On Motza’ei Shabbos Parshas Zachor, this writer had the privilege to hear the famous Rabbi Berel Wein, Rav of Beit Knesset HaNasi in Rechavia, deliver a Purim shiur there.
In his inimitable way, Rabbi Wein shared fascinating historical information while also drawing life lessons from the Purim story. Rabbi Wein began by explaining that King Achashveirosh’s empire of 127 provinces was so vast it he could not exert proper control over it. “Whenever something is too big, you can’t control it,” he shared. Rabbi Wein noted that the threats the king faced from every direction, combined with his being an insecure and unstable monarch, laid the groundwork for his making the Jews his scapegoat. This policy was seen later in history when the czars in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s conveniently blamed their problems like illiteracy, backwardness, and economic ills on the Jews. “It’s always the Jews.” He stated, “Need I say that Hitler said the same thing? He was quoted saying, ‘Jews are our misfortune.’”
Rabbi Wein explained that Haman was the kind of person who wanted whatever he didn’t possess. The fact that he couldn’t obtain respect from Mordechai infuriated him to the point that “Mordechai became an obsession.” Whenever Haman would go out or in through the city gate, he would see Mordechai seated at the gate ignoring him and refusing to bow down to him. “Haman couldn’t deal with being ignored,” Rabbi Wein said. The gallows he built were 100 feet high because he planned to hang Mordechai so everyone could see him swinging. At this point, Rabbi Wein shared a famous quote from the British poet, John Donne, which fit Haman’s situation. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” As we know, the gallows Haman built for Mordechai became the gallows for himself.
Rabbi Wein shared a truism about human nature and our tendency to hide our true motives. “There are times in life when a person reveals himself and what he really wants. Most of the time, we are wearing a mask, but occasionally it bursts out,” Rabbi Wein taught. Haman’s true intent of wanting to become king bursts out of him when the king asks what should be done for a person he wishes to honor. Haman assumed the king wished to honor him, so he suggested that the person the king wished to honor should ride the king’s horse and wear the king’s crown. The king did not like Haman’s suggestion at all, because it played on his suspicions of Haman’s designs on the kingship.
Often, leaders like Achashveirosh are paranoid. Stalin killed all of his close advisors, Rabbi Wein stated. When Stalin was introduced to speak at the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, everyone applauded for 16 minutes. When one man grew tired and stopped clapping, this led Stalin to believe that this person was a traitor and he ordered him killed.
Persian law assumed that the king is infallible. That is why his decree could never be revoked. He would never make a mistake. “He is so great he would never change his mind,” Rabbi Wein explained.
This concept stands in complete contrast to Judaism. Judaism says that no one is infallible. “Human beings make mistakes. Sometimes, great human beings make great mistakes,” he stated.
When Rabbi Wein spoke about Esther’s choice of whether or not to go into the throne room to see the king, he explained Rav Kook’s teaching about freedom of choice. “Freedom of choice is given to the individual, but the general world, and Jews as a nation, are directed by hashgachah from Hashem – that will always take hold.” Rabbi Wein shared a teaching of the Gemara connected to this idea, which is that rulers have less free choice because they are involved in the general world hashgachah.
Another fascinating idea that Rabbi Wein taught is that the Megillah calls Mordechai, “Mordechai the Jew.” He isn’t referred to with a title such as Rosh HaYeshivah or HaGaon. “He is a Jew, and there is no higher title,” Rabbi Wein emphasized. “He was a great man and the Persians recognized his greatness, and the Jews saw him as a great man,” Rabbi Wein said.
He noted how there will always be some people who say someone is not so great. There were people who said Mordechai should not have left the Sanhedrin. We see this contrast of Mordechai’s character and values with Haman’s character and values clearly at the end of the Megillah. Rabbi Wein explained that Mordechai wrote the words of the Megillah, including the end, which states that Mordechai was accepted by most of his brothers. This implies that not everyone accepted him. He was fine with writing this, because he didn’t worry about his own honor the way Haman worried about his.
By Susie Garber