Purim Inspiration: Even You Can Change The World
This shiur was recorded at the Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto on 16th March 2016.
K’vod HaRav, Rabbi Grauer, talmidim vetalmidot, beloved friends, it’s an enormous privilege to be able to daven with you, to be in this wonderful school, to say how lucky you are to be in a great school like this, and how lucky the school is to have pupils like you. I just want to share with you a little thought, if I may, about Purim and where we are right now. Chazal ask a strange question: Esther min hatorah minayin? [meaning] “Where do we find a hint in the Torah to the Book of Esther?” – the last book of Tanach to be canonised? (Chullin 139b) In the Dead Sea Scrolls, they found every other book of Tanach except Esther because it was the last to be canonised.
They said, in the words, Anochi haster astir panai – “I will hide my face on that day.” (Devarim 31:18). Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s most fearful warning was, there will come a time when there will be hester panim, when it will look as if, God forbid, Hashem isn’t communicating with us anymore. That is how Chazal found a hint of Esther. Indeed, Esther is one of the only two books in Tanach which don’t contain the name of Hashem, the other one of course being Shir Hahirim. It is a fearful book, because it records the moment when it was resolved, lehashmid laharog ule’abeid et kol hayehudim mina’ar ve’ad zaken taf venashim (Esther 3:13), the first warrant for genocide against the Jewish people. It is the only book in Tanach that is set, Purim is the only festival in the Jewish year set entirely in Galut [exile]. Every other festival is either based on an event that happened in Israel or on the journey toward Israel. Esther alone, Purim alone, is set in the place of hester panim in chutz la’aretz. When we’re out of Israel, it’s hard to feel the presence of God.
That is Esther. It comes from an almost secularised world where we search for Hashem and we can’t find Him, and yet there is one line in the book that to me cuts through me like a knife, because it is the most powerful statement in Judaism, that Hashem has not abandoned us. This is when Mordechai says to Esther after she has told him all the problems there might be in interceding with Achashverosh, he says to her those famous words, im hacharesh tacharishi ba’et hazot, “If you are silent and you do nothing at this time,” revach vehatzalah ya’amod layehudim mimakom acher, “Somebody else will save the Jewish people.” Umi yodeia, “But who knows?” im la’et kazot higa’at lemalchut? “Was it not for just this moment that you became a Queen, with access to Achashverosh in the royal palace?” (Esther 4:14)
The ultimate statement of hashgachah pratit [Divine Providence] that wherever we are, sometimes Hashem is asking us: realise why I put you here, with these gifts, at this time, with these dangers, in this place. Hashgachah pratit is our fundamental belief that God never abandons us, that He puts us here with something to do. Even in the worst hiding of God, if you listen hard enough, you can hear Him calling to us as individuals, saying: Umi yodea… im la’et kazot higa’at lemalchut? “Was it not for this very challenge that you are here in this place at this time?”
That, of course, is the essence of the first word of the book we are about to read, Vayikra. What is special about the way Vayikra is written in the Torah, anyone know? What is it? Yeah?
Audience member: A small aleph.
And what does Rashi say about the small aleph?
Yeah, sort off, yes, very good. (Applause) Because it says, to Hashem it says, exactly sorry, you can be Chief Rabbi, we’ll keep the seat empty for you, okay? Chevrah, Rashi explains that it says Vaykira el Moshe “and God called to Moses” (Vayikra 1:1) but Vayikar el Bilam, “He simply appeared to Bilam as if by chance.” (Bamidbar 23:4). The Hebrew language has two words that sound the same but they’re completely different, they’re even opposite, mikrah and mikreh. Mikreh means something happened accidentally, there’s no Divine Providence at all, and mikrah means you are here because God is calling on you to do something.
Why is the aleph written small? To tell us that sometimes it can be very hard to hear the call. It’s very small, and what is the sound made by an aleph? [crosstalk, “ah?”] That’s made by a vowel, what’s the sound made by an aleph? Nothing. That is called in Hebrew a kol demama daka, a voice. That’s how Hashem appeared to Eliyahu Hanavi in the 19th chapter of Melachim Aleph (Kings I) in a sound of a slender size. A Vayikra with a little aleph, means Hashem is calling on you, but He is calling on you in a voice so small that you can only hear it if you’re listening. Even in the worst hester panim, Hashem is calling on us to do something.
One of my great heroes was a man called Viktor Frankl, I write about him often. Viktor Frankl was a psychotherapist actually working with university students in Vienna and then: Anschluss, World War II, Shoah, he was taken to Auschwitz. There never was in all history greater hester panim than in the Shoah and at Auschwitz. Yet Viktor Frankl was a man of faith, and he knew Hashem was calling on him to do something even there, even at the gates of Hell itself.
He asked himself, what does Hashem want of me, a psychotherapist, in the middle of Auschwitz? He came to the answer, Hashem wants me to give my fellow prisoners, my fellow Jews, a will to live. Because only if they have that will, will they have the strength to survive. And that’s what he did. He went around to each prisoner that he thought was about to fall into ye’ush, despair, and he gave them a role in life, a role that they hadn’t yet fulfilled but must fulfil and therefore must stay alive and survive Auschwitz and be liberated and then go and do that thing. That is what Viktor Frankl heard, even in Auschwitz, Vayikra, a tiny aleph. “Esther min hatorah minayin? Ve’anochi haster astir panai.”
Let me mention a name to you, and ask does anyone know the significance of this name: Eddie Jacobson. Anyone know this name? No? That’s all right, I didn’t either. I’m going to tell you the story.
Eddie Jacobson was an ordinary Jewish guy in the Lower East Side in New York. Ordinary kid who spent his life as a travelling salesman selling clothing. It’s just that when he was a child, his parents moved to Kansas City and there he met a child his own age, they became schoolfriends. The name of his friend was Harry S. Truman. They knew each other as kids, then again when they did military service in 1917 they found one another again and renewed their friendship, and they decided that when the war was over they’d go into business together. So they set up a clothing store in Kansas City together. They weren’t great businessmen, to be totally honest with you, it didn’t thrive as a business, and the two men drifted apart. Eddie Jacobson, as I say, went on being a travelling salesman selling clothes, and Harry S. Truman took a different route and landed up as President of the United States.
Comes ’47, ’48, and the Jews of the world need the support of the United States of America for the State of Israel to be proclaimed and recognised. The State Department is against it. It says to the President: Mr. President, do not support the creation of the State of Israel… So what happens? Jews try to get in to see the President in the White House, and every single person who tries to see the President in the White House is refused admission, including a very special person, the person who campaigned (next year we’ll celebrate the centenary for the Balfour Declaration in 1917 which first created the possibility of the State of Israel) who was then a lecturer at Manchester University in England, his name was Chaim Weizmann. He became the first President of the State of Israel.
Chaim Weizmann, who was the leader of the Zionist movement, tried to get to see the President and met with blank refusal all round. People thought, who can get through? No-one can get through to Harry S. Truman. Then somebody remembers that Harry S. Truman had a childhood friend called Eddie Jacobson, and they got in touch with Eddie Jacobson and said, we need you to go and see the President and get the President to agree to meet Chaim Weizmann, so Eddie phones up Harry Truman, they’re old friends, “Harry!” “Eddie!” “How are you doing?” “Was macht a yid?” etc. The kind of thing American Presidents say. Eddie says to the President of the United States, “Harry, I’ve got to see you,” and all President Truman’s officials say, “Don’t see this man.” Harry said, “This is my old friend, Eddie, from school, Eddie from the Army, Eddie from our shop together!”
He goes to see Eddie, he says, “Eddie, you can talk to me about anything, except Israel.”
Eddie says “Okay”, and he stands there and he cries.
And the President of the United States (this is in the Oval Office) and he says, “Eddie, why are you crying?”
And Eddie says, “That little marble statue there, who is that, Harry?”
He said, “That’s my hero, Andrew Jackson.”
Eddie says, “You really admire this man?”
“He had an influence over you?”
Eddie said “I have a hero. His name is Chaim Weizmann. Harry, for my sake, see this man.”
And Harry looked at Eddie and he knew that he couldn’t say no to his old friend. That is how Chaim Weizmann got to see President Harry S. Truman. That is how America voted in favour of the creation of the State of Israel. Had they not voted, Israel would not have been brought into being. Harry S. Truman, President of the United States, made the United States the first country in the world to recognise the State when David Ben Gurion pronounced it.
I don’t know exactly how Hashem writes the script of history, but if it can happen to Eddie Jacobson it can happen to you. “Umi yodeia im l’et kazot higa’at lamalchut?” Hashem is calling on each of us, saying: there’s a reason why you are, I have something for you to do, that only you can do. We can hear that voice even in the middle of the hiding of the face of God, even when there’s hester panim, even when Hashem’s call, Vayikra, is written with a little aleph that you can hardly see and hardly hear.
Chevrah, in Hilchot Teshuvah, Perek Gimmel, the Rambam says something. He says, lefichach tzarich kol adam sheyireh atzmo kol hashanah kulah – “We should see ourselves every single day of the year” – ke’ilu chetzyo zakai vechetzyo chayav – “as if we are evenly poised between merits and demerits, as if the world is equally poised between merits and demerits” and since he has said in a previous halachah in Hilchot Teshuvah, “The world and we as individuals are judged” – achar rov hama’aseh – “over the majority of our deeds, our next deed may tilt the balance.” It may tilt the balance of our life, it may tilt the balance of somebody else’s life, it may even tilt the balance of the world.
We never know when an act of ours will have consequences. Did Esther, growing up with Mordechai, a little girl called Hadassah, know that one day the entire future of the Jewish people will rest with her? The entire saving of our nation from a warrant for our genocide would depend on her? I have to tell you, you never know these things. You never know what significance one friendship, one little moment, might have for you and for somebody else, that might just change the world.
You don’t have to change the world to change the world. Let me explain: If we really believe, as the Mishnah in Sanhedrin says, (I’m sorry I’m going to give you the manuscript reading of the Mishnah and not the text of the Mishnah in our printed editions of the Mishnah). The manuscript edition of the Mishnah says: “Nefesh achat k’olam malei.” Our printed editions say: ”Nefesh achat beyisrael k’olam malei.” “A Jewish life is like a universe.” But the original text of the Mishnah said, “A life,” Jewish or non-Jewish, “is like a universe.” Change one life, and you begin to change the universe the only way any of us ever can change the universe, one life at a time, one day at a time, one act at a time.
Chevrah, you’re at a critical moment, reaching towards going to university, going to Sem, going to Yeshiva, and you’re going to have to decide What am I going to do in life? And I’m not going to tell you. Your heart will tell you.
But always ask yourself: what does Hashem want of me in this place, at this time? Because there is always something Hashem wants of us, and we don’t have to think we’re special. We can just be a little Jewish girl called Hadassah, or we can just be a little Jewish kid called Eddie Jacobson, and yet, somehow or another, our acts might have consequences that we can’t even begin to imagine.
So even though you may feel sometimes that this is a world and an age in which there is hester panim, where you look for Hakadosh Baruch Hu and you can’t find Him, He is still saying to us: Umi yodeia im l’et kazot higa’at lamalchut? – “Was it not for this moment that I placed you here on Earth?”
When Hashem calls, may each of us have the courage to say “Hineini”, “Here I am, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, tell me what to do and I will do it.” May we go out into the world, walking tall as Jews, walking unafraid, as Jews, and may we be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. May we hear the call of Hashem and answer it. And may all of you bring blessing to the world.
Purim Sameach. Thank you very much indeed.