By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20−30:10)
“They (the Jews) accepted the Torah willingly in the time of Achashveros”…Tractate Shabbos 88a
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, places the spotlight on Aaron, Moses’ older brother, as he is invested in the robes and role of the High Priest: “Bring near Aaron your brother, and his sons with him…that they may administer to Me in the Priest’s office (Exodus 28:1).” The two brothers become the paradigm for priest (Aaron) and prophet (Moses). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees the brothers as two of the three necessary triumvirate of a modern society (the position of King was added in the First Temple era), for a “three-cord rope not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).” Rabbi Sacks writes “in ancient Israel kings dealt with power, priests with holiness, and prophets with integrity. The glory of Judaism is its insistence that only in Heaven is there One. Down here on earth no individual may ever hold a monopoly on leadership.” During the days of the First Temple era, Israel also was blessed by the sense that G-d was present with these “three co-equal branches of government,” for it was “the All-Merciful One who gave the three-fold Torah (Torah, Prophets and Writings) to the three-fold nation (Priests, Levites and Israelites)” (tractate Shabbos 88A).
How different the feeling must have been after the destruction of the First Temple. Exiled from the land of Israel, again living as a minority in a foreign land, there was no priest, no Moses-like prophet, no king, and no direct connection or contact with Heaven (an unseen Hand can feel just as lonely an absent one). Then, in Shushan, Achashveros anointed a man and gave him the power of Pharaoh, who then exercised this authority over us with the intent, like Pharaoh, to annihilate us. This time no strong hand, out-stretched arm or signs of wonders were promised. Deliverance seemed to come from a series of strange coincidences surrounding two individuals, Mordechi and his cousin Esther, whose insight into the dangers, decisiveness on how to proceed, and courage to implement their schemes, resulted in the exiles’ salvation.
Yoram Hazony in his wonderful book “The Dawn-Political Teachings of the Book of Esther,” summarizes the situation this way: “at first glance (the book of) Esther appears to contradict all that we consider ‘biblical.’ Esther is a tale of kings and queens and evil grand viziers which cannot help but strike one as a romance or fairy story. Nowhere can one find the cascading oral imperatives of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and even less in evidence are the sober laws of Moses. The term ‘G-d’ appears nowhere, and one is hard pressed to find a trace of theology amid the hairpin turns of the tale. Moreover, the Jewish heroes of the story seem to display little piety and negligible concern for Jewish law.”
Hazony then adds: “yet for all this the rabbis of the Talmud…(consider the book of Esther) of the utmost significance in concluding the Bible. When the rabbis spoke of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people they argued that it had been accepted not once but twice, once at Sinai at the beginning of the scriptures, and then again at the end during the time of Esther (Shabbos 88a).” He sees that “to the rabbis, this little story of persecution and court intrigue was something precious, powerful, exceedingly important…worthy of being the Bible’s last words to man, in a sense, G-d’s last words to man.” In trying to understand the mystery Purim story, his book is worth a close reading, year after year.
There may be several reasons that led the Jews of Shushan to recommitment to Torah. Perhaps it was due to the exiles sensing the unseen Hand of Heaven in their survival. Perhaps it was due to the respect for Mordechi and Esther, who led them through this perilous time and exhorted them to recommit. Since the text suggests a “Jewish para-military” had been organized to engage those raising arms against us, perhaps staying under this homegrown army’s powerful ‘umbrella’ may have felt important to the Israelites. Such traumas may lead to a variety of strong feelings in survivors.
However, it is possible that the cause of their re-commitment can be found in the notion that in exile the only way to protect us from future pogroms was to act to elevate the rights and acceptance of all minorities in Persian society. The Torah makes clear that one of its fundamental values is to remember the fate that often awaits strangers in a strange land and to commit to creating a culture where all, both minorities and the majority, are equally accepted and respected.
My teacher, Rabbi William Frankel, would tell of spending Kristallnacht and its surrounding days confined to his parent’s Vienna apartment. To occupy his mind in that threatening time his mother suggested he write for himself a copy of Megillat Esther. When several months later a visa was granted to the United States, the scroll came with him. In the 60’s he became passionately involved in the civil rights movement (he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma), as well as many other issues of equality for minorities. One of his children asked him at the time what drove his intensive participation. He replied that having lived as an oppressed minority under threat of annihilation he resolved never to turn away in support of any who lived under similar circumstances.
As perhaps the Jews of Shushan did, after his escape he re-committed himself to advancing that Torah imperative, treating the stranger as you would want to be treated, throughout the rest of his life. Each year I hear the Megillah read from the scroll that he wrote. Each time it reminds me to recommit to his values, and to the Torah that taught him.
Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.