expression, "a day of gathering for everyone"?

The Rosh first quotes Rashi: "They gathered together to defend themselves, and therefore there is need for a verse [to prove that we read on this day]." He then presents several objections to this interpretation, and proceeds to cite Rabbeinu Tam:

"'It is a day of gathering for everyone' – that everyone gathers together for the Fast of Esther. The rural population comes to the cities to recite Selichot and supplications, just as on this day the Jews gathered together to defend themselves, and required Divine mercy. Likewise, we find that Moshe declared a fast when they fought against Amalek, as it is written, 'And Moshe, Aharon and Chur ascended to the top of the mountain' (Shemot 17:10), and Massekhet Ta'anit derives from here that 'Three [authorities] are required [to declare] a public fast' [1]. Rabbeinu Tam brought support from here for our observance of Ta'anit Esther, which we commemorate as they did in the days of Mordekhai and Esther, when the Jews gathered to defend themselves. We find no other support for [the practice of Ta'anit Esther] other than here."

Ta'anit Esther, then, has no explicit source in the Gemara. Indeed, the Rambam states that this fast is simply a custom, while Rabbeinu Tam cites a saying of Chazal that the 13th of Adar is "a day of gathering for everyone."

Defining a fast as a "yom kehilla" has broad significance. This definition applies to all fast days, which are times of focus on the community, which derive their strength from the community, and which are meant to heighten our sense of community.

However, this definition assumes special importance with regard to Ta'anit Esther. While the fasts that were observed in the days of Mordekhai and Esther obviously resembled other fasts, in that the people faced a public calamity, the Megilla seems to suggest that the communal and national aspect of the original Ta'anit Esther exceeds that of other fasts.

The classic example of a public fast day - "When war comes upon you in your land, against the enemy that troubles you" (Bemidbar 10:9) - portrays a situation where the community is united and dwells in its land, i.e. the land of Israel. Each person has his allotted portion, in the place where the national character of Am Yisrael is revealed in all its splendor, power and glory. Only in the Holy Land can Jewish nationhood reach its fullest expression, and the Gemara (Horayot 3a) informs us that only the community in the Land of Israel can properly be termed "kahal," community. This united community is beset with some great calamity: war, wild beasts, a plague of locusts, a frightening political development, a natural disaster. In each of these instances, this community rises up as a single man, cries out and fasts.

However, this image does not fit Shushan and the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of King Achashverosh. When Esther wants to proclaim the fast, she says:

"Go and gather all the Jews who are in Shushan; fast for me, do not eat or drink for three days – night and day. I and my maidens will likewise fast, and thus I shall approach the king – not in accordance with the proper procedure. And if I die, I die."

What is the meaning of this "gathering"? Obviously, the prayers of a fast day take place in public, and the community must participate in them. But the significance of "gathering" here seems more profound than a physical gathering of all the Jews for this purpose.

When Haman describes the Jewish nation to Achashverosh, he declares: "There is one nation, scattered and dispersed among the nations of all the provinces of your kingdom." This "dispersion" has both a geographical dimension and an existential, value-related aspect, anchored to some extent in differing lifestyles and world views.

The Megilla commences with a series of feasts:

"In the third year of his reign, [Achashverosh] made a feast for all his ministers and servants, the armies of Paras and Madai, the officers and princes of the provinces, before him. And he displayed the wealth of his glorious kingdom, and the exalted glory of his greatness, for many days – a hundred and eighty days."

As if this is not enough, we then read:

"When these days were completed, the king made a party for all his subjects who were in Shushan, the capital – from great to small – for seven days, in the courtyard of the garden of the royal palace."

And the great wealth and luxury with which these feasts were laid on is described in detail:

"Hangings of white, of fine cotton, and blue, held with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; divans of gold and silver upon a floor of alabaster, marble, pearl and precious stones. And the drinks were served in vessels of gold, each different from the next, with much royal wine, in accordance with the king's bounty. And the drinking was as is proper; no one forced anyone, for so the king had commanded to all the officers of his house – to perform the will of each individual."

The society described here is a party-loving, hedonistic one. This is not simply the commemoration of three years of the king's reign. It is an ongoing affair, "for many days – a hundred and eighty days." And for dessert: "a party of seven days" for all the citizens of Shushan. The Megilla describes a society immersed in hedonism, pervaded with a sense of decadent pleasure-seeking, with this lifestyle anchored in ideology.

This ideology has two main components, both embodied in the phrase "to perform the will of each individual."

1) "Of each individual" - The first principle is attention to each person individually. This feast has all the signs of a huge, mass event – an entire society of celebrants – "all the subjects who were in Shushan." But if we look deeper, we discover that the event is not a communal celebration but a gathering of individuals to party. People sit side by side, but do not unite into a larger community; they are celebrating together because they are all in the same place. It is a mass feast, but not a communal one. There is a form of radical individualism.

2) "To perform the will" - Each individual is guided not by his intellect, conscience or values, but by his will, desire and craving. This type of wine, or a different one; a divan of gold or a divan of silver – this is "the will of each individual." What we have here is the expression of a will that is subjective in two senses: it is specific to a certain person, and it seeks not what is good or desirable for the community as a whole, but only for itself, for its own desires and cravings.

These two principles – radical individualism and glorification of the will – are the guiding ideology of the kingdom. This is the cultural atmosphere of the luxurious feast lasting seven days, or "a hundred and eighty days." This is the set of values, the lifestyle, of Shushan under the reign of Achashverosh.

And where are the Jews of Shushan or of the hundred and twenty-seven provinces? What is their place within this reality? How do they relate to these hedonistic parties? What guides them? To what degree do they support this ideology? Chazal provide the answer:

"For what reason was the decree passed upon Israel at that time, such that the enemies of Israel committed themselves to their destruction? Because they parwith enthusiasm in the feast of that wicked one." (Megilla 12a)

Do Chazal really believe that drinking a little non-Jewish wine, which was not consecrated to idolatry and therefore prohibited only by rabbinic decree, was so terrible that it made them worthy of annihilation? Chazal's intention here is clear: participation in the feast of the evil king demonstrated identification with the world-view and the lifestyle that the feast represented. To some degree, the Jews adopted this philosophy of "performing the will of each individual," with each concerned only for himself, seeing within himself the subjective and individualistic tendencies of his own heart in all their power.

If this was truly the case, then "Go and gather all the Jews" is more than a command to assemble them in the public square for the purposes of communal prayer and supplication. In order that this "scattered and dispersed nation" will be able to cry out, they must first be formed into a "community." All the Jews scattered throughout the length and breadth of Achashverosh's empire must be gathered together – not just as a technical or formal act, but with a view to creating "togetherness." The cry that will emanate from them must be a unified one, a cry of "Shema Yisrael," a calling out from the depths. All of these individuals – "kol ish va-ish" – must be taken and turned into a "congregation of Israel," into the Jewish nation.

It is no coincidence that in the verse describing Esther's appeal to Mordekhai, she repeats the expression that appears in the description of the feast. She requests the gathering of "all the Jews who are in Shushan" (4:16) because they had participated in the feast that Achashverosh had made "for all the citizens who were in Shushan" (1:5).

We are speaking here of Jews who have adopted the lifestyle, the world view and the values of Achashverosh. Their guiding principle is "to perform the will of each individual." It is these Jews who must be gathered, and they must be imbued with a consciousness that will facilitate - as a first step - their elevation above purely personal concerns, to a consciousness of the value of the "community," so that they may understand the mitzva of prayer. Until they are "gathered," no one can speak to them about crying out and fasting. It would be like playing a great symphony for someone who was deaf, or showing a great work of art to someone who was blind.

First they must be helped to elevate themselves above the state of "ish va-ish." Thereafter, they must be inculcated with an instinct to recoil from the "will of each individual," from that world of pleasures, of Achashverosh's parties with their hedonistic scenes, from the momentary and decadent desires that direct such behavior. All of this must be abandoned for a world of elevation and aspiration towards holiness.

Generally, fasts are days of supplication and repentance. But Ta'anit Esther had additional significance. The Gemara (Yoma 4b) describes, based on the Mekhilta, the encounter between Moshe and the Holy One:

"Rabbi Natan said: The text means only to cleanse the food and drink from his bowels, to make him like one of the ministering angels."

For six days Moshe was required to abstain and sever himself from the material world, the world of food and drink, in order to approach the level of the ministering angels. The purpose of this "cleansing of food and drink" was to attain a higher metaphysical level, beyond the human, reaching that of the heavenly angels. This idea – viewing fasting as a cleansing – has a parallel in Ta'anit Esther. For Moshe, the abstinence was meant to elevate him to the level of the angels. For the Jews of Shushan, it was necessary to declare a fast for three days and three nights in order to cleanse the food and drink from their bowels, to wash away all that they had drunk during the seven days of the feast, all that they had consumed during the "hundred and eighty days," to sever them from the world and the experience of "drinking in golden vessels," of "hangings of white, of fine cotton, and blue."

This is more than teshuva in the sense of awakening, bringing oneself back to Divine service; rather, it is a teshuva whose essence is a counterweight to sin. The sin expressed itself in immersion in the world and culture of Achashverosh, symbolized by eating and drinking "according to the will of each individual." The teshuva must therefore have both symbolic and substantial content: a cleansing, a severance expressed in purely physical terms from the world of celebration, from the culture of inebriation, from the "feast of that evil one," from the life of the "citizens who were in Shushan." This was to be replaced by a sense of community and a sense of restraint and holiness. "Go and gather together all the Jews" was an instruction to create a community, not to activate one that already existed; and this creation was to effect a moral revolution.

Now let us return to the interpretation of Rabbeinu Tam with which we began. The statement of the Gemara, "The 13th of Adar is a day of gathering for everyone," was understood by him to mean that everyone gathers together for Ta'anit Esther. We must understand this on two levels: the level of a general fast day responding to a calamity, and the level specific to the Jews of Shushan.

We cannot understand the full significance of the fast unless we view it as a day on which the same process that took place in the days of Mordekhai and Esther is meant to be repeated. We too must reaffirm our rejection of the principle of "performing the will of each individual," in which a person is guided only by concern for himself. We must express our abhorrence of a culture whose essence is the "will" – a constant quest for pleasure and fun. Man has a natural tendency to be concerned only with himself. If he is not able to transcend it, if he does not understand the necessity of an annual – and not only annual – renewal and strengthening of his connection with his nation, then his natural egoism will eat away at him, and he will eventually find himself "performing the will of each individual."

For us today, the problem is not merely man's innate egoism or the erosion of idealism. We, specifically, find ourselves in a difficult situation. Contemporary culture – both worldwide and local – espouses the idea of "performing the will of each individual" as its ideology.

As modern culture developed, it adopted "performing the will of each individual" as a crucial component of its worldview. Protestantism, of course, gives this idea religious expression: each person serves God directly, interpreting Scripture as he sees fit. But later on this view assumed other expressions as well. In one form – the philosophy of Descartes - man is self-contained; the very consciousness of his existence derives only from himself. If he is not conscious of himself, then he does not exist; he has no knowledge that the external world exists. To this degree, he is focused upon himself. From here there is a clear path to the "will of each individual" expressed in Kant's philosophy of moral autonomy. In these teachings, the idea of "ish va-ish" finds philosophical, religious and moral expression.

Today, it is even more difficult for us to deal with the general culture, which pervades every corner of the Western world. Together with the individualism and liberalism that characterize the ideology of our modern world, another dimension has crept in, focusing not only on the consciousness of "ish va-ish" – individualistic moral law – but also a focus on "THE WILL of each individual." It is the granting of legitimacy, within broad circles, to will qua will - complete subjectivity regarding morals and values, relativism without bounds, and glorification of self-realization. These components of modernity are not merely coincidental, but rather flow from an ideology that protects the "will of each individual" and gives it legitimacy.

For us, then, Ta'anit Esther is not only a day of renewal, of going "to gather together all the Jews" in the sense of joint prayer and repentance. It is a day of confronting the chalof "all the citizens who are in Shushan," who wish to "perform the will of each individual."

We must examine ourselves in this sphere. Even if we are not steeped in drunken revelry like Achashverosh and his minions, to what extent are we immersed in the philosophy of "performing the will of every individual" in other areas, on other levels, in other endeavors? We must ask ourselves to what extent, consciously or sub-consciously, we adopt this philosophy, building our lives, molding our plans in accordance with "the will of each individual:" if I happen to like something, that is sufficient reason to choose it. Are we truly free of this view? Are we truly conscious of the answer to the question of "value" vs. "will," the relationship between "Go and gather all the Jews" and "performing the will of every individual"?

I do not refer here to dealing with these questions in marginal spheres of little relevance. I refer, rather, to the most central issues of our lives. One of the most important decisions that a person makes in his life concerns his occupation. A person chooses a profession that will occupy him at least eight hours of every day, for dozens of years. This profession is meant to mark out, to a great extent, his aspirations. It will direct – to a large measure – his social development, defining which community he will belong to; it also determines what he will do in the world.

When we start thinking about this issue, we must consider to what extent our decision is the result of "performing the will of each individual," and to what extent it is the result of a sense of consciousness of and responsibility to others and to a moral viewpoint.

I must emphasize here that the choice is not only between "holy" and "profane," between continued involvement in Torah study and other professions. Even within the world at large, not all spheres can be regarded with the same equanimity. The Rambam teaches that a person must engage in one of two things:

"It is not worthy for a person to spend his life engaged in anything other than matters of wisdom and developing the world." (Hilkhot Gezeila 6:11)

Are both wisdom and "developing the world" to be found in all professions, in all spheres?

We cannot ignore the need to address the moral aspect of each profession. To what extent does it make a social contribution, to what extent does it build up the world, to what degree does it allow us to realize the will of the Holy One?

Can we imagine a religious Jew, and especially a Torah student, arriving at such a fateful decision solely on the basis of "the will of each individual"? Can he decide only in accordance with what he happens to like, or – sometimes – even worse: not what he likes, but rather that which will serve as a springboard for the realization of "the will of each individual," that which will gain him entrance into the culture of Achashverosh, with its silver, gold and parties?

A ben Torah must decide on the basis of these moral considerations: what will contribute to wisdom, and what will contribute to the development of the world? Obviously, it is preferable that a person select a sphere in which he will also be able to fulfill his "will of each individual" – a profession that will give him satisfaction, that attracts him, that contains both wisdom and development of the world. A person must mold his lifestyle in such a way that he will indeed be drawn to such endeavors, that both Torah and chesed will indeed attract him, fascinate him, draw him close.

It is easy to speak disparagingly of those who sit in the courtyard of Achashverosh, enjoying the "feast of that evil one." But an honest and genuine stock-taking must examine our own values: to what extent do we elevate ourselves beyond "the will of each individual," and to what extent are we animated by a sense of giving, of responsibility? And to what extent – heaven forefend – does the mood of "the will of each individual" pervade our own consciousness?

To the extent that the day of Ta'anit Esther is a day of teshuva and spiritual stock-taking, there is room to ask these questions. If Ta'anit Esther is not only a day of stock-taking but also one of spiritual renewal, of "Go and gather together all the Jews," then there is work waiting for us, and we have a direction.

Let there be no misunderstanding: I certainly do not mean that a person should completely ignore the personal tendencies that arise within him. Even concerning Torah study, we are taught (Avoda Zara 19a) that each person should study that which his heart desires, and from a teacher with whom he feels a rapport. If this is so concerning matters of holiness, then it must certainly apply also to everyday issues. But we must examine what it is that our heart desires, and why. Firstly, we must determine whether it is a desire that has been internalized in a moral personality. Secondly, we must know how to combine – or to balance – personal aspiration, which may be positive in itself, and communal, national and historical responsibility. We are required to do not only what appeals to us – even if it is good - but to do what is best, what is most needed, out of responsibility towards all of Israel and its continued existence.

The Gemara (Megilla 16b) teaches that the holiday of Purim was established both by Esther's decree and by "the matter of their fasts and outcries." The nation of Israel merited, by Divine mercy, these days of Purim which express redemption and salvation that continue to echo throughout our history, until the days of the messiah. The festival of Purim, with its physical and spiritual salvation (embodied in a renewed acceptance of the Torah - Shabbat 88a), was made possible by the fact that there was someone who saw to it that "the Jews who were in Shushan," immersed in the world and the culture of "performing the will of each individual," would be united, elevated, brought to a level in which they were no longer an "ish va-ish," but rather a "tzibbur" – a community, constituting a single Jewish nation, unified and united.

(This sicha was delivered on Ta'anit Esther 5752 [1992].)


[1] This is not found in our version of Masekhet Ta'anit, but rather in the Mekhilta and in Pirkei de-Rav Eliezer, chap. 44.