Monday, March 09, 2009

Toras Purim: Nothing Certain other than Taxes: Vayasem Achashveirosh Mas

“Vayasem haMelech Achashveirosh mas al ha’aretz…” (10:1)

The conclusion of the Megillah focuses on the establishment of the holiday of Purim and the rise of Mordechai to a position of power. Why would the Megillah insert into this climactic conclusion the seemingly irrelevant details of Achashveirosh’s fiscal policy of burdening his people with taxes?

The Alshich answers by pointing to the earlier episode at the beginning of the Megillah where we learned of the lavish parties Achashveirosh hosted in an attempt to pacify the inhabitants of Shushan and other lands and solidify his weak rule – clearly, the throne of Achashveirosh rested on a weak foundation. Yet, by the end of the story Achashveirosh’s political power solidified enough for him to impose taxes over his vast kingdom. The rise of Achashveirosh’s power and fortune must be understood, says the Alshich, in the context of Achashveirosh’s efforts, whether willingly and wittingly or not, to rescue the Jewish people. It was this merit of aiding in the salvation of the Jewish people that secured Achashveirosh’s reign.

Yet the question remains: why is it specifically the institution of “mas”, taxes, which the Megillah draws our attention to? What is the significance of “mas” as a symbol of Hashem’s bestowing might and power on Achashveirosh?

Commenting on the pasuk, “Vaya’al haMelech Shlomo mas m’kol Yisrael” (Melachim I:5:27), the Koznitzer Maggid explains:
The term “mas” alludes to that which is said in Ya’akov’s blessing to Yisachar, “Vayehi l’mas oveid,” meaning Yisachar bore the burden and yoke of malchus shamayim. The opposite of mas is s”am, the sitra achara, which blinds (sam=suma) a person’s eyes from his Creator and leads him to do as he pleases. This is the meaning of “Vaya’al Shlomo mas” – Shlomo transformed s”am to mas, meaning the people accepted the yoke of malchus shamayim.
Clearly mas is a very powerful concept, as v’nahapoch hu – s”am is changed to mas by Shlomo haMelech and a Beis haMikdash is built!

Perhaps a deeper insight into the power of mas can be derived from its component letters. Chazal tell us (Megillah 2b) that the two letters that spell mas, the mem and the samech, were miraculously suspended in the luchos, i.e. the middle of these letters have no connection to the surrounding stone and needed to miraculously hover in mid-air. What lesson are Chazal teaching through the miracle of these suspended letters of mas? The letters of Torah connect to stone; Torah connects to our mundane physical life and governs all that we do. Yet, there are different degrees of connection. A person may be very much immersed in this-worldly activity and have only a smattering of connection to Torah; a person can be so removed from the mundane that he seems to nearly exist outside the boundaries of physical existence. The mem and samech were those letters that represent the least connection to the physical – they do not even contact the stone, and only by sheer miracle remain suspended in the physical luchos without dropping out and leaving an empty space. The mem and samech of mas represent the complete immersion in kabbalas malcus shamayim that the Koznitzer speaks of to the point of barely clinging to any physical existence in this world.

We see this idea reflected in the gematriya value of these two letters. A drop of milk which falls into a pot of meat is considered non-existent if it is less than 1/60th of the volume of the pot. A fetus is considered non-existent until 40 days have passed from conception. Mem and samech are the boundary between physical existence and non-existence, part of the physical luchos and physical world, yet just barely so.

With this background we can better appreciate the Noam Elimelech’s (Parshas Terumah) reading of the following Mishna: a person with an ayin yafeh will separate 1/40 of his crop for terumah while a person with ayin ra’ah will separate only 1/60. What is the meaning here of ayin yafeh and ayin ra’ah? -- if a person truly had an ayin ra’ah he would not give terumah at all! R’ Elimelech explains that Chazal are hinting at the two types of tzadikim who protect the Jewish people: tzadikim with ayin yafeh, who protect the Jewish people by looking only at their goodness and thereby drawing down chessed from shamayim; tzadikim with ayin ra’ah, tzadikim who have the power to nullify evil that comes into the world. Perhaps we might rename these two tzadikim as mem tzadikim and samech tzadikim based on the denominator of these two percentages 1/40 = mem, 1/60 = samech. The mem tzadikim of ayin yafeh are the tzadikim given charge of the birth of chessed; the number 40 corresponds to the 40 days needed for a child’s neshoma to come into the world, the 40 days for Torah to come into the world. The samech tzadikim are the tzadikim who eliminate evil, as 60 corresponds to the shiur bitul necessary to nullify.

Perhaps the influence of mem and samech can even be detected even in Parshas Titzaveh, which on most years is read immediately before Purim. This is the only parsha in chumash (after his birth) in which Moshe Rabeinu’s name is absent. Yet, writes the Vilna Gaon, if we look carefully, there is a hint to Moshe’s name even in this parsha. The number of pesukim in the parsha is 101. If you take the gematriya of only the hidden parts of the letters spelling Moshe’s name:

Mem = mem – mem : 40
Shim = shin – yud – nun: 60
Hey = hey – aleph : 1

The total comes to 101. The message of the GR”A is that Moshe may be absent if we look only at the surface, but b’pnimiyus his presence remains.

Purim allows for stretching a point and in that spirit it is worth noting that the GRA’s gematriya of the letters of Moshe’s name adds up to a mem (40) followed by a samech (60) and ending with a one. We might dismiss this extra one as a mispar kollel, but my wife Ariella suggested that perhaps 101 is deliberate. Chazal tell us the difference between an “oveid Elokim” and “asher lo avado” is the difference between learning something 100 times vs. learning it 101 times. 100, or mas, is drawing the yoke of malchus shamayim into this world; 101 is the role of Moshe, transcending the physical entirely.

Parenthetically, the GR”A’s gematriya methodology of looking at the hidden letters reveals another interesting aspect of mem and samech:

Mem = mem (40) + mem (40)
Samech = samech (60) + mem (40) + chaf (20)

The gematriya of the first part of the letter’s spelling matches the gematriya of the second part of the letter’s spelling: 40 / 40 and 60/40+20. Mem and samech are the only two letters that balance in this way (or so my cursory review suggests, but I may be wrong). If the inner spelling represents pnimiyus and the outer letters chitzoniyus, perhaps mem and samech are the two letters that most represent the ideal of tocho k’baro.

Perhaps I am seeing mem and samech in too many places, but a final gemara which came to mind when thinking about these letters of mas is the question of the gemara (Brachos 4) as to why there in no letter nun in the alphabetical acrostic of Ashrei. The gemara answers that nun is left out to avoid mentioning the idea of nefila. Is it just a coincidence that when nun is left out the two letters that become juxtaposed are mem and samech? Or perhaps it is the juxtaposition of mem and samech, the mas of kabbalas malchus shamayim which is what eliminates the nun of nefila?

What does all this have to do with the mas of Achashveirosh? Between the lines of the Megillah is the story of galus coming to an end and the attempt to rebuild the Beis haMikdash. Achashveirosh’s parties celebrated what he thought was the end of the 70 year exile period of the Jewish people without redemption occurring. He promises Queen Esther up to half the kingdom, which Chazal (Megillah 15) explain to mean up to that which will divide the kingdom in half, meaning rebuilding the Mikdash. Yet, it is precisely his descendent Koresh who eventually gives full permission for the rebuilding to start.

“VaYa’al hamelech Shlomo mas” was the necessary precursor to building the Mikdash; “Aicha yashva badad… hayisa l’mas” was the undoing of those efforts; “Vayasem Achashveiros mas” was perhaps the start of a new rebuilding.

As the Alshich teaches, the prosperity of the kingdom of Achashveirosh was only due to his efforts to help the Jewish people; his mas of tax was possible only because there had already been paid a mas of renewed kabbalas malchus shamayim during his reign.

Purim is the time of v’nahapoch hu, where we are each empowered to turn s”am to mas and in that way start a new rebuilding of Mikdash in our time.

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