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Rosh Hodesh Adar II Torah Essay

Dr. Ariella Agatstein

The Edythe Benjamin חיה בת שלמה beloved mother of Barbara Hanus

Rosh Hodesh Adar II Torah Essay

Esther’s Voice

The story of Esther is not just the story of the weak defeating the mighty, or the salvation of the Jewish people.  It is also a story of the battle between the epic forces of Yaakov/Bnei Yisrael versus Esav/Amalek. In order to truly understand what is taking place in the story of Purim, one must look back at the source of tension between these two great nations.

In בראשית כז:כב we are witnessing a moment which in so many ways epitomizes the source of tension between Esav and Yaakov. There, Yaakov stands with goat skins on his arms, waiting for the blessing of the firstborn from Yitzchak:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הַקֹּל֙ ק֣וֹל יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְהַיָּדַ֖יִם יְדֵ֥י עֵשָֽׂו׃

“And he said, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esav”

Upon reading this verse, it seems that Yitzchak’s statement is merely an expression of his confusion- the voice sounded like Yaakov, but the arms were hairy like Esav. These six words, however, were not merely Yitzchak’s observations about his confused senses, but Yitzchak was articulating an everlasting truth about the essence of each of his sons; Eisav was a man of the “yad, of the hand. His strength would lie in his sheer, brute strength and hatred for Am Yisrael. Yaakov’s strength, on the other hand, would lie in his faith in Hashem and in his “kol, his ability to know when and how to use the power of his voice.

Esav’s grandson, Amalek, continued his legacy of hatred and violence against the Jewish people. The Yalkut Shimoni (Chukat 764) recounts a Midrash in which Esav imparted his mission to Amalek; Esav charged Amalek with the task of destroying Am Yisrael, a task which he was unable to fulfill. He told him that the key to being victorious over Yaakov, and the Jewish nation, was to hit them after they stumble. Indeed, Amalek tried as he could to complete his grandfather’s charge. Almost every time that the Jewish people stumbled spiritually, Amalek was near to pounce on them with their inherited quality of the “yad”, physical strength and hateful determination. In fact, there are references to this in Amalek’s first encounter with Bnai Yisrael. A month after the exodus from Egypt, once Amalek sensed that Am Yisrael was vulnerable, they attacked for the first time. In that fatal battle, Amalek attacked in a place called Refidim. Rashi explains that Amalek attacked in that place because “רפו ידיהם בתורה, the Jewish people’s hands were weakened in Torah. Ironically, it appears that when Bnai Yisrael’s hands were weak in their spiritual observance and faith in Hashem, Amalek had the ability to defeat them. Moshe, however, recognized that the Jewish people were not fighting any random nation, but that it was a clashing of epic forces- the power of the “hand” versus the power of the “voice”. In fact, the pesukim (שמות יז) explain that Moshe, while davening at the top of the mountain, kept his hands raised throughout the entire war: “ואהרן וחור תמכו בידיו”, “and Aharon and Chur supported his hands.” Why did Moshe keep his hands raised? Some commentaries explain that Moshe’s hands were raised as a gesture of prayer, and that by pointing to Hashem, he was reminding the Jewish people that it was Hashem who would determine the outcome of the war. Still, there are many ways he may have demonstrated such a message to Am Yisrael? Why were his hands raised? Metaphorically, one may explain, Moshe was davening that the “hand” of Eisav, the force of Amalek, be destroyed. Moshe’s kol of tefillah, prayer, and the Jewish people’s subsequent spiritual improvement and increased faith in Hashem, is what saved them from the hand of Amalek.

At the end of the battle, (שמות יז:טז), the Torah once again makes reference to the “yad”: “כי יד על כס ה׳ מלחמה לה׳ בעמלק מדר דור ” “there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal, a war for the L-rd against Amalek from generation to generation.” Rashi explains that G-d Himself placed His own hand upon His throne and swore that His name would not be complete until Amalek was annihilated. Perhaps, G-d specifically took His own metaphorical hand to counter the hateful “hand” of Amalek against Am Yisrael.

Amalek continued to attack the Jewish people throughout their history. After the Jewish people were sentenced to wander for forty years in the desert and questioned Hashem, Amalek dealt them a great blow (Bamidbar 14). Throughout Sefer Shoftim as well, when other nations came to attack Am Yisrael, Amalek was right beside them.

The Voice

Besides the mitzvah for members of the Jewish nation to destroy Amalek, two specific people were entrusted with the mission of eradicating Amalek, all of whom were from the tribe of Binyamin. The first was Shaul Hamelech, the first king of the Jewish people, and the second was Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia. Both Shaul and Esther inherited a refined level of kol, voice. They understood when to be silent and accept the will of Hashem, and when to use their own voice and speak out against injustice. In Esther Rabbah 6:16, our sages explain that both Esther and Shaul inherited this trait from their direct ancestors Rachel and Binyamin. The Midrash explains that Rachel was silent after seeing her sister marry Yaakov in her stead. Her silence was a sign of her strength. Once she realized her father, Lavan’s deceptive plan to have Leah marry Yaakov in her place, she accepted her reality and did not complain. Instead, she helped save her sister from embarrassment and gave her the secret signs made between herself and Yaakov. In spite of her silence as young woman, Rachel knew to use her voice in Heaven to advocate on behalf of the Jewish people. The prophet Yirmiyahu writes,“קול ברמה נשמה רחל מבכה על בניה”, “a voice is heard from on High, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children…”(Yirmiyahu 31: 14), . The word “kol”, voice, is mentioned once again. Perhaps the prophet Yirmiyahu was making reference to this elevated level of speech which belonged to Rachel. Rachel was not weak, and knew exactly when and how to use her voice. She chose not to raise her voice in grievance against her sister or father, but she chose to raise her voice to Hashem on behalf of Am Yisrael, begging Him to bring them back to Eretz Yisrael for the ultimate Redemption.

The Midrash in Esther Rabba (ibid.) continues to explain that Rachel passed this trait to her son Binyamin. When Binyamin saw that his brothers had sold his own brother, Yosef, Binyamin was silent and did not tell Yaakov his father. The Midrash writes “His (Binyamin’s) stone on the breastplate of the high priest was called “yashfeh”…”Yashfeh [can be read] as “yesh peh”- he had a mouth- and yet he was silent about the sale [of Yosef].” How is the silence of Binyamin strength? Rebbetzin Tehilla Pavlov explains in her book “Mirrors of Our Lives: Reflections of Women in Tanach” that Binyamin knew not to speak. He understood that the sale of Yosef was a decision made by Hashem, and despite the difficulty and the pain he saw Yaakov endure, he knew to remain silent. He understood that at times, one must silence his own voice and accept the will of Hashem. Binyamin had sovereignty over his “kol”.

According to the Midrash mentioned above, Shaul, also inherited this discernment of voice from his ancestor Binyamin. After Shmuel told him that he would be king, he came home and did not tell anyone the news. In fact, once he was publicly announced as king, Shaul exhibited great humility and was found hiding among Bnai Yisrael’s luggage (שמואל א, פרק י). This power of silence, the ability to quiet his own voice was seen by Hashem as a positive quality, one which made him worthy of becoming Am Yisrael’s first king.

Once Shaul became king, Hashem commanded Shaul to eradicate Amalek and to kill all of their men, women, children and animals. Out of mercy, Shaul did not listen to Hashem, and left Agag, the Amaleki king, as well as the best sheep and cattle, alive. Shaul failed his mission and when Shmuel admonished him, he repeatedly made mention of “kol” :“ ומה קול הצאן הזה באזני וקול הבקר אשר אנכי שומע” “and what is this voice of the sheep in my ears, and the voice of the cattle that I hear?” After Shaul explained that he kept the sheep and cattle alive to use as sacrifices to Hashem, Shmuel further rebuked him and said, (15:22) “Does Hashem desire burnt offerings and peace offering as much as obeying the voice (“kol”) of Hashem?!” Perhaps, Shmuel Hanavi was hinting to Shaul that he did not succeed at destroying Amalek because he did not properly use his power of “kol”. Rather than knowing to be silent, and listen to the voice of Hashem, Shaul believed his plan was greater. This, in turn, was one of the reasons Shaul lost his kingship.

In Megillat Esther, Hashem once again set up a series of events so that a descendent of Binyamin, namely Esther, could eradicate a descendent of Amalek, Haman. Once again, G-d set up a scenario where the force of the “yad” would be at war against the “kol”. Esther’s opportunity to help save Am Yisrael was thrust upon her. The Midrash in Esther Rabbah explains that Esther, unlike Shaul, was able to master her power of voice. She knew when to be silent and when to speak, when to conceal and when to reveal. At first Esther did not divulge that she was Jewish: “לא הגידה אסתר את עמה ואת מולדתה”. “Esther did not tell her nation or her lineage.” Only once Mordechai revealed Haman’s plot did Esther use her own voice to appeal to Achashverosh to save Am Yisrael. Only with tefillah and teshuvah on her lips and on the lips of Klal Yisrael, did Esther decide to use her voice to save her people. It was only once her “kol”, her speech, was infused with fear of Hashem, that Esther was able to succeed and destroy the threat Amalek and his sons.

In our own days, we once again stand at a critical juncture in Am Yisrael’s battle against those who hate us and those who employ the “yad” of Amalek. Daily we hear about anti-semitic attacks on the rise around the world. In the United States Congress, Ilhan Omar, openly makes anti-semitic comments, encouraging the hate of the Jewish people and Israel.

From a Torah perspective, we Jews have grappled with when and how to use our own power of “kol”. When faced with the news of the murder of Ari Fuld or Ori Ansbacher, many, including myself, struggled in our silence and acceptance of Hashem’s will, choking out “Baruch Dayan Emet” as a means of reminding ourselves that Hashem’s plan is greater than ours. Sometimes, our power of “kol”, the one inherited from our avot and imahot, is demonstrated the most by such deafening moments of silence. On the other hand, it is our Jewish nation that has been known to stand up for those who have been dealt injustice. Perhaps because we were once slaves in Egypt, or perhaps because of our continued persecution, it has become part of our national DNA to stand up and use our “kol” to defend the defenseless. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Jews were the ones who marched side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and who risked their lives to recruit African-Americans to vote. It was the Jews who gathered in the thousands and protested on behalf of Russian Jewry. It is the Jewish State of Israel that sends humanitarian aid to every natural disaster location worldwide.

Our voice is powerful.

How can we as a nation ensure that our national “kol” is heard on the world stage? We must look back at our ancestor, Esther. On a national level, we must fill our mouths with teshuva and tefillah, as the Jewish people did in Persia. We must not let the world deter us from using our “kol” to stand up for injustice and wrongdoing. Individually, we must take this opportunity toward personal improvement, resolving to use our gift of “kol” for the good. We must use our speech discerningly toward our fellow man, knowing when to speak and when to remain silent, when to be vocal and when to hold our tongues.

May we merit soon that Hashem’s oath be complete with the destruction of Amalek, and that our personal and national “kol” be victorious over the “yad” of Amalek.

[This article was adapted from Dr. Agatstein’s article  “Wielding our Weapon of Words” which appeared in the Jewish Press in 2015.]
Dr. Ariella Agatstein

Dr. Ariella Agatstein

is a sought after Jewish educator who received her doctorate in Jewish Educational Leadership. Prior to moving to Israel in 2018, Dr. Agatstein served in many Jewish educational roles around America, including her position as Assistant Principal of Girls Judaic Studies in Yavneh Hebrew Academy of Los Angeles. Currently, Dr. Agatstein is participating in Matan’s Eshkolot Fellowship for advanced study in Tanach and Jewish education.