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Purim Torah – One Letter Makes All the Difference

For those of you who can remember back to learning the Hebrew alef-bet and having trouble distinguishing between a hey (ה) and a het (ח). I wish to ease any remnant anxiety you may still have. It seems that some of the sages in the past may also have had the same trouble. Only, being rabbis, they turned their difficulties into triumph by creating a brilliant Purim Torah out of this reading malady.

When we meet Mordechai, one of the two heroes of the Purim story, we are given his full genealogy, courtesy of “Find My Ancestry”. They traced his family history all the way back to its very beginning. Well not quite the beginning but at least back to his tribal past: “In the fortress Shushan lived a Yehudi (Jew) by the name of Mordechai, son of Yair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Binyamini (Benjaminite).” (Esther 2:5) Now the facts of the matter are that here we have one of the earliest uses of the word “Yehudi” to indicate a “Jew” but if we take “Yehudi” in its original sense to mean that Mordechai stems from the tribe of Judah then we have a problem. How can Mordechai be both from the tribe of Judah and from the tribe of Benjamin at the same time? This is a problem that only the rabbinic sages could solve!

Now, it is important to our storyline that Mordechai be a Benjaminite. Why? Because this explains the real reason for the animosity between Haman and Mordechai. You see, Haman was an Agagite or, in other words, he was an Amalekite. You remember them. They are the ultimate bad guys from way back to the time in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Generations later, the prophet Samuel commanded King Saul, who was from the tribe of Benjamin, to complete the battle against the Amalekites. Saul failed at this task, leaving the task of completing this job to Mordechai, his descendent. This makes the story of Purim a little like the story of the Hatfields and McCoys of American lore. So, of course, Mordechai could never ever bow down to Haman and that is where the trouble starts.

But this is where a rabbinic midrashic subplot begins [as well as the resolution to the “Two Tribe Riddle”]. The sages could not imagine an exiled Jew (oops, I mean a diaspora Jew or whatever is the politically correct name for such a person) getting into trouble with the authorities for no good reason. If you are supposed to bow to the Prime Minister, you do it; dance, you do it. Mordechai had to have a pretty good reason for not bowing down to Haman. After all, he had to take into account not only his own fate; the fate of the whole Jewish people was on the line.

So, why didn’t Mordechai bow down to Haman. There must have been a really good Jewish reason. It seems, according to the sages, that Haman was wearing an idolatrous Purim costume, something that Mordechai could never bow down to because to bow down to such an image would be to accept idolatry something that a loyal Jew would never do.

How do we know? Here is where all of us who confused “hey” and “het” come to save the day. The sages tell us that we should read the word “Yehudi” with a “het” instead of a “hey”, making it mean: “one who unifies” [God’s name] Yehudi, instead of “one from the tribe of Judah”.

And so, Mordechai was not just a political hero of the Jewish people; he is also a paradigm of the Jewish spirit – a true “Keeper of the faith”, along the lines of Abraham. How do we know this? The answer is as simple as the difference between a “hey” and a “het”.  I’ll drink to that.

Purim Sameah! (Based on Esther Rabbah 6:1)

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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