Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Essence of Purim
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

Hidden Faces


Rabbi Gideon Weitzman

2 min read
References from the Torah
The Gemara asks the following very unusual and seemingly unnecessary question;
"Where is Moshe mentioned in the Torah? ‘That he is also flesh’ (BeReishit 6:3). Where is Haman mentioned in the Torah? ‘From the tree’ (ibid. 3:11). Where is Esther mentioned in the Torah? ‘I will hide My face’ (Devarim 31:18). Where is Mordechai mentioned in the Torah? ‘Mar dror [choice spices]’ (Shemot 30:23) which is translated [into Aramaic] mira dachya" (Chulin 139b).

This piece of Gemara remains very puzzling and raises a number of questions. First, what is the question of the Gemara? Why should it be important to find references in the Torah to these people?

Another point, it is one thing if the Gemara wanted to find a reference to the major characters of the Purim story, but why is Moshe lumped together with them? Surely, they are from two completely different eras of history. Moshe was the leader of the Jewish people from their birth at the exodus from Egypt. Haman, Esther and Mordechai are the players in the last book of the Tanach chronologically. Moshe is from the beginning of biblical Jewish history, they are from the end.

Another difficulty that immediately strikes us is the question regarding Moshe. What does the Gemara have in mind when it asks where in the Torah is there a reference to Moshe? The whole of the Torah is full of Moshe. In fact, from the beginning of the book of Shemot until the end of the Torah, there is only one parsha that does not contain the name of Moshe. Moshe is everywhere, it is called "the Torah of Moshe" (Yehoshua 8:31). Does the Gemara really need to find a reference in the Torah to Moshe?

The actual references that the Gemara supplies are also cryptic. In order to understand the passage, we first need to decipher the pshat, the simple meaning of the words. Rashi will aid us in this task.

Rashi’s Explanations
Rashi opens his commentary on this small passage with an explanation of why the Gemara seeks a reference in the Torah for Moshe. "Where is there a reference to Moshe before he came, as he was destined to come?" (Rashi ad loc.) Rashi explains that the Gemara wanted to present a reference to the fact that Moshe would one day be born and lead the Jewish people. All this prior to his actually being mentioned by name in the Torah.

The Gemara explains that there was such a reference "that he is also flesh". Rashi elucidates that the numerical value of the word ‘beshegam’ ‘that he is also’, is identical with the numerical value of Moshe, both of them add up to 345.

Rashi continues to explain that there is also a connection between Moshe and the verse itself. The full verse reads "God said ‘My spirit will not judge Man forever, as he is also flesh, his days will be one hundred and twenty years’". God saw the state of Man and decided to shorten his lifespan to one hundred and twenty years. Rashi suggests that this refers to Moshe. "Moshe lived for 120 years, there will be born a person, Moshe, and he will live that long [120 years]".

Rashi explains the reference to Moshe relying on gematria, numerical values, and on the context of the verse.

Where, explains Rashi, is there a reference to Haman’s deeds? Not to Haman the person, but to his actions. "Hamin ha’etz", "from the tree", where the word for ‘from’, ‘hamin’ is spelt the same and sounds similar to the name Haman. Rashi further elucidates "he [Haman] will be hanged on a tree". Not only do the two words look and sound similar, but there is a conceptual link between them, in that the tree was the method of hanging Haman.

The deeds of Esther are alluded to in the Torah by the words "I will surely hide My face". Rashi explains "in the days of Esther there will be a covering of [the Divine] face, and they will suffer many bad ordeals". Again, the two words, Esther and "hester astir", "I will surely cover", sound similar. But Rashi adds another dimension with a philosophical connection, the names are intrinsically tied to the verses through more than just a linguistic link. The subject of the verse tells us something about the people themselves. In the time of Esther there will be a covering of the Divine countenance and protection.

Where is the greatness of Mordechai? "Mar dror was the head of the spices", the most important of them, so was Mordechai the leader of "the righteous and the men of the Great Assembly".

The Need for References
Several questions still remain unanswered. What is the initial problem that the Gemara aimed to answer? Why does the Gemara ask for references for individuals in the Torah? What is the significance of these references?

The first time that a word appears in the Torah, the Torah explains the essence of that word or concept. The Gemara here is asking what is the essence of the person Moshe, what is the essence of Haman and Esther’s deeds and what was the essence of the greatness of Mordechai?

We can start to understand the passage if we try to see how the Talmud linked the individuals with specific verses. Another question still remains, that of the connection between Moshe and the characters of the Purim story, but we will return to that a little later.

All or Nothing
What was the essence of Haman? In the book of Esther we read;
"After these things Achashverosh promoted Haman and placed his chair above the other ministers. All the king’s servants at the palace gates bowed down to Haman, as the king ordered, but Mordechai refused to bow. Haman became very angry" (Esther 3:1,2,5).

All the servants bowed down to Haman. The whole capital was subservient to him and he had the nation in the palm of his hand. But one thing bothered him; that Mordechai, the Jew, would not bow down to him.

What would have happened if Haman had ignored Mordechai’s defiant attitude? We can only speculate, but it would appear that Haman would have remained the Prime Minister of the Persian Empire and would have retained this strong and powerful position with little opposition. What actually happened was very different.

Haman was incapable of overcoming his pride and had to be have ultimate control. Not satisfied with all the ministers bowing to him, he wanted the Jew to bow to him as well. His wife, Zeresh, warned him "If Mordechai is of Jewish blood, you will be unable to overpower him, but you will undoubtedly fall before him" (Esther 6:13). This was Haman’s downfall. He constructed a gallows to hang Mordechai, but in the end "They hanged Haman on the tree that he had prepared for Mordechai" (ibid. 7:10).

The tree was his downfall. The gallows that he prepared to hang the one person who stood between him and total authority, were eventually utilized to hang Haman himself. "The Aggagite [Haman] sought to cut down the cypress [Mordechai], but, instead, it became an obstacle for him, and his pride was broken" (Ma’oz Tzur).

How similar this is to the situation in the Garden of Eden. God told Adam "You must eat from all the trees of the garden. But from the tree of knowledge you shall not eat, because on that day you shall die" (BeReishit 2:16-17). Adam and Chavah were given free range of the garden, they were commanded to eat of the fruit. But they were given one restriction, namely, not to eat the fruit of a specific tree.

What would have happened if they had not eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? Again, pure speculation, but let us suppose. Adam and Chavah would have remained in the Garden of Eden, an idyllic location. They would have been able to feast on the trees to their hearts’ desire and would have lacked nothing.

But Adam and Chavah were hungry for just one thing. The fruit of the only tree that God withheld. Look at the very pessimistic way that Chavah describes their prohibition to the snake. "We can eat from the fruit of the garden. But the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden we cannot eat" (ibid. 3:2-3). She states that they were allowed to eat from the fruit, but not from the fruit in the center of the garden. She equates the prohibition with the fruit that was permissible, but when God related the prohibition He said that they could eat from "all the fruit of the garden", implying that they could eat from most of the fruit. The large majority was permitted for consumption, one tree was forbidden. In Chavah’s eyes some was permitted some was banned, as though the one tree made all the difference.

This was the downfall of the first couple. They were incapable of overcoming their curiosity, of adhering to one simple commandment. They sacrificed all for the little that they did not have, rather than preserving the great gifts that they could enjoy and cherish.

Haman did not learn from the mistakes of Adam and Chavah. He could not ‘let go’. He could not enjoy the benefits of his position, because not everything was totally in his power and control. "All is worth nothing to me the whole time that I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate" (Esther 5:13).

So we understand the allusion that the Gemara makes in finding a connection between Haman and the events surrounding Adam’s sin of eating from the tree of knowledge.

The Missing Miracles
The next reference in the Gemara is to Esther: "Where is Esther mentioned in the Torah? ‘I will hide My face’". To understand the implications we have to examine the entire verse in context as it appears in the Torah.

"My anger will rise on that day and I will leave them and cover My face from them, they will become prey and many calamities will occur, on that day they will say ‘Because God is not among us these evil things have happened’. I will surely hide My face on that day due to all of the evil that they have done, as they turned to other gods" (Devarim 31:17-18).

The reference to Esther is embedded in a series of curses. God seems to be warning the people that there will come a time, or times, when they will reject Him and serve other gods. At some point God will leave the people to their own devices and hide His face and countenance. At that juncture, Divine Providence will disappear in a tangible sense. The people will feel that they are on their own and God no longer defends them.

This all happened during the time of Esther. During that period of history the Jews became assimilated into Persian society. The Talmud itself asks "Why were the Jews threatened in that generation with destruction? Because they enjoyed the party and meal that Achashverosh prepared" (Megilah 12a). The Jews were entrenched in the surrounding foreign culture and enjoyed the lecherous party that Achashverosh laid on for his subjects. The Jews felt themselves loyal Persian citizens, and were happy to attend. This resembles the situation that the Torah described many years before: "They turned to other gods." In such a time God promised to hide His face and let the bad times roll. Tragedies would follow sorrow and the plight of the Jewish people would be lamentable.

There is another example of the assimilation of the Jews into Persian society. Esther herself was named after the Persian, Sitar, or in the words of the Gemara Istahar (Megilah 13a1). Her Jewish, Hebrew name was Hadasah, as the verse states "He [Mordechai] raised Hadasah, she is Esther" (Esther 2:7). But she seems to be called Esther by everyone. Such a name suggests a person who was very close to the non-Jewish culture of her day.

In Esther’s time, in a time when the Jews have lost their Jewish identity, and even try to hide it, God will hide His face. Many bad things will happen to the Jewish people and they will claim "God is not among us". What will be with the Jewish people, are they to be left to suffer their sins and disappear? Will the tragedies consume them? Does God’s disappearance signal the end of Jewish history?

The Leader of the Jews
There is one individual who can save the day. "Where is Mordechai mentioned in the Torah? ‘Mar dror [choice spices]’ which is translated as mira dachya." Rashi explained that the mar dror was the head of the other spices, the most important and prominent. Mordechai was the leader of the righteous and the men of the Great Assembly.

The last line of the book of Esther describes Mordechai: "Mordechai was the second in command to the king Achashverosh, great to the Jews and accepted by most of his brothers, seeking good for his people and speaking peace to all of his descendants" (Esther 10:3).

The Gemara immediately notices a discrepancy in the description. Why was he only accepted by most of his brothers, but not all of them, whereas he spoke peace to all of them? "It teaches us that some of the members of the Sanhedrin rejected him" (Megilah 16b). The Gemara goes on to allude to the reason why they were less than pleased with Mordechai and his conduct.

"Rav Yosef said that learning Torah is greater than saving lives, because initially Mordechai is fifth in the order of the sages and later he is sixth. Initially it says ‘These are those that came with Zerubavel: Yeshua, Nechemiah, Sariah, Ra’aliah, Mordechai, Balshan’ (Ezra 2:2) and later it says ‘Those that came with Zerubavel: Yeshua, Nechemiah, Azariah, Ra’amiah, Nachmani, Mordechai’ (Nechemiah 7:7)" (Megilah ibid.).

The rabbis seem to be criticizing Mordechai’s judgement and saying that he slipped in his importance and Torah study due to his involvement with saving the Jews. Some of the Sanhedrin rejected him, but most of his brothers accepted him, nevertheless.

Yet, Mordechai must have known that Torah study is of such great importance, and that precious time that could have been spent on Torah study would have to be devoted to other pursuits. This would have an adverse affect on his own knowledge and even piety. Why did he ignore the objections of his peers and rabbinic colleagues and delve into Persian politics?

Mordechai understood the need of the hour, the turning point of Jewish history, that required Man to take control. He was the leader and as such must be willing to sacrifice something for the good of the people. This was even more imperative at that time, as God had hidden His face. When God hides His face, it falls to Man to show his. Mordechai understood this and revealed his true colors. He became a leader of men and an astute politician at the same time.

It was his actions that saved the Jewish people and elevated him to a position of power in the Persian government, taking over the very same post as Haman, that of Prime Minister of the Persian Empire. But this brought with it a price and caused him to sink in the order of Torah scholars. Mordechai knew that sometimes one has to break the Torah to preserve the Torah. (See Menachot 99b)

Mordechai needed to be a human saviour in a place where Divine miracles ceased. God relies on humans to carry out his plan. Mordechai took the cue and succeeded.

Moshe the Man
One part of the Gemara still remains unexplained. What is the connection between Moshe and the other characters mentioned in the Gemara? An answer can be suggested by another unusual story related by the Talmud.

"A lot, pur, (from which we get the name of the festival, Purim) was drawn before Haman from day to day and month to month, to the twelfth month, that is the month of Adar" (Esther 3:7). The Gemara relates that "As the lot fell on the month of Adar he [Haman] was very happy and said ‘The lot fell on the month during which Moshe died.’ But he did not know that he [Moshe] died on the seventh of the month but was also born on the seventh of Adar" (Megilah 13b).

Why was Haman so happy that the lot fell on the month of Adar? What was the significance of the fact that Moshe died during Adar?

Haman thought that Moshe not only represented the Jewish people, but that he was the god of the people. He was the incarnation of the Divine in this world. If that was the case then were he to die, the entire nation would remain vulnerable and without Divine help.

But Haman was wrong. What he did not know was that not only did Moshe die during the month of Adar, but he was also born during the month of Adar. Moshe was born, he was human, he was no god, no human embodiment of the Divine. He was man, a human being. Indeed, the first detail that we learn about Moshe in the Torah is that he was born in the normal way, from two human parents. "A man from the house of Levi took a woman of the house of Levi. She became pregnant and gave birth to a child" (Shemot 2:1-2).

Haman thought that the Jewish people would be defenseless as their God had left them, but this was far from being the case. Rather, the Jewish people were always led by humans, men and women who were Divinely inspired, but were human, nevertheless. Mordechai understood that, and knew how to save the people once again from an evil anti-Semite who arose to destroy them.

The Gemara found a reference for Moshe in the words "That he is also flesh". Even Moshe was a human being, flesh and blood. He was born, lived for one hundred and twenty years and died. A great example of the lofty heights that humans can achieve and the influence they can have as well. He was an inspiration to Mordechai. And he should be to us as well.

Purim the physical holiday
Maybe, this is why Purim is such a physical holiday. We are commanded to send food to our friends, money to the poor and to eat a meal that should contain wine and alcoholic beverages. In the words of the Talmud "One is obligated to drink on Purim to the extent that they cannot distinguish between Haman is cursed and Mordechai is blessed" (Megilah 7b).

Purim is a celebration of the physical, human world. It is this world that we inhabit, and we serve God in this dimension. This is the message of Purim, to be human and thus to praise God.

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