Purim—The Holiday of Emunat Chachamim by Rabbi Sariel Malitzky


There is a powerful message in the Purim story which might shed some light and help shape our perspective on our approach to Gedolim (great Torah scholars).

During the third year of his reign, Achasveirosh threw a party for everyone in Shushan (Esther 1:3). The Jews did not know what to do. On the one hand, they suspected that it was not the ideal environment for religiously committed Jews. However, on the other hand, they felt a responsibility to go because it is possible the king would kill them for not attending. Additionally, this party was the biggest party that the kingdom had held. The Megillah (Ester 1:4-8 and Gemara Megillah 12a) describes in vivid the details just how lavish, elaborate and extravagant every facet of this party was.

Mordechai was one of the rulers of the Jewish people at the time. According to the Midrash, the Jews asked him if they should attend the party. Mordechai understood that the lewd conduct would not be healthy for a Jew and advised against it. Mordechai was also aware of the fact that Achashveirosh would be celebrating what he thought was the end of the seventy years of the Jews’ exile from Israel, thus signaling Hashem forsaking his people and not rebuilding the Temple.

As we know, the Jews went to the party and on the surface all was well. After nine years, the twelfth year of Achasveirosh’s kingship (Esther 3:7), Haman is furious that one Jew, Mordechai, would not bow down to him. Haman urges Achashveriosh to be allowed to destroy the Jewish people in its entirety. When Achashveirosh acquiesces and the letters are sent out, the Jewish nation is distraught.

One might think that it was the extreme zealotry of Mordechai that precipitated this decree of extermination. It seems from the Megiillah that Mordechai purposely scorns and mocks Haman in his refusal to bow to him. In fact, some commentators (see Tosafot Sanhedrin 61b s.v Rava Amar Patur) argue that it was in fact permitted for Mordechai to bow to Haman as it did not constitute idol worship. Regarding Mitzvot, the Torah (VaYikra 18:5:) states, “VeChay BaHem,” “And live by them,” meaning one should live by the Mitzvot and not die for them. Mordechai decided on his own to be extra stringent and refrain from bowing even though it did not constitute idol worship (the Nimukei Yosef, Sanhedrin 18a, posits that the Gadol HaDor has the right to be stringent and sacrifice his life even for a sin which does not obligate us to sacrifice our life).

Imagine what people were saying at the time: “His stubbornness is surely what is bringing our destruction!”

In fact, the Gemara (Megillah 12b-13a) records that the Jews at the time strove to disassociate from Mordechai for unnecessarily provoking and instigating Haman. The Midrash records that the people complained to Mordechai saying, “Your refusal to bow to Haman is going to kill us.”

Weren’t Mordechai’s critics correct? Was it not Mordechai’s defiance and insolence towards Haman and his ignoring the plight of his fellow Jews that created the problem in the first place?

The Alter from Kelm (Rav Simchah Zissel Ziv Broida wrote (in a letter published in the writing of the Saba MiKelm) explains that the reality was in fact far from the way people perceived it.

The Gemara (Megillah 12a) records that students asked Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai what they Jews did to deserve a punishment of annihilation. He responded to them (like any good educator would) that they should suggest an answer. They answered that it was because they went to and befitted from the part of Achashveirosh.

The Alter pointed out (similar to Rav Dessler’s Michtav Meeliyahu vol. 1 page 75) that the Jews attended the party during year three and all went well for the next nine years. Because of this, they failed to recognize that Mordechai was correct. They thought they knew better. It was their lack of Emunat Chachamim (belief and trust in our leaders and scholars) that led to the decree of annihilation. They compounded the problem by thinking and claiming that they knew better than Mordechai.  Mordechai correctly identified the spiritual danger involved in bowing to Haman.  Had the Gadol HaDor engaged in this Persian behavior it would have accelerated the assimilation of Jews into the Persian culture leading to their spiritual demise.  Far from endangering us, Mordechai rescued us from a spiritual abyss.  

Perhaps we too can learn a similar lesson from the story of Purim. Let us listen a little more carefully to the words of our Gedolim (whomever we view as our Gedolim) and heed to their advice. Let us not instinctively think that they don’t get it or even worse, that we know better.

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