Purim- Shaking Off Our Servitude

On nearly every Jewish day of celebration, including our second most recent salvation of Chanukah (and, according to most gedolim, even the most recent one, Yom Ha’atzma’ut), we read and sing a specially curated collection of Tehilim in praise to Hashem. Called Hallel, its purpose is as simple as the name- praising Hashem for saving us and giving us times of celebration. One holiday is conspicuous only in its absence, and that is the holiday which we will celebrate this evening (or tomorrow evening): Purim.
In Gemara Megilah (14a), Rava famously asks why Hallel is not recited on Purim. He answers simply:
הללו עבדי ה’ ולא עבדי אחשורוש אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן
(מגילה יד:א)
The first perek of Hallel begins: “Praise Him (Hashem), servants of Hashem.” Even though the story of Purim ended with our salvation from the hands of Achashverosh, we still remained under his rulership following Haman’s demise- effectively, as Rava put it sardonically, “we were still Achashverosh’s servants,” not Hashem’s. How then could we say Hallel beginning with a call to Hashem’s servants to praise Him, if our forebears who were saved on Purim were not His servants. This would not be appropriate; our victory was not complete.
This is most obviously seen in the end of Megilat Esther. After we read of Haman’s self-wrought destruction, being hung on his own gallows, and of the establishment of the holiday of Purim, the megilah does not just end. It continues with one final perek, describing the aftermath of Purim; how Achashverosh levied a tax on the land, and how Mordechai was a great viceroy to the king. It ends, as every good epilogue in Na”ch, with the invitation to learn more about Achashverosh’s reign in Divrei Hayamim (not the final books of Ketuvim, but rather the Paras and Madai royal chronicles).
One could rightfully say that this epilogue, the tenth and final chapter of Esther, is far from necessary. After all, the story is finished, the holiday has been established, and, if we were really interested in what happened afterwards, we could, as the pesukim put it so nicely, read up about it in Divrei Hayamim. Why did we need to read about the tax?
I believe that this last perek was included to emphasize the theme which Rava later brings of “אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן.” We defeated our enemies, we re-accepted the Torah, and then… life went on, business as usual, like nothing had even happened. We were saved from our Persian enemies, but, by staying in their midst, our ancestors showed that they hadn’t really learned from their mistakes. Nothing had really changed.
We know, from our own knowledge of Jewish history, that less than ten years after the end of Achashverosh’s rule, a brave Jewish leader named Ezra petitioned the following king, Koresh, to grant Jews the right to move back to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Bet Hamikdash. He acquiesced, but even then, less than 50% of the Jewish population of the exile returned to resettle their ancestral homeland. In Gemara Yoma, responsibility for the destruction of the second Temple is placed solely on the shoulders of those who remained in Persia- “because you did not return k’choma (as a wall, in large numbers, you did not merit to stay there.” Not only did the Jews of Shushan’s remaining there open themselves up to another Haman- it also ruined Shivat Zion for those who tried to learn from the story of Purim and ensure that there would not be another one again. Even though Achashverosh was long dead at that point, they were still truly “עבדי אחשורוש.”
In more recent times, we ourselves faced an enemy who tried to annihilate our people for good. Unlike in the times of Purim, not all of us escaped and our people paid a bloody price to the German people. Following the Shoah, many Jews left Europe, but others decided to stay, moving to other countries, such as France, Belgium, Poland and Spain which played an active role in assisting the Nazis. As someone whose great-great-grandparents were killed by our enemies in the Shoah, the sound of German chills my blood no matter where I hear it, especially in the Jewish graveyard which is Europe, but many of our brethren have found the strength to rebuild from the destruction, and re-establish our people where scarecely fifty years ago, they were nearly exterminated.
Rav Teichtel speaks about this in the context of the objective cycle of Jewish history. He quotes Rambam (Hilchot Sanhedrin 15:9) where it is taught that a sword which was used for hereg (execution) must be destroyed- it is forbidden from any type of hana’ah (even though the commandment of “ובערת הרע מקרביך” was fulfilled through it. Why do we treat this so seriously? Because, as Rambam teaches, “דבר שבאה לאדם תקלה עליה-נסקל ואסור בהנאה.”
Rav Teichtel elaborates:
ועתה במדינות הללו שבאו לכלל ישראל תקלות גדולות כאלו שנעשו בימינו על ידה… איך נעבור בארצות הללו עוד ונאמר: “במקום פלוני ובמקום פלוני נהרגו ונשרפו ונסקלו ונשללו ונחללו פלוני.” (אם הבנים שמחה- פרק ג’, אות ל”ט, עמ’ רכ”ח)
And now, in Europe, where such terrible things were done to Am Yisrael, how could we ever settle here, in the lands of our suffering? How can we live somewhere, saying: “here, so-and-so was captured, killed, dismembered, burned and exterminated”? (Even for those who blame the Shoah on Zionism, Rambam teaches that a sword used for hereg, which is a justified mitzva, must be destroyed).
Rav Teichtel concludes that individuals who survived the Shoah, and remained in the continent of destruction which is Europe (and, by extension, other countries which sat by and allowed the extermination to go on, such as the United States of America), have completely missed the point of the Holocaust. They remain servants of last generation’s Achashverosh.
World War Two saw the murder of six million Jews at the hands of and in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. We were spared from complete annihlation, which is a cause for bittersweet celebration, but, as we learned from the last perek of Megilat Esther and Gemara Megilah, “אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן”- we’re still living in the world which tried to annihlate our people (whether actively or passively. Six million of our brethren are dead, and we are letting life go on- living among murderers and worrying about politics and taxes. Have we learned nothing?
Just as following Megilat Esther, amid the destruction we were given a chance to return home. Even before the Holocaust, secular Jews had already began to seek rights to re-establish a Jewish state in our homeland, and, at the behest of European gedolim including Rav Teichtel, religious Jews joined their ranks as well. Less than ten years after the end of World War Two, this dream was actualized in the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Unfortunately, just as in Ezra’s time, our Shivat Zion, while thriving, is only scratching the surface of Jews of the Diaspora. Nearly 50% of world Jewry still lives outside of the borders of Eretz Yisrael, remaining culpable to the next Hitler, and, based on Gemara Yoma, potentially ruining the atchalta d’geulah for those who have already come. While many of our brethren in the exile are begining to see the light and are preparing to make their move, unfortunately all-too-many willingly remain in the yoke of Achashverosh’s service, not wanting to cross over to becoming an oved Hashem.
Rav Menachem Akerman, a rebbe of mine at Machon Lev, asked in shiur on Sunday: why does the Gemara teach “אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן”? In the time of the Amora’im, Achashverosh was long dead, so surely it would have been more correct to say that we “were” still servants of Achashverosh? No! Rava was hinting to his Babylonian colleagues that even then, generations after the ruler’s time and one Bet Hamikdash later, were still servants of the latest Achashveroh, because they were living in Babylon and not Israel.
As we prepare to celebrate Purim and read megilah but not recite Hallel tomorrow (or Friday) morning, let us internalize the message of the mistake of the generation of Jews almost destroyed by Achashverosh. Let us check in and think of how we may still be servants of our own Achashverosh, and let us seek out ways to ensure that we do not remain that way for very long. With Hashem’s help, may we merit a complete redemption with the move of the last 50% of Jews home to Eretz Yisrael, and a complete salvation from our modern-day Achashverosh very very soon. Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!