Artscroll.com -- Chapter from A Gift For Yom Tov -- A Holiday For Nonbelievers Artscroll.com Chapter from A Gift For Yom Tov -- A Holiday For Nonbelievers
Hello. Sign in to get personalized recommendations.
Your Account
Order Status
Customer Service
View Cart Checkout
Home Books Audio Software Judaica
ArtScroll Classics   |    Browse Categories   |    Best Sellers   |    The App  |   New Releases   |   Future Releases   |   Recommendations
ArtScroll Gift Finder
   
 
Privacy Policy
 
To unsubscribe, click here
 
Shop By Item Number  
Request A Catalog  
eBooks  
Talmud  
Siddur / Prayer Books  
Chumash / Torah  
Tanach / Bible  
Mishnah  
Daily Dose of Torah  
Kosher By Design Series  
Passover Haggadahs  
Interlinear Series  
Tehillim / Psalms  
Machzorim  
Rubin Prophets  
Torah Reader's Tikkun  
Foreign Language Editions  
Rashi & Ramban  
Children's Titles  
All Categories  
Gift Certificates  
Browse By Category  
Best Sellers  
New Releases  
Back In Print  
Browse by Author  
Browse by Title  
Schottenstein Talmud Bavli  
Schottenstein Talmud Yerushalmi  
Kleinman Ed. A Daily Dose of Torah  
Edmond J. Safra French Talmud  
Schottenstein Ed. Book of Mitzvos  
Click for ArtScroll Gift Certificates
Downloads  
Sample Chapters  
Parashah Talk  
Click to find a Hebrew Bookstore near you
      
 

  A Holiday For Nonbelievers from
A Gift For Yom Tov
Provocative and penetrating insights on the Festivals - Pesach, Shavuos, Succos, Purim and Chanukah

By Rabbi Yisroel Miller 


Other Available Chapters
Haste Makes ... Pesach 
Covenant and Community 
Cloud Cover 


A Holiday For Nonbelievers

We celebrate Purim to thank Hashem for saving us from the wicked Haman. But the people of Israel lived through other times of national danger, and experienced other miracles of Divine intervention, which are not celebrated or even commemorated today. The miracles of Hashem splitting the Jordan and collapsing the walls of Jericho for Joshua, the Heaven-sent plague that destroyed the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem, those miracles are not marked by festivals, and many people are hardly aware that they ever occurred. Why was Purim chosen for a spot on the Jewish calendar?

We know that a Yom Tov is more than merely a time to remember the past. Each Yom Tov also has its particular message, its special lesson to teach us in the here and now. The Divine destruction of the army of Assyria was an awe-inspiring event; but the lesson of that event can be learned from the story of Pesach, and therefore a new Yom Tov was not required. The Purim story is considerably less spectacular; but the lesson of Purim was new, and its celebration was therefore added.

What was the new, unique lesson of Purim?

Throughout the books of the Torah, the prophets criticize Israel for every sort of sin. You name it, some of us did it, and the prophets were never shy about calling us on it. It is therefore all the more startling that, in the entire Tanach, we do not find that any Jew was ever accused of denying the truth of the Torah itself. Even wicked kings like Achav -- King Ahab, who worshipped idols and murdered prophets -- believed in the Torah. Because, it was impossible not to believe.

The nation of Israel possessed the original sefer Torah in Moshe Rabbeinu’s handwriting, and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments given directly by Hashem. They possessed a jar of mon, the original manna. They had national monuments at the place where Moshe had split the Red Sea, where Joshua split the Jordan, and where huge stones rained down from the skies upon their enemies. They had prophets, who could predict the future with 100 percent accuracy. Being human, some people sinned; but everyone believed.

But after our nation was conquered, and exiled and scattered; after the Holy Temple was demolished and the great national symbols were lost; after prophets and prophecy came to an end; then, for the first time, it came more difficult to believe. As Rav Yisrael of Rizhin zt”l said, We today are holding on to a rope of faith, but the rope is shaking, violently. What will help us to hold on?

In my wife’s family, there is a beautiful Jew whom everyone calls Uncle Lotsy. Uncle Lotsy was born in Czechoslovakia, and in the Second World War he spent time in a Russian Prisoner-of-War camp. He told me how the hungry prisoners spent hours upon hours talking about food: “Someday, when I get out of here, I’m going to sit down to a steak dinner, with onions, and huge tomatoes,” etc., going on and on with no greater dream in life than to have their fill to eat.

The Russians finally set Uncle Lotsy and his friends free, on condition that they enlist in the Russian army, which they did. In some ways, it was worse than the prison camp. They suffered through arduous fighting, grave danger, freezing cold -- and they were still hungry, most of the time.

In Uncle Lotsy’s outfit, the fellow in the next bed was a Jewish communist named Ackerman. Ackerman had been born into an observant Jewish family, but he himself had abandoned religion years ago. Now, in the middle of this hellish existence near the front lines, Rosh Hashanah arrived, and Jewish soldiers in Uncle Lotsy’s company were given one day off.

Uncle Lotsy and his friend seized the opportunity to make it to a Rosh Hashanah davening. Not Ackerman. He was an atheist, and proud of it. He traveled to the nearest town, called Czernowitz, to pay a visit to the local bar.

Walking through the town, Ackerman suddenly heard a strange sound, a trumpet blowing. Then he realized, it was a shofar. The music pulled at him, like a magnet; and he soon found himself inside a little shul, clutching a machzor. praying along with everyone else, crying his eyes out as much as everyone else, or more.

A few hours later, he told the story to Uncle Lotsy. A few hours after that, the whole outfit went into battle, 200 soldiers. Only seven returned. Ackerman was not one of them.

When his friends heard the news, they said, “Well, Ackerman the communist is dead.” There was no one to say Kaddish for him, no one to know that he died not as Ackerman the communist, but as Ackerman the Jew. To this day, almost nobody knows the truth, except for Uncle Lotsy, and me; and now, you.

As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. In time of trouble, when we are in pain we cry out, even if we are alone; because instinctively, we know, Someone is listening. Often, even after the soldier climbs out of the foxhole, that knowledge remains with him. In August 1967, a few weeks after the Six Day War, I had the good fortune to visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was hard to find a confirmed Israeli atheist, that Summer of ’67. It was even harder to find a pair of tefillin; they were all sold out.

War, personal troubles and national disasters are all potentially effective methods to bring people closer to knowledge of Hashem. But aren’t there any simpler, more pleasant methods?

There are indeed alternative methods, and one such alternative is a thoughtful celebration of Purim.

The Megillah does not mention the Name of Hashem, not even once. There are several reasons for this omission, and one reason is the following: In earlier times, when all Israel felt the Divine Presence, there was no Purim, because Israel did not yet need it. Only after the loss of the Holy Temple, after national downfall and exile when belief became more difficult and people began to wonder, did Hashem give us Purim.

For a Jew who does not believe, the Five Books of the Torah are a very difficult read. Hashem is the Main Character, active on every page, and the atheist, whether by choice or by upbringing, finds the story hard to relate to on any serious personal level. But Megillas Esther is very different. Hashem’s Name does not appear, the story itself is interesting and nonthreatening, and the Megillah can be read as history, an ancestral chronicle. As a festival, Purim can be enjoyed as a national celebration, even as (dare we say it?) an atheist holiday.

Except that: Even if Jews who are unaware of any feelings of faith at all read teh entire Megillas Esther thoughtfully, the entire they will not be the same people they were when they began. The thoughtful reader will try to picture, what it was like for the Jews -- our ancestors our fathers and mothers -- to have lived in the days of Queen Esther.

All Jews everywhere are living in the Persian Empire, under the control of Achashverosh. The king delegates authority to the wicked Haman, and Haman decrees death for every one of us. Queen Esther, who (whether or not we knew her lineage) had always seemed to be a kindly person, has become Haman’s good buddy, inviting him to private dinner parties. Our leader Mordechai is first on the list to be hanged. And for us and our families, there is no way out.

Mordechai urges us to fast and to pray, and everyone runs to pray. We run also; even if we thought we had no faith, we are all running together and davening together. Ludwig von Mendelsohn, head of the Lutheran Church in Nazi Germany, in 1934 returned to his Jewish heritage, even though the Nazis considered him Aryan. A Haman shakes us up, and he drops us at the door of the shul.

We pray and we fast, for three days and three nights. How many have fainted from hunger and thirst, and how many have died? But we do it anyway, because there is no other way. There is still no real hope, except for the intuitive feeling that somewhere (perhaps? surely?), somehow, Someone hears ...

And then, suddenly, the news breaks: Queen Esther is Jewish, one of us! King Ahaseurus has switched to our side! Wicked Haman is hanging on the gallows built for Mordechai. And Mordechai has been transferred from death row to the prime minister’s throne!

In an astonishing reversal of fortune, Jews throughout the empire are receiving royal treatment. Anti-Semites are in hiding, thousands of pagans are trying to convert to Judaism, the world has turned upside down! We rush to the streets, all of us dancing, shouting, laughing and weeping, all at the same time. The singing is spontaneous, songs of thanks to Hashem, and of course we sing along, as we laugh and we weep.

Perhaps it was all nothing more than lucky coincidence? Perhaps it was just a lucky break that King Ahaseurus killed Queen Vashti in a drunken rage, and he just happened to choose Esther as the replacement? And the king, who had always hated Jews, happened to be in a good mood to grant Esther’s request when she begged him to save us. Maybe it just happened that way?

Maybe. But no Jew dancing in the street, none of us who were there and who lived through it, believes that.

We could logically analyze the Purim story in all its details, in search of proof to demonstrate the presence of Hashem behind the scenes. But had we been there, we would not have bothered, no more than we bother to prove the existence of another person who speaks to us in the same room. The experience itself is more than enough. As the Megillah tells us: “LaYehudim ha’ye’sah orah, to the Jews there was light,” they saw, and they felt the rope of faith grasped firmly in their hands, a rope they and their children could hang on to, forever and a day.

We have since celebrated over 2300 Purims, and the holiday is today more relevant than ever. So many people are confused about their relationship with Hashem and His Torah, how to feel the closeness and to be strengthened by it. Purim opens a door for us, with its mitzvah of reading the Megillah twice, even on the most superficial level. As long as we read it looking for some light, letting the story enter our bones by picturing ourselves and our families in that life-and-death situation, then we will come to know: Things did not just happen, there was no coincidence, and there is no coincidence today.

Purim is the day to relive the story, to fast and to pray, to read and to sing, to dance and to feast, and to offer toasts to Hashem with a large glass of wine; to drink a little, and to think a little, conjuring up mental images of what it was like for our families to drink and to sing on that first Purim, so many years ago. And then we will discover that the orah, the special light given to Israel, still shines, and the rope of faith is still within our reach; and that Hashem is always with us, helping us to see and to hold on.

We celebrate Purim to thank Hashem for saving us from the wicked Haman. But the people of Israel lived through other times of national danger, and experienced other miracles of Divine intervention, which are not celebrated or even commemorated today. The miracles of Hashem splitting the Jordan and collapsing the walls of Jericho for Joshua, the Heaven-sent plague that destroyed the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem, those miracles are not marked by festivals, and many people are hardly aware that they ever occurred. Why was Purim chosen for a spot on the Jewish calendar?

We know that a Yom Tov is more than merely a time to remember the past. Each Yom Tov also has its particular message, its special lesson to teach us in the here and now. The Divine destruction of the army of Assyria was an awe-inspiring event; but the lesson of that event can be learned from the story of Pesach, and therefore a new Yom Tov was not required. The Purim story is considerably less spectacular; but the lesson of Purim was new, and its celebration was therefore added.

What was the new, unique lesson of Purim?

Throughout the books of the Torah, the prophets criticize Israel for every sort of sin. You name it, some of us did it, and the prophets were never shy about calling us on it. It is therefore all the more startling that, in the entire Tanach, we do not find that any Jew was ever accused of denying the truth of the Torah itself. Even wicked kings like Achav -- King Ahab, who worshipped idols and murdered prophets -- believed in the Torah. Because, it was impossible not to believe.

The nation of Israel possessed the original sefer Torah in Moshe Rabbeinu’s handwriting, and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments given directly by Hashem. They possessed a jar of mon, the original manna. They had national monuments at the place where Moshe had split the Red Sea, where Joshua split the Jordan, and where huge stones rained down from the skies upon their enemies. They had prophets, who could predict the future with 100 percent accuracy. Being human, some people sinned; but everyone believed.

But after our nation was conquered, and exiled and scattered; after the Holy Temple was demolished and the great national symbols were lost; after prophets and prophecy came to an end; then, for the first time, it came more difficult to believe. As Rav Yisrael of Rizhin zt”l said, We today are holding on to a rope of faith, but the rope is shaking, violently. What will help us to hold on?

In my wife’s family, there is a beautiful Jew whom everyone calls Uncle Lotsy. Uncle Lotsy was born in Czechoslovakia, and in the Second World War he spent time in a Russian Prisoner-of-War camp. He told me how the hungry prisoners spent hours upon hours talking about food: “Someday, when I get out of here, I’m going to sit down to a steak dinner, with onions, and huge tomatoes,” etc., going on and on with no greater dream in life than to have their fill to eat.

The Russians finally set Uncle Lotsy and his friends free, on condition that they enlist in the Russian army, which they did. In some ways, it was worse than the prison camp. They suffered through arduous fighting, grave danger, freezing cold -- and they were still hungry, most of the time.

In Uncle Lotsy’s outfit, the fellow in the next bed was a Jewish communist named Ackerman. Ackerman had been born into an observant Jewish family, but he himself had abandoned religion years ago. Now, in the middle of this hellish existence near the front lines, Rosh Hashanah arrived, and Jewish soldiers in Uncle Lotsy’s company were given one day off.

Uncle Lotsy and his friend seized the opportunity to make it to a Rosh Hashanah davening. Not Ackerman. He was an atheist, and proud of it. He traveled to the nearest town, called Czernowitz, to pay a visit to the local bar.

Walking through the town, Ackerman suddenly heard a strange sound, a trumpet blowing. Then he realized, it was a shofar. The music pulled at him, like a magnet; and he soon found himself inside a little shul, clutching a machzor. praying along with everyone else, crying his eyes out as much as everyone else, or more.

A few hours later, he told the story to Uncle Lotsy. A few hours after that, the whole outfit went into battle, 200 soldiers. Only seven returned. Ackerman was not one of them.

When his friends heard the news, they said, “Well, Ackerman the communist is dead.” There was no one to say Kaddish for him, no one to know that he died not as Ackerman the communist, but as Ackerman the Jew. To this day, almost nobody knows the truth, except for Uncle Lotsy, and me; and now, you.

As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. In time of trouble, when we are in pain we cry out, even if we are alone; because instinctively, we know, Someone is listening. Often, even after the soldier climbs out of the foxhole, that knowledge remains with him. In August 1967, a few weeks after the Six Day War, I had the good fortune to visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was hard to find a confirmed Israeli atheist, that Summer of ’67. It was even harder to find a pair of tefillin; they were all sold out.

War, personal troubles and national disasters are all potentially effective methods to bring people closer to knowledge of Hashem. But aren’t there any simpler, more pleasant methods?

There are indeed alternative methods, and one such alternative is a thoughtful celebration of Purim.

The Megillah does not mention the Name of Hashem, not even once. There are several reasons for this omission, and one reason is the following: In earlier times, when all Israel felt the Divine Presence, there was no Purim, because Israel did not yet need it. Only after the loss of the Holy Temple, after national downfall and exile when belief became more difficult and people began to wonder, did Hashem give us Purim.

For a Jew who does not believe, the Five Books of the Torah are a very difficult read. Hashem is the Main Character, active on every page, and the atheist, whether by choice or by upbringing, finds the story hard to relate to on any serious personal level. But Megillas Esther is very different. Hashem’s Name does not appear, the story itself is interesting and nonthreatening, and the Megillah can be read as history, an ancestral chronicle. As a festival, Purim can be enjoyed as a national celebration, even as (dare we say it?) an atheist holiday.

Except that: Even if Jews who are unaware of any feelings of faith at all read teh entire Megillas Esther thoughtfully, the entire they will not be the same people they were when they began. The thoughtful reader will try to picture, what it was like for the Jews -- our ancestors our fathers and mothers -- to have lived in the days of Queen Esther.

All Jews everywhere are living in the Persian Empire, under the control of Achashverosh. The king delegates authority to the wicked Haman, and Haman decrees death for every one of us. Queen Esther, who (whether or not we knew her lineage) had always seemed to be a kindly person, has become Haman’s good buddy, inviting him to private dinner parties. Our leader Mordechai is first on the list to be hanged. And for us and our families, there is no way out.

Mordechai urges us to fast and to pray, and everyone runs to pray. We run also; even if we thought we had no faith, we are all running together and davening together. Ludwig von Mendelsohn, head of the Lutheran Church in Nazi Germany, in 1934 returned to his Jewish heritage, even though the Nazis considered him Aryan. A Haman shakes us up, and he drops us at the door of the shul.

We pray and we fast, for three days and three nights. How many have fainted from hunger and thirst, and how many have died? But we do it anyway, because there is no other way. There is still no real hope, except for the intuitive feeling that somewhere (perhaps? surely?), somehow, Someone hears ...

And then, suddenly, the news breaks: Queen Esther is Jewish, one of us! King Ahaseurus has switched to our side! Wicked Haman is hanging on the gallows built for Mordechai. And Mordechai has been transferred from death row to the prime minister’s throne!

In an astonishing reversal of fortune, Jews throughout the empire are receiving royal treatment. Anti-Semites are in hiding, thousands of pagans are trying to convert to Judaism, the world has turned upside down! We rush to the streets, all of us dancing, shouting, laughing and weeping, all at the same time. The singing is spontaneous, songs of thanks to Hashem, and of course we sing along, as we laugh and we weep.

Perhaps it was all nothing more than lucky coincidence? Perhaps it was just a lucky break that King Ahaseurus killed Queen Vashti in a drunken rage, and he just happened to choose Esther as the replacement? And the king, who had always hated Jews, happened to be in a good mood to grant Esther’s request when she begged him to save us. Maybe it just happened that way?

Maybe. But no Jew dancing in the street, none of us who were there and who lived through it, believes that.

We could logically analyze the Purim story in all its details, in search of proof to demonstrate the presence of Hashem behind the scenes. But had we been there, we would not have bothered, no more than we bother to prove the existence of another person who speaks to us in the same room. The experience itself is more than enough. As the Megillah tells us: “LaYehudim ha’ye’sah orah, to the Jews there was light,” they saw, and they felt the rope of faith grasped firmly in their hands, a rope they and their children could hang on to, forever and a day.

We have since celebrated over 2300 Purims, and the holiday is today more relevant than ever. So many people are confused about their relationship with Hashem and His Torah, how to feel the closeness and to be strengthened by it. Purim opens a door for us, with its mitzvah of reading the Megillah twice, even on the most superficial level. As long as we read it looking for some light, letting the story enter our bones by picturing ourselves and our families in that life-and-death situation, then we will come to know: Things did not just happen, there was no coincidence, and there is no coincidence today.

Purim is the day to relive the story, to fast and to pray, to read and to sing, to dance and to feast, and to offer toasts to Hashem with a large glass of wine; to drink a little, and to think a little, conjuring up mental images of what it was like for our families to drink and to sing on that first Purim, so many years ago. And then we will discover that the orah, the special light given to Israel, still shines, and the rope of faith is still within our reach; and that Hashem is always with us, helping us to see and to hold on.

 
© Copyright 2008. ArtScroll.com All rights reserved.