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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Tetzaveh - Purim "Fragrant Connection"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg, Rabbi of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center in Long Island, related the following incredible story: The son of one of his congregants went to learn in Eretz Yisrael, and decided to enroll in a Hesder Yeshiva, which combines Torah study with military service. He joined the Israeli army and achieved a position of leadership in the Israeli Defense Forces.

In the summer of 2005, during the Gaza Disengagement, the army had to forcibly remove Jewish settlers who refused to leave. This American soldier was very distraught about the assignment, but, as a solider he followed orders and participated in the forced evacuation.

When his unit arrived at one of the settlements, his job was to ensure that the settlers boarded the buses to be evacuated. He worked in tandem with the Rabbi of the settlement. The settlers gathered in the town's synagogue where the Rabbi spoke, followed by the soldier. They all wept together, and then they all filed out of the shul and boarded the bus.

Before the bus left, this soldier took out a siddur from his backpack, dug a hole, and buried it there. When the Rabbi asked him why he was doing so, he replied that perhaps at some point in the future someone will return and may find the siddur, and will realize that they had left begrudgingly, and that they left their hearts and prayers behind.

Eleven months later, in the summer of 2006, Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas militants in Gaza. When Israel decided to reinvade Gaza in an attempt to find him, the unit of that American soldier was sent back into Gaza, to set up a base of operations.

They entered Gaza under the cover of darkness and although they did not know exactly where they were, they set up camp in a deserted area.

The next morning, the soldier looked around, disoriented, not recognizing anything. Everything had been destroyed. Still he knelt down on the ground and started digging. To his shock he found the siddur he had buried.

He was shaken by the experience and called his father in America to recount to him the uncanny story. He asked his father to ask his Rabbi to interpret the significance of what had occurred.

Rabbi Ginsberg himself was mystified by the story and arranged for the soldier to have a private meeting with Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita.

Rav Chaim asked him what he did when he found out that he would have to evict the settlers. The solder replied that he had begged his commanding officers to abandon their plans, and he davened fervently that the evacuation be aborted. Rav Chaim then asked him what he did when he found out that he would have to proceed with the evacuation. The soldier replied that once he was told they were going ahead with it, he stopped davening for it not to happen.

Rav Chaim replied that Hashem was sending him a message that one should never stop davening! “You buried the siddur because you felt it was futile to continue to pray. G-d returned it to you so you should realize that it’s never too late, or too hopeless, to pray.”

When the Megillah introduces Mordechai, it relates the names of his ancestors as well, “Mordechai the son of Yair, the son of Shimi, the son of Kish”[1].

The gemara[2] explains that each name refers to another facet of the greatness of Mordechai’s power of prayer –““ben Yair” – he lit up the eyes of the Jews through his prayers, “ben Shimi” – G-d hearkened to his petitions, and “ben Kish” – he knocked on the doors of Mercy.”

The Vilna Gaon explains that of a person’s four primary senses - sight, hearing, smell, and speech, three of them are necessary for Torah study. One sees the text, listens to the lessons of his teachers, and uses his power of speech to teach others.

The sense of smell however, has no connection to Torah study. Rather, it is related to the Divine Service in the Temple. The Torah continually refers to the aromatic scent of the offerings as, “reiach nicho’ach l’Hashem – pleasant smell to G-d”. In our time, when we no longer have that Service, prayer takes its place.

The gemara[3] asks where there is a ‘hint’ to Mordechai in the Torah. The gemara answers that he is alluded to in the Torah’s listing of the spices used to create the anointing oil[4]. The first of the spices is called “mar deror – pure myrrh”, which Targum translates into Aramaic as “mara dachya”, which sounds like Mordechai.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the Torah is alluding to the fact that, in a sense, Mordechai is the choicest of all of the spices. Mordechai’s greatest strength was his power of prayer which corresponds to the sense of smell. In fact, the reason the gemara lists three of his ancestors whose names symbolize his strength of prayer, was to demonstrate his usage of all of his senses in prayer: He lit up their eyes (giving them, hope and encouragement) through prayer, G-d heard his prayers, and through verbalizing his prayers it had the power to ‘knock on the celestial doors’. His very name and essence symbolize that his prayers were the epitome of a “pleasant smell to G-d”

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro shlita explains that the word ketores is related to the Aramaic word “kitraknot”. When G-d created Adam HaRishon and breathed life into his nostrils, the point of contact - the knot - between body and life-giving breath was through the source of the sense of smell.[5]

The greatness of Mordechai was his deep inextricable connection with G-d. He was not daunted or intimidated by social pressure or demands. His primary concern was always about his responsibility as a Jew. His greatest fear was jeopardizing that divine-bond.

Esther was also known as Hadassa. The hadas is the myrtle branch taken with the lulav on Succos. It is known for its pleasant aroma[6].

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro explains that the hadas grows in the shape of a braid. It is symbolic of the braid, or knot, between G-d and His people. Esther too was extremely committed above all to maintaining that sense of connection with G-d, and was therefore a fitting wife for Mordechai[7].

Our sense of smell is our most powerful sense, even though we often neglect it in comparison with our usage of our other senses, such as sight and hearing. Dr. Daniel Amen[8] notes that the olfactory system – responsible for our sense of smell – is the only one of the five sensory systems that goes directly from the sensory organ to the place where it is processed in the brain. The other senses however, travel to a ‘relay station’ before they are sent to their distinctive parts in the brain. Because smell goes directly to the Limbic System where it is ‘sensed’, it is understandable why smells have such a profound impact on our emotional state[9].

The Limbic System is also involved in bonding and social connectedness, as well as motivation and drive.

During the period prior to the miracle of Purim the Jewish nation underwent national depression. When they were exiled from Eretz Yisroel and the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, they thought they had been banished perpetually. They began to view themselves as just another nation, and no longer saw themselves as special and elite. When Nebuchadnezzar erected an idol of his likeness the Jews saw no reason why they shouldn’t bow to it with all of the other national representatives. When Achashveirosh made his feast, the Jews of Shushan saw no reason not to attend with all of the other citizens of Shushan.

The celebration of Purim is rooted in the realization that our uniqueness and eliteness as the Jewish people is eternal, and is not endemic to any particular time or place. Even in the harrowing divine obscurity of exile, we can rest assured that G-d always maintains a deep vested interest in us, and is always with us. Our connection is eternal!

Above all, it was that sense of connection that Mordechai and Esther reawakened within an almost despondent nation. They guided the nation to cry out to G-d in passionate heartfelt supplication and prayer, successfully storming the gates of the heavenly Bastille, as it were, annulling the evil decree.

Mordechai and Esther are hinted to in the Torah with references to the sense of smell, because they were able to awaken the nation to the profound power of prayer. Prayer is the greatest means of connection, and that connection is symbolized by the nostalgic power of smell.

In the introduction to his commentary Ohr Chadash, Maharal explains that the miracle of Purim transpired because G-d hearkened to their prayers. He adds that there was no other redemption in history where the Jewish people were in such danger and they cried out to G-d, and He heard their prayers like at the time of Purim.

This theme is highlighted in Shoshanas Yaakov[10], where we declare that we read the Megillah “… to make known that all who hope in You will not be shamed; nor ever be humiliated, those taking refuge in you.”

Chasam Sofer notes that prayers on Purim are so powerful that G-d answers any heartfelt prayer on this special day, even if one doesn’t deserve it.[11]

In Parshas Terumah the Torah details the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels. Parshas Tetzaveh then details the intricate manner in which the Priestly vestments were made, as well as the Kohanim’s induction ceremony. There is one exception. At the end of Parshas Tetzaveh, the Torah details the construction of the inner/golden Altar, upon which the ketores was offered.

S’forno explains that the purpose of the divine Avodah generally, was to establish a dwelling place for the shechina in the physical world. The ketores, however, was offered in honor of the fact that the shechina rested on the Mishkan. In other words, it was offered solely to give honor to G-d. Because it served a unique role, it is mentioned separately from all of the other vessels.

Much of what we do as Torah Jews is to fulfill our responsibilities. But there is an added level of service wherein we do things beyond the call of duty, simply to give honor to G-d.

Purim is a celebration of ‘connection’. The greatest danger Amalek proposes is to employ feelings of disconnect, spiritual isolation and distance. Since prayer is the greatest means of connection, Purim is an especially propitious time for heartfelt prayer.

Amongst all of our personal prayers, we should pray for the restoration of G-d’s Glory, with the ultimate destruction of Amalek and evil, when we will merit a time of perpetual joy, when the bliss of Purim will never end.

“A pleasant smell to G-d”

“to make known that all who hope in You will not be shamed”

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[1] Esther 2:5

[2] Megillah 12b

[3] Chullin 139b

[4] At the beginning of parshas Ki Sisa; Shemos 30:23

[5] It is for this reason that the distinction between life and death is detected by the odor that is given off. The aroma of a newborn baby is filled with life, with freshness, while the odor of a deceased human body is putrid.

[6] The gemora (succah 45b) states that one who takes the lulav along with the hadas on Succos is as if he built an altar and offered upon it a sacrifice. The gemara succah 35b notes that the hadas is also referred to as a hoshana (salvation).

[7] The Vilna Gaon explains that when Esther approached Achashveirosh to beseech him for the life of her people, although in a physical sense she was standing before him, in reality she was far, far away. She was focused on the place of the Holy of Holies and she stood there, in front of her king, Hashem, and was speaking only to him. When Achashveirosh queried, “Who is the man who has plotted such despicable evil?” She attempted to point towards Achashveirosh. Miraculously, an angel redirected her hand. She was so focused on her bond with G-d, that she was not at all cognizant of where her physical self was situated. She saw with clarity that life lay in the direction of Hashem, and not in her plea to Achashveirosh. Her bond with Hashem was total and complete.

[8] “Change your Brain, Change your Life”

[9] The multi-billion dollar perfume and deodorant industry is based on the fact that beautiful smells evoke pleasant feelings, which draw people towards their source. Unpleasant smells repel people, like almost nothing else.

[10] the classic liturgical song that is recited publicly in the synagogue after the reading of the Megillah on both Purim night and day

[11] He bases this idea on the Ritva in his commentary to Megillah 7a, who quotes Yerushalmi which explains regarding the fulfillment of the obligation to give matanos la’evyonim, gifts to the poor, on Purim, that “kol ha’posheit yado leetol yitnu lo - we give to anyone who extends his hand to receive”. On Purim we give to everyone who asks, without first checking to see if they truly are poor.

The Chasam Sofer writes that just as we are not particular if the people to whom we give charity on Purim are truly deserving, and whoever extends his hand gets helped, so, too, does G-d listen to all our prayers on this special day.

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