I.

The tractate Megillah states:1

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s students asked him: “Why did the enemies of the Jewish people2 in that generation become li­able for annihilation?....

[He answered]: “Because they took pleasure in the feast of that wicked man.”

“If so, those in Shushan [deserved to] die, but those in the world at large did not [deserve to] die....”

“Because they bowed down to the idol.”

On an obvious level, the transgression involved in taking pleasure in the feast is eating non-kosher food. As the Midrash states:3 “[The Jews] came... into danger... because they partook of the gentiles’ food.”

There is a well-known question:4 Is partaking of non-kosher food so severe a transgression that [its violation caused] the Jews tobe worthy of annihilation?5

{The Talmud, [indeed,]raises a question concerning this rationale, for it does not explain why [the Jews] throughout the world were deserving of death.6 [Seemingly, however,] it accepts this rationale as sufficient to warrant the death of those living in Shushan.}7

The wording of the Talmud is also worthy of notice. The Talmud speaks of “taking pleasure in the feast of that wicked man.” The expression implies that the sin was not eating the food, but “taking pleasure8 in the feast.” {It is also slightly difficult to explain that [the punishment was for] eating non-kosher food. For our Sages9 interpret the statement10 that the feast was held “according to the will of each individual person” as meaning “according to the will of Mordechai and Haman.” Similarly, on the verse:10 “The drinking was according to law; no one was compelled,” the Midrash states explicitly:11 “No one was compelled to drink non-Jewish wine.” Thus there was also kosher food at the feast. If the Talmud means to say that despite [the fact that kosher food was available,] the Jews ate forbidden foods, it should have stated this explicitly.}

II.

There are commentaries12 who explain [the severity of partaking of the feast as follows]: Achashverosh held this feast in celebration of the fact that the Beis HaMikdash was not rebuilt. (As the Talmud relates,13 accord­ing to the reckoning of Achashverosh, the seventy years of the Babylonian exile had ended and yet the Jews had not been redeemed. “Now they will surely not be redeemed,” he said, and he took out the utensils of the Beis HaMikdash and used them.) Thus, “Anyone who took pleasure in that feast avowed that he was happy with the de­struction of the Temple.”

Nevertheless, the matter is not entirely understood:14 We are speaking about a decree of annihilation, Heaven forbid, that also includes children (who are not responsible for their conduct). As the Megillah states,15 Haman’s decree was directed at the entire nation, “from the youth to the elders, children and women.” Accordingly, if the decree of annihilation came because of bowing down to the idol, it is understandable. For as the commentaries explain:16 “Annihilation is appropriate for the worship of false deities, as was the case with regard to the Golden Calf, concerning which it is written:17 ‘I will annihilate them in a moment.’”18 But how is it possible that a decree of annihila­tion encompassing even those who did not sin (the children) would be evoked by [the transgression of] taking pleasure [in the feast]... and showing their happiness over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash?19

III.

The above can be resolved through [the explanation of] our Sages’20 analogy of the Jewish people to “one lamb among seventy wolves.” [They continue:] “Great is the Shepherd [the Holy One, blessed be He] Who saves it and protects it.” The intent is that the Jewish people’s existence among the nations is at times miraculous, beyond the natural order, like that of a lamb among seventy wolves which, according to the laws of nature, would have no reason to continue to exist. It is only G‑d’s kindness (“Great is the Shepherd”) that saves them and protects them through miraculous ways that transcend nature.

Nevertheless, when are the Jews protected by special Divine providence [that prevents] the seventy wolves from touching them? When their conduct reflects [their awareness of] this situation and they rely on G‑d to save them and protect them. When, however, their conduct is in contradiction to [G‑d’s] protection and (through their conduct) they endow the “wolves” and their natural powers with importance, they remove themselves, Heaven forbid, from G‑d’s protection21 and place themselves under the dominion of the natural order.

{To cite a parallel: Rambam22 interprets the verse:23 “I will hide My face from them... and many evils will beset [the people] and they will say: ‘Because my G‑d is not in my midst these evils have beset me’” to mean that when a person separates himself from G‑d, “G‑d separates Himself from him, [as it were,] and then he is exposed to any evil which may beset him.” [Through separating himself from G‑d,] he removes G‑d’s special providence that enables him to “escape any chance occurrence.” As a result, he is “subject to chance occur­rences.”24

It is possible to explain that this is also the intent of Rambam (at the beginning of his Hilchos Taanios)25 in his interpretation of the verse:26 “If you will proceed in indifference to Me, (I will also)27 proceed in fierce indifference to you.” He interprets that verse as implying: “When I bring difficulties upon you so that you shall repent and you say it is a chance occurrence28 (— saying ‘What happened to us is a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence’29 —) I will increase that indifference with a vengeance.” G‑d’s intent is not (only) that He will increase his punishment and difficulty, but that He will conduct Himself in a manner of indifference with regard to this person and will remove His special providence. As a result, that person will be “subject to chance occurrences.”}30

On this basis, we can appreciate why “taking pleasure in the feast of that wicked man” led to the decree of the annihilation of the Jewish people. The intent is not that the decree came as punishment for that sin. Instead, it was a natural result of their conduct.31

For after Achashverosh “exalted Haman... and elevated him... above all the officers,”32 the Jews were like “a lamb among seventy wolves.” By “taking pleasure in the feast,” their conduct negated the miraculous protection of “the great Shepherd.” (Even though the event took place before [Haman’s ascent to power], it demonstrated where their thoughts and feelings were focused.)

For the fact that the Jewish people derived pleasure from “that wicked man’s” invitation to them to attend his feast showed33 that the existence of the wicked man (Achashverosh) was so important to them that attending his feast was considered an honor from which they derived pleasure. It was not that they had to attend the feast (because Achashverosh was king and they were obligated to honor his position),34 but that they attended because they took pleasure in (being invited to) this feast.35 By giving importance to the seventy wolves through taking pleasure in the honor they received from that “wicked man,” they rejected the miraculous protection of “the great Shepherd” and instead, placed themselves under the dominion of the “wolves” which, by nature, will prevent the lamb from continuing to exist.36

IV.

Additional explanation [can be gained through the following] preface: Our Sages teach:37 “One should not rely on miracles. And the Torah states:38 “And G‑d will bless you in all that you do.” Implied is that although “It is the blessing of G‑d that brings wealth,”39 this blessing is not endowed to a person when he sits idle.40 Instead, he is obligated to do something to earn his livelihood.

Conversely, he must know and recognize that his work is only making a vessel.41 His efforts and undertakings are not the reason or cause that brings him his sustenance and livelihood. They are only the mediums for G‑d’s blessings through which G‑d grants him his suste­nance and livelihood.

G‑d desires that a person’s sustenance be enclothed in the natural order and come through natural means. For it was He Who established the natural order. Therefore, He ordained that man find natural means for his livelihood. But the person’s sustenance itself comes from G‑d’s blessing. Accordingly, it is not logical to give importance to the person’s activity in its own right. For it is only a medium through which G‑d’s blessing is channeled. A person’s fundamental efforts must be focused on making himself a fit medium for G‑d’s blessing.

From a deeper perspective: The implication of “It is the blessing of G‑d that brings wealth” is not only that a person’s sustenance (which he earns through his endeavors within the natural order) is dependent solely upon G‑d (the Master of nature,) but also — and fundamentally — that the Jewish people are not under the dominion of the natural order. As explained in several sources, the Jewish people receive their vitality from the name Havayah that transcends the natural order.42 G‑d oversees and controls all of the affairs of the Jewish people with a unique providence and with a miraculous order that is not at all confined by the laws of nature.43

Based on the above, the reason man must perform deeds in order to receive G‑d’s blessing44 is only that G‑d desired that this miraculous order be conveyed through nature. For this reason He enclothed these miracles in natural garments, [requiring] actions within the context of nature, [i.e., in]“everything that you do.” These deeds, however, are no more than an external garment for the influence from Above (whose source is from the name Havayah that transcends the natural order).

{To what can a person who places emphasis on his business with­out having the desired degree of awareness that “It is G‑d’s blessing that brings wealth” be compared? To a person who energetically labors to sew pockets in which to place money, but does nothing to earn the money itself.}

V.

From the above, we can appreciate the parallel to the situation of the Jewish people in the time of Achashverosh. When the Jewish people are found in exile under the dominion of the gentile nations, they must honor the ruling authorities45 [to the extent that:] “The law of the land is law.”46 And we are commanded:47 “Seek out the welfare of the city... and pray for its sake.”

Accordingly, when Achashverosh invited the Jews to the feast, they were obligated to participate. (Needless to say, their participa­tion should have been “according to the will of each individual person,” i.e., “according to the will of Mordechai,”48 in a permitted manner, partaking of only kosher food.) But [their participation] should have been permeated with the clear knowledge, feeling, and recognition that the existence of the Jewish people is not at all de­pendent on Achashverosh, Heaven forbid (even though he was the ruler of the entire world49 ), but is instead in the hands of G‑d alone. Moreover, the existence of the Jewish people is a miracle, at times enclothed in nature, and at times an overt miracle, [above nature,] like a lamb among seventy wolves as explained above. “Great is the Shep­herd,” Who protects the Jewish people in a miraculous manner, above the natural order.

This is the (inner) meaning in [our Sages’] statement that the sin of the Jewish people was that “they took pleasure in the feast of that wicked man.” They did not participate in the feast as an expression of honor for the ruling kingdom. Instead, they considered Achashverosh so important that they erred and thought that their existence was dependent50 on the wicked King Achashverosh, a person who acted contrary to the fulfillment of the will of the Creator of the world. This caused them to consider their participation in the feast a source of pleasure and delight.

VI.

The above explanation of the nature of the sin of the Jewish people in the time [leading to] Haman’s decree provides us with an explanation of the unique nature of the Jews’ deliverance on Purim, in contrast to the miracle of Chanukah (and how much more so, to the redemption from Egypt). For the deliverance on Chanukah involved miracles that transcended the natural order (“You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak”51 ). The deliverance of Purim, by contrast, came about through a miracle enclothed in the natural order, (i.e., “there was nothing that appeared to be a departure from nature”).52

It is possible to explain that this is appropriate because of the reason for the decree in those days: {the fact that the Jewish people placed themselves under the dominion of the natural order, and more particularly, under the control of (Achashverosh,) “that wicked man,” to the extent that “they took pleasure in the feast of that wicked man”53 }.

[Generally,] a miracle that is enclothed within nature teaches us that G‑d’s miraculous order is not confined to being above nature, i.e., it need not upset the natural order. Instead, it can also enclothe itself within the natural order.

The miracle of Purim [contains] a new dimension. Although it was enclothed in nature, it was a miracle just like an overt miracle. For that reason, we recite the blessing “Who performed miracles” both on Chanukah (when the miracle was not enclothed within nature) and on Purim (when it was). For G‑d’s deliverance of the Jewish people on Purim was not a natural event. Instead, it was miraculous. “It is obvious that all the causes were above nature.”54 Nevertheless, it was a miracle that was enclothed in nature. For even nature — as it affects the Jewish people — contains miracles that transcend nature.

VII.

[Based on the above, we see that there are] two extremes that are demanded from every Jew: On one hand, one cannot rely on miracles and must act within the context of the natural order. On the other hand, he must realize that all the natural dimensions of his life are only a garment and all of his concerns are dependent on G‑d’s miraculous providence.

[This twofold approach] was expressed by Esther in her efforts to annul Haman’s decree:55 On one hand, she went to Achashverosh (carrying out the mission with which she was charged by Mordechai) “to make supplications to him and to beg for her people.”56 To [succeed in] this [mission], she would have to find favor in his eyes. Indeed, her [mission] required that he find her uniquely appealing, for:

a) she had not been called to the king for thirty days,57

b) entering the inner royal chamber without being summoned ran contrary to court procedure58 and involved danger to her life (“there is one law — to execute”).57

Nevertheless, [in preparation for appearing before the king,] she fasted for “three days, day and night.” Now, fasting and afflicting oneself in this manner will naturally lead to a reduction in one’s attractiveness.59

On the surface, a contradiction is involved: If the deliverance of the Jewish people is to come through efforts involving the natural order, how could Esther have fasted60 and thus reduced the possibility of her finding favor in the king’s eyes? And if Esther was relying on deliverance coming in a miraculous manner from Above, [her] efforts [and those of the Jews at large] should have been directed (only) to praying to G‑d. (This would also include fasting, for it is one of the “paths of teshuvah.”) Why then did she risk her life to approach the king?

Based on the above, [her conduct] can be understood, for such conduct nullifies and corrects the sin of “taking pleasure in the feast.” The fundamental error that caused the Jews to take pleasure in the feast of Achashverosh was their thought that since they were in a situation where endeavors within the natural order are necessary, then the laws of nature reign and they are dependent on them.

Esther’s conduct, by contrast, demonstrated how going to Achashverosh was merely a garment for the salvation from Above which would come like a miracle that transcends nature. Therefore it was first necessary for them to pray and fast so that they would be worthy of that miracle. Nevertheless, since G‑d desired that the miraculous salvation from Above also be grounded within the natural order, Mordechai, as G‑d’s agent, commanded Esther to go to Achashverosh (even though danger was involved).

As such, it is understandable that it is not so necessary to consider the nature of the garment ([and whether it is acceptable] even if it does not entirely fit all the requirements of the natural order).61 For the primary matter is not [to perfect] the medium through which G‑d’s salvation comes, but to bring about the reason for the salvation itself.

VIII.

The above [provides] a lesson for every one [of us] in our Divine service: The Jewish people were created as souls within bodies in a manner that requires them to be involved with their physical needs. Since they were created in this manner, it is surely G‑d’s desire that they be involved in such matters.

The Purim narrative teaches us that although it is necessary to pay attention to one’s physical needs, one’s involvement should not be characterized by [seeking] pleasure. For this involvement is only an “external garment,” a secondary matter, subordinate to his primary mission in this world. A Jew’s pleasure and delight should be in “the life of his soul,” in his study of the Torah and his fulfillment of the mitzvos. His involvement in his material concerns should be only so that he will be healthy and unblemished so that he can serve G‑d.62

The question of whether a person’s involvement in his physical needs is for the sake of Heaven or not can be clarified in the following manner: When “the life of his soul” is what is primary for him and “the life of his body” is secondary — and moreover, given attention only so that he will be healthy and unblemished to serve G‑d63 — then his energy and satisfaction will be focused on the study of the Torah and the observance of the mitzvos.His involvement in material things will be as if he were compelled, or at least [that he perform them] without satisfaction.64

When, on the other hand,he considers his material life as primary, then, when it comes to his spiritual matters, he says:65 “What is my obligation and I will perform it,” [i.e., his approach is cold, paying his dues and no more.] But, by contrast, when his physical needs are in­volved, he immerses himself in the matter and involves himself with delight. He takes pleasure from the matters that concern his animal soul.

This is the lesson that [we can derive] from the days of Purim: that the deliverance experienced in those days was dependent on the Jews’ realization that “tak[ing] pleasure in the feast of that wicked man” runs contrary to the fundamental existence (and true nature) of the Jewish people. [This awareness caused] them to merit deliverance and redemption.

May we “join redemption to redemption,”66 connecting the re­demption of Purim to the redemption of Pesach — and to the ultimate exodus from the confines and limitations of the body. [At that time,] “As in the days of your exodus from the land of Egypt, I will show [the people] wonders,”67 in the complete and ultimate Re­demption, led by Mashiach; maythis take place speedily, in our days.

(Adapted from Sichos Purim, 5722 and 5727)