June 12, 2024
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Taanis Esther: Expressing Our Internalized Values

Rabbi Rafael Valls was rabbi to the Conversos (hidden Jews) in his Spanish town and one of the last to be burned alive at the Auto-da-fé in 1691. His great-great-great-grandson, Rabbi Yossi Wallis, traveled to Mallorca, Spain, 20 years ago to research his family history. The Church had detailed records going back 500 years regarding all the accused Jews. He read the interrogation records of his great-great-great-grandfather. The interrogator told Rabbi Valls, “We have a record of your asking the rabbis of Israel to instruct the Jews of Spain with a particular mitzvah they should keep. Why?”

The mitzvah was surprising: not Shabbos, not bris milah, but rather, “Keep the fast day of Esther.” Rabbi Valls explained to his interrogator, “We Jews in Spain are ‘crypto Jews.’ We have to keep our identity secret. Queen Esther was the first “Converso” in Jewish history. On the surface, she pretended to be like everyone else. But on the inside, she kept all the mitzvos. Remembering her bravery reminds us of the life we need to lead.”

When Esther was informed of the decree that the Jews were to be killed by the populace, Mordechai instructed her to approach King Achashverosh to try and have the decree rescinded. Esther agreed on the condition all the Jews gather together to pray and fast for three days. They did so. At the end of the three-day fast she approached King Acheshverosh and events started to take a turn for the good. How was the fast able to save the Jewish nation?

First, we must understand how Hashem allowed this evil decree to even happen.

The Gemara records a conversation between the disciples of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and their rebbe as to why the Jews deserved to be killed. The students felt it was because they partook in the multi-day party held by Achashverosh. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said it was because the Jews had bowed down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, which according to the Maharsha, was idolatry and severed their connection to Hashem. However, one could argue that the Jews only bowed out of mortal fear, not out of belief. Participating in the party was another story.

The grand party, explains the Maharal, was to celebrate the total demise of the Jewish nation, since (based on a miscalculation) the prophecy that klal Yisrael would return to Eretz Yisrael after 70 years of exile had apparently not been fulfilled. In bold defiance of Hashem, Achashverosh served the guests using the vessels of the Beis Hamikdash and adorned himself with the clothing of the kohen gadol. This would be similar to Jewish people attending Hitler’s inauguration. Unthinkable!

The only way to save the Jews was to demonstrate they participated in the party out of fear, but inwardly were very upset and sad about the flagrant and public dishonor of the vessels of the Beis Hamikdash and of the seeming disconnection from Hashem. They knew that Queen Esther was Jewish and believed she could easily save them from the king’s wrath. That is precisely why Esther told the Jews, “I have no influence. It’s only if we place our total reliance in Hashem that we may be spared.”

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai described the Jews’ inner feelings as “acting out of ‘panim,” face. Their going to the party was an external expression that masked their true feelings.

On Purim, some have the custom to wear a mask and a costume. The purpose is to encourage us to get in touch with our real internal selves despite our external masks. Indeed, the mitzvos of the day are all external acts: giving mishloach manos, matanos l’evyonim and having a seudah.

Three things bring out the true nature of a person: alcohol, anger and money. People sometimes get peculiar when it comes to money. People sometimes lose their temper. And people can lose control when they drink alcohol. But the inner self emerges in all these situations. Therefore, the Sages ruled that one should use his money to help poor people, one should use his money to give gifts to friends and should make a festive meal with wine in order to express who we really are.

Finally, Taanis Esther is the yahrzeit of my mother, a woman whose inner desire to do the will of Hashem always shone forth. I am dedicating this dvar Torah in her zechus (merit.)


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate Rosh Yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged but any contributions are always welcome. Beyond PTI, Rabbi Bodenheim conducts a weekly beis midrash program with chavrusa learning in Livingston plus a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and it’s Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.

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