Friday, February 23, 2018

Purim: Hearing His Voice

Hearing His Voice
A Message for Purim 2018
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Two people were once given the identical task of identifying their friends in the black of the night. One was supplied a flashlight, and he easily recognized his acquaintances by shining the light at their faces. The other, however, was not given a flashlight and he was therefore compelled to identify those around him by carefully listening to the sounds of their voices and footsteps. The first individual performed best in the challenge, as the sight of people’s faces is far more revealing than audial clues. The second individual, however, had acquired a skill that would last him long into the sun-lit morning hours and beyond. He had developed a sensitivity akin to that of a blind person, and he could now identify his contacts under any circumstance, even in the absence of a visual aid.

R. Yisshak Hutner z”l cited the above parable in order to distinguish between the lasting legacies of Purim and Pesah, respectively. He explained that in contrast to the integral role of God’s exposed miracles on Pesah, Purim’s enduring mark lies in His hidden voice at its events. Indeed, “The memory of Purim will never cease from among their descendants” (Esther 9:28), as Am Yisrael then developed the vital skill of “hearing the voice and footsteps of God.”[1] In the words of Ilana Kurshan: “To know God in Purim mode is to give shape to the shadows. But to know God in Pesah mode is to live in a world of absolute black and white, where everything has its reason.”[2]

Understanding the lesson of Purim in this fashion, we may further explain a puzzling statement of the Hakhamim:
“The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor” (Esther 8:16). Rav Yehudah said: “Light” refers to Torah. And it similarly says, “For the missvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Mishlei 6:23).[3]
It is surprising that the Hakhamim found any reference to talmud Torah in a pasuk from Megilat Esther – a book that conspicuously omits any explicit mention of Torah and missvot! Perhaps, however, they were specifically pointing to the Torah’s role in our future ability to expose God’s hidden presence in this world. Allow me to explain.

Over forty years ago, The New York Times Magazine ran an article entitled “A Life in the Talmud.” It described the fascinating life and experiences of Holocaust survivor and Talmud scholar David Weiss Halivni. The article particularly highlighted the central role that the study of Talmud played at every stage of his development. The concluding paragraphs recalled a student revolt at Columbia University in 1968. Halivni remembered walking to his home, near the uprising, when the students looked at him with obvious disdain. He sensed these young men and women viewed a Talmud scholar, who focused on ancient texts and wisdom, as the epitome of “non-relevance.” Halivni’s interviewer asked him what he did next. “I did what I always do when I feel upset,” he answered, “I went back…to my home; I went upstairs, took out a Talmud, and learned. Except this time, my eyes were wet. I had tears in my eyes, and I couldn’t very well see what I was learning.”[4]

How did studying Talmud provide Prof. Halivni with a sense of solace during his most difficult experiences? Consider R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l’s description of his similar reaction to a tragic occurrence in his life. He explained his experiences following the untimely passing of his wife:
Sometimes I study the Torah deep into the night. Of course, these are the best hours for Torah study – things appear clearer, sharper. It happens, in the course of my study, that I sense someone standing near me, bending over my shoulder and peering at my page of Gemara, looking precisely at the same subject on which I am focusing, and nodding his head at a new idea whose accuracy I am still considering.
R. Soloveitchik concluded: “My ability to get over what befell me during these past few years is due to the fact that I relate to this principle of ‘Torah from Heaven’ not merely in the sense of ‘to believe’ but also in the sense of ‘to know’.”[5]

Our success at rising from the “low points” in our lives is commensurate to our ability to locate and “know” God’s presence. Mordekhai, Esther and the Jews of Shushan accomplished this mission long ago. The enduring message of Purim, then, is to hear His silent and hidden voice in our own lives. The tools for discovery, of course, are His eternal words – the Torah.

“The Jews had light…” Rav Yehudah said: “Light refers to Torah.”

Shabbat shalom!                    Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Purim (Brooklyn, NY, 2004), Inyan 34. This essay was translated into English by Pinchas Stolper, in Living Beyond Time: The Mystery and Meaning of the Jewish Festivals (Brooklyn, NY, 2003), pg. 299-302.
[2] Ilana Kirshan, If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 71.
[4] Israel Shenker, “A Life in the Talmud,” The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 1977. I supplemented the narrative with Halivni’s own retelling in The Book and The Sword (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 126-7.
[5] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 76.