Wielding Our Weapon of Words

The scene: A leader of the Jewish people coming uninvited before the leader of a land, asking for mercy for the Jewish people’s continued existence.

The threat: Persia, also known as Iran.

The scenario above can come from the book of Esther as much as it can come from looking at recent headlines. As Esther came uninvited before King Achashverosh, Prime Minister Netanyahu came before Congress uninvited by President Obama. As Esther petitioned Achashverosh to prevent hordes of hateful Persians from annihilating her people, Prime Minister Netanyahu, came to explain the existential threat a nuclear Iran would pose on the State of Israel. Why is history seemingly repeating itself? What are we to do to ensure that we prevail over evil? The answer, as always, can be found in the Torah.

We are all familiar with the scene.

Standing with trepidation before his father Yitzchak, Yaakov Avinu held out his arms. His mother, Rivka, had cleverly placed goat skins upon them in order that his father would believe that he was his elder brother Esav. Yitzchak touched Yaakov’s and proclaimed (Beraishit 27:22), “hakol kol Yaakov, v’hayedayim yidei Esav”, “the voice is the voice of Yaakov, but 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.

The Hand

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 “rafu yedaihem baTorah”, 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 explain that Moshe, while davening at the top of the mountain, kept his hands raised throughout the entire war: “v’Aharon v’chur tamchu b’yadav”, “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, (Shemot 17: 16), the Torah once again makes reference to the “yad”: “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,“kol beramah nishmah, Rachel mevakah al baneha”, “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 (Shmuel Alef, perek 10). 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” :“umeh kol ha’tzon hazeh b’aznai, v’kol habakar asher anochi shomea…” “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: “lo higiddah Esther et ama v’et moladeta”. “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. Ironically, we see that the forces of evil which plague the world today attempt to suppress all forms of “kol”, they aim to quell all voices of dissent. It only takes a brief perusal of recent headlines to see that evil wants no opposition. Whether it be the hacking of Sony Pictures, the murders at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, or the death threats which are posted towards those that Tweet against radical Islam; Evil allows for no dissent.

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 Eyal, Gilad and Naftali this past summer, 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.

And yet, now we stand in front of the world and our voice for others has been forgotten. In Megillat Eicha, Yirmiyahu’s conclusion still rings true (Megillat Eicha 1:2) “all of her friends have betrayed her”. Even the President of the United States, the leader of Israel’s greatest ally, does not fully hear the voice of our nation as we warn the world about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. Similar to Shaul and Esther, descendants of Binyamin who tried to destroy Amalek, Hashem has once again positioned world events in such a way that once again a Binyamin, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, came to speak out against the terrorist-funding regime of Iran. How appropriate that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech should fall out right before the holiday of Purim. Make no mistake. We, like Esther and Mordechai, are in need of a Purim-grade miracle.

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. Prime Minister Netanyahu led by the example through his visit to the Kotel right before he left for his US trip. Even as a secular Jew, the Prime Minister recognized that his success on the world stage is dependent on Hashem. 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.

About the Author
Mrs. Ariella Agatstein is a passionate Jewish educator and sought-after Torah lecturer in Los Angeles, California. She received her Masters degree in secondary Jewish education and has been teaching for more than twelve years . Ariella has held multiple roles across the country in Jewish educational leadership and administration and is currently completing her doctorate from Yeshiva University. She is always looking for ways to implement best practices in Jewish education. Most importantly, she is a very proud wife and mother.
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