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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Tezaveh/Zachor/Purim 5775 "An Eye for an Eye"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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2/27/15

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS TEZAVEH/ZACHOR/PURIM 5775

“AN EYE FOR AN I[1]

The story was reaching its crescendo. Esther was poised to reveal to Achashveirosh the answers to the mysteries that baffled him for so long. Who was Esther? Where did she come from? Why did she keep hosting parties for him and Haman? And what was the reason for her inscrutable mystique?

“The King and Haman came to feast with Queen Esther. The King asked Esther again on the second day of the wine feast, ‘What is your request Queen Esther?’… Queen Esther responded and she said, ‘If I have found grace in your eyes King, and if it is good for the King, grant me my life as my request and my people as my supplication. For we have been sold – I and my people – to be destroyed, slain, and obliterated. Had we been sold as slaves and maidservants I would have remained silent, for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s damage.’ Thereupon, King Achashveirosh exclaimed, and he said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is it? And where is the one who dared to do this?’ And Esther said, ‘An adversary and an enemy! The wicked Haman!’ Haman trembled in terror before the King and Queen.”[2]

Esther’s impassioned plea to Achashveirosh seems difficult to understand. Why did she mention anything about the Jews being sold into slavery? When was there ever any mention about such a proposition, and what does selling the Jews into slavery have to do with Haman’s decree of genocide? Also, why did Achashveirosh angrily demand to know the identity of the promulgator of the decrees; was he not the one who granted Haman full authority to edict those decrees?

To answer these questions, the Apta Rav[3] relates the following extraordinary story: In the time of Rav Sherira Gaon[4] there lived a tremendously wealthy individual. Aside for the man’s extreme monetary affluence he also possessed a rare invaluable treasure, a Torah scroll written by Ezra the Scribe.

When the man died, his two sons had a strong disagreement about how to allocate their father’s possessions. Both were willing to forgo all of their father’s wealth so that they could take possession of their father’s ancient Torah scroll. When they presented their case to the Jewish court, the ruling was that they should cast a lottery to determine who would merit possession of the scroll. The ‘loser’ would receive all of the father’s wealth. After the lottery was cast, as can be imagined the winning brother was ecstatic. His brother however, was crestfallen. All of the money he received was little consolation to him.

There was an iniquitous fellow in the town who was very bothered by what had occurred. He sympathized with the losing brother and was very angry with the court’s ruling. One night he changed his clothes so that he would not be recognized by the townsfolk, and he entered the synagogue which housed the famous Torah scroll. When everyone had left the synagogue, he clandestinely removed the scroll form the Ark. He rolled it to the words which read, “ועבדתם את ה' אלקיכם - And you shall serve Hashem, your G-d…” He scratched out the letter “ayin” in the word “ועבדתם ” and replaced it with the letter ‘aleph’, so that the verse now read, “ואבדתם - And you will destroy…” With the new blasphemous wording, the entire Torah scroll was rendered unfit for use. The man quietly returned the scroll to the Ark and left.

A few weeks later, when the congregation was reading the portion that contained those words, the ‘mistake’ was realized. One can only imagine the utter shock and devastation of the scroll’s owner. Although the scroll could easily be fixed, the egregious error indicated that the scroll had surely not been written by Ezra the Scribe. The owner was so devastated by the event that he became sick and bedridden.

One night the deceased father appeared to his son in a dream. He reassured his son of the scroll’s authenticity and he revealed what had truly transpired. As a sign that what he was saying was true, the father told his son that he should search underneath the table in the synagogue. There he would find the eyeball of the iniquitous fellow who had committed the deed. This was an apt punishment, based on the verse, ‘ayin tachas ayin’.[5]

When this story was repeated to Rav Sherira Gaon he offered a novel explanation of the aforementioned events in Megillas Esther: When Haman first approached Achashveirosh to malign the Jews and convince the king of their unworthiness, he did not propose genocide as an answer to ‘the Jewish problem’. He knew Achashveirosh would not agree to such a socially and politically inept idea. Instead, he suggested to Achashveirosh that the Jews should be enslaved to ensure that they would be kept under control, and could not promulgate their religion any longer. To abet the process, Haman pledged 10,000 silver talents to offset any financial loss his proposition would cause.

It was for that idea that Haman had procured the signature of Achashveirosh. It was strictly a document of sale stating that Haman had permission, “לעבדם – to enslave them.”

As soon as Achashveirosh affixed his signature to the document however, the wily Haman amended it. He erased the letter ‘ayin’ and replaced it with an ‘aleph’, so that it now read that Haman had permission ‘לאבדם - to destroy them’[6]. He also added a few more adjectives calling for their utter obliteration and destruction.[7]

It was to that original decree that Esther was making reference to. “Were we only sold as slaves and maids I would have remained silent”, for that was the original decree to which Achashveirosh had consented. Achashveirosh had never acquiesced to the decree calling for the complete destruction of the entire Jewish people. In fact he was shocked by it. He demanded to know, “Who is it? And where is the one who dared to do this?” When he found out that Haman had duped him into affixing his signature to a decree he had never agreed to, his rage overcame him. The ever-scheming Haman was hung for treason before he had a chance to say a word.

Once the structure of the Mishkan was completed, the special clothes of the priests and High Priest had to be tailored. “Now you, bring Aharon your brother near to you, and his sons with him… You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aharon your brother, for glory and splendor.”[8]

This is actually not the first mention of clothing in the Torah. The concept of clothing is discussed in regards to primordial man.

After Adam and Chava sinned by partaking of the forbidden fruit, they suddenly became aware, and embarrassed of the fact that they were unclothed.[9]

After Adam and Chava were banished from Gan Eden, the verse relates, “And Hashem, G-d, made for Adam and his wife (כתנות עור) garments of skin and he clothed them.”

The Medrash[10] comments on this verse: “In the recorded Torah thoughts of Rabbi Meir they found written (a slightly emended text of the aforementioned verse) “And Hashem, G-d, made for Adam and his wife (כתנות אור) garments of light.”[11]

The Arizal notes that clothing are called by two names: ‘Beged’ which stems from the root-word begidah- treachery, and ‘levush’ which stems from the root-word bushah-shame.

After Adam sinned his body, which now housed his evil inclination, became a subject of shame because of the treachery he had committed. Therefore, G-d granted Adam clothing to spare him that embarrassment. The message of Rabbi Meir was that even after sinning, one’s body need not be a source of shame and humiliation. One has the ability to sanctify himself and transform his body from an object of sin into a conduit/vessel of spiritual light. When one achieves such greatness, his clothing are no longer ‘garments of skin’ but they become ‘garments of light’. Our objective is to transform the ‘ayin’ (כתנות עור) into an ‘aleph’ (כתנות אור).

The clothing that the priests wore while performing the Service in the Temple, symbolized the idea of clothing being ‘garments of light’. They donned their ‘uniforms’ with a sense of duty and responsibility. They clothed their bodies in garments that reminded them of their elite mission and superior status, and it ensured that their bodies remained holy as well.

Why is there a custom to dress up in costumes and masks on Purim?

Haman sought to change the ‘ayin’ into an ‘aleph’ on the document about the Jews. He wanted to destroy every last vestige of the Jewish People, including their dead bodies[12]. Haman recognized that even the lifeless body of a Jew contains holiness, by virtue of the fact that it contained a holy spark. Even after its soul had been snuffed out, a Jewish body had to be disposed of, because it maintains a certain level of holiness.

Our ‘revenge’ against Haman is to replace the ayin with an aleph, albeit in a different venue. We seek to transform our כתנות עור into כתנות אור by recognizing the holiness that our bodies are capable of.

It is appropriate that Haman’s plot was contingent upon one letter for the following reason. In the reading of Parshas Zachor the Shabbos prior to Purim, we recall the original battle that our forefathers fought against Haman’s ancestors, the original Amalekites.

In the final verse of that reading, there is a word which is not clear how it is to be pronounced. “תמחה את זכר עמלק – You shall erase the memory of Amalek”. Some authorities maintain that it is to be read “zecher” while others maintain that it is to be read “zaycher”.[13]

The Torah portion describing the battle with Amalek, itself contains a manifestation of that perennial battle. The difference between the two readings is contingent upon one dot[14]. That one ‘dot’ represents the ‘inner dot’, i.e. the one inner point/spark within the soul of a Jew. It is that dot that Amalek seeks to douse. His desire is to prove that Jews are no different than any other nation, and that they have no added ‘spark/dot’ within.

Amalek challenges the subtleties that Klal Yisroel takes pride in: A letter, a dot, an inner spark.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why we mask ourselves on Purim. Haman sought to destroy all of the Jews by changing a letter. On the day of our victory over Haman we symbolize his failure by showing that we can un-do what Haman did by changing the ayin back into an aleph. On Purim we declare that our bodies are “כתנות אור”, vessels encasing our holy souls. But our exterior is merely a façade, for our true greatness lies inside. Our clothing and our externals are ‘clothing of light’, i.e. they mask a greater internal. On Purim we hide ourselves, symbolizing the fact that we are always masking our real selves.

A Jew is ‘far more than meets the eye’. His impenetrable greatness lies within and permeates his externals as well. On Purim we celebrate, not only that inner greatness, but also the fact that our inner greatness manifests itself externally. Our bodies become “כתנות אור”, vessels encasing our holy souls.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner[15] noted that the law is when one purchases a box of wheat, the seller does not have to give the buyer the box along with the wheat. However, when one purchases a barrel of wine, the buyer must give the seller the wine along with the barrel.

He explained that the reason for this difference is that wine improves with age. The betterment of wine is heavily affected by what it is being stored in. A fancy silver case may damage the taste of the wine, while a wooden one will improve its taste. Therefore, the seller must give the buyer the vessel which is holding the wine, since that vessel plays an important role in the value and taste of the wine.

Grain however, does not improve with time (in fact it can spoil and rot if left for too long). Therefore, its casing is irrelevant to the sale.

On Purim, we celebrate the holiness of the Jewish body. The Jewish body is the vessel which contains our souls and, therefore, is itself a vital component of our ultimate level of holiness. On Purim we drink wine because it reflects the essence of our joy on this day. Wine is bound to its vessel as the Jewish soul is bound to the body.

“For we have been sold – I and my people – to be destroyed”

“G-d made for Adam and his wife garments of light”

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[1] Many of the following thoughts are based on the speech delivered by my in-law’s esteemed neighbor, and our dear friend, Rabbi Eli Oelbaum, at our Shabbos Sheva Berachos, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Tetzaveh 5762.

[2] 7:1-6

[3] In his sefer, Ohaiv Yisroel (likutim)

[4] 900 - circa. 1000; Rav Sherira Gaon, father of Rav Hai Gaon, was a scholar of note and the leader of the Babylonian Jewish community

[5] The verse literally means, ‘an eye for an eye’ but here was being translated as ‘an eye for an ayin’ - i.e. the letter ayin, which the man had erased.

[6] Although the decrees were written in Persian (not Hebrew), we can imagine that Haman employed a similar tactic with the Persian letters.

[7] Haman probably reckoned that once the decrees were passed he would be able to convince Achashveirosh to leave them in place. Haman had a gifted tongue and was able to convince anyone, especially Achashveirosh, whatever he wanted. But because of how rapidly the events unfolded after the edict was passed, Haman never had that opportunity. Instead Achashveirosh found out about it from Esther and viewed it as an act of treachery against him.

[8] Shemos 28:2

[9] The commentators explain that, until that point, evil was an external force. Before they sinned, Adam and Chava’s bodies were merely vessels that contained their inner soul. There was therefore no reason for them to cover their bodies. However, when they ate from the forbidden fruit, they ingested spiritual evil along with the physical food. Forevermore, mankind became a conglomerate of dichotomous forces struggling for supremacy within him. The body now became a rivaling faction that challenged the spiritual internal soul. At that point, the body became a source of shame and Adam and Chava became ‘aware of their nakedness’ and were ashamed of it.

[10] Yalkut Shimoni 34

[11] [Rabbi Meir changed the letter ayin to an aleph and, in so doing, completely altered the meaning of the word.]

[12] See Vilna Gaon on Megillas Esther who explains the decree of ‘l’abayd as referring to obliterating their bodies.

[13] In order to ensure that we fulfill both opinions, the custom is to read (either the word or the entire verse) twice.

[14] ‘Zaycher’ is written with a tzayray- two dots next to each other, while ‘zecher’ is written with a segol- two dots next to each other and a third dot below it.

[15] Purim 1972



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