Monday, March 21, 2011

A powerful lesson from Purim

From the writings of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, an exhortation concerning the importance of emunat chachamim (faith in the Sages). I learned this piece last week in anticipation of the chag, and decided to utilize the splendid translation of Rabbi Aryeh Carmell.

In response to his correspondent's argument that the Holocaust could have been substantially avoided had the European rabbis encouraged their communities to emigrate to the Holy Land en masse, Rav Dessler uses this opportunity to broaden his explanation of the necessity for emunat chachamim. Whereas in his earlier writings he lambasted our proclivity for forming ill-informed opinions and criticized this development as undermining an essential aspect of Torah-true Judaism, Rav Dessler develops that idea here to an even further extent: when we are presented with "facts" that all point toward the "faults" of our Elders.

To buttress his argument, Rav Dessler writes the following, in the name of his own teacher, the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel (emphases mine):
Megillat Esther is a record of events covering a period of nine years, from the third to the twelfth years of the reign of Achashverosh. We, and maybe even greater people than we, would never have been able to understand that all these apparently unrelated events really formed one related series. Only Mordechai, with the benefit of ruach hakodesh at his level (for not all levels of ruach hakodesh are equal), was able to discern the unity underlying these events. 
Mordechai had forbidden the Jews to attend the banquet of Achashverosh with which the Megilla opens. This is explained in the Midrash Megillat Esther: " 'At the completion of these days' (Esther 1:5) - he (Mordechai) said to them, 'Do not that the Adversary shall not have an occasion to accuse you'; but they did not listen to him." (see also Megilla 12a) There were certainly many who must have argued against him, saying that this was a matter of life and death; an irresponsible king like Achashverosh might well take it into his head to kill all Israel (God forbid) if he were to see that representatives of every nation attended the feast celebrating the third anniversary of his accession, while not a single Jew deigned to appear. For this reason they refused to obey Mordechai's command and they went to the banquet. Nothing bad happened to them as a result.  
Nine years later (in the twelfth year of Achashverosh), when Haman had been elevated to the highest position in the state and had issued orders that all should bow down to him - and our Rabbis explain that there was no real question of idolatry involved, only a rather far-fetched fear that it might "look like" idolatry - Mordechai refused to bow down.
There were many Jews who protested that he was endangering the lives of all Israel because of excessive personal piety, as is made clear in Aggadat Esther: "Israel said to him (Mordechai): 'You should know that you will bring about our death by the sword of that wicked one (Haman).' But he replied to them: 'What then, should I bow to an idol?' and he refused to accept their words." 
And immediately after this, everything happened exactly as Mordechai's opponents had feared: an edict was issued by Haman decreeing the destruction of all the Jews. If we had been there what would we have said? What was the "cause" of the decree? Was it Mordechai's obstinacy in a matter affecting the safety of Klal Yisrael? Or was it that nine years previously some people had ruled leniently and - for the best of motives - disobeyed a rabbinical injunction forbidding them to partake of Achashverosh's banquet, their motive having been to avoid endangering the lives of Klal Yisrael? We should certainly have said that we could see with our own eyes that it was Mordechai's action that had caused Haman to get angry and decree the destruction of all the Jews, and how can anyone deny the evidence of his own eyes? 
But the truth is otherwise. 
What appeared to be the indisputable evidence of the senses was in fact an illusion created by the yetzer ha-rah; the true cause was the sin committed nine years earlier. 
(It may be that Mordechai's decision to endanger himself for something which was no more than a possibility of an appearance of idolatry, an an unlikely one at that, was taken in response to the needs of the time - to impress on the people the gravity of any contact with idolatry. In this way he would correct the mistake they had made earlier o the occasion of the banquet, when they had taken lightly the prohibition against non-Jewish wine, which is itself connected with the prohibition of idolatry. Moreover, the Gemara suggests that the reason for the decree of annihilation was that they had bowed down to the image in the time of Nevuchadnetzar, although they had done it only for outward show. So by this act [refusing to bow down even in a case where according to the halacha it was permitted] Mordechai was actually protecting them [in a spiritual sense, by endeavoring to redress the balance].) 
But the yetzer ha-rah enticed them with the strongest of all arguments - "the evidence of their own eyes"; and this was why the attribute of Justice won the day and the decree was promulgated. But as soon as this happened they revised their opinions and admitted the truth. They might well have retained their former views and taken vengeance on Mordechai as a traitor to his people, but instead of this, they all followed him and responded to his call for repentance.
The fact that Esther, whom they knew to be a close relative of Mordechai, chose just this hour of terrible danger to her people to show friendship to the archenemy Haman by inviting him twice to a private banquet, would tend to reinforce the arguments of Satan that they should no longer listen to Mordechai. but they had returned to God in complete repentance and no longer listened to the yetzer ha-rah. On the contrary, they joined with Mordechai in fasting and prayer and in repentance for the sin they had committed by following the illusion of the "evidence of the senses"; and then the miracle happened; then they were saved. 
From here we can learn the answer to the question of what brings about murderous decrees upon Israel: the "mistakes" of the great Torah authorities of the generations, or our own willingness to listen to the wiles of the Satan and the illusory "evidence" he parades before our eyes so that we lose our faith in the Sages. And if the disaster comes and the destruction spreads, God forbid, this only shows that people have not repented; on the contrary, they still deny their teachers. 
Our Rabbis say that punishment commences with the tzaddikim, for they are punished for the sins of the generation...but if even this does not lead to repentance, a still greater desecration of God's name is involved. Rashi says in Yoma that desecration results from the very facts of the destruction of the righteous and the exile of Israel, for everyone says, "What did their righteousness avail them? See how misfortune overtakes even the pious and the wise!"
Such is the way of all those who move away from the truth; they love to show "by the evidence of the senses" that the tzaddikim perish in their righteousness. They could have pointed to Mordechai, too, as one whose excessive piety caused his downfall - but they did teshuva...[t]he way of Klal Yisrael is to return to Hashem, to admit the truth and to abandon the illusions of "evidence" presented by the yetzer ha-rah to induce one to deny one's teachers.
Lack of self-effacement toward our Rabbis is the root of all sin and the beginning of all destruction, God forbid. All merits are as nothing compared with that root of spiritual progress - faith in the Sages. - Strive for Truth! (pp. 219-223)

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