40. Tetzaveh - PARSHAT ZACHOR

AN INTERESTING episode is related in the Midrash concerning Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest men of our people. One day when he was addressing a large gathering, he noticed that some people in his audience were falling asleep. It seems that the habit of falling asleep during rabbis' sermons and scholars' lectures did not originate with our generation. It was in vogue some eighteen centuries ago, even in the days of Rabbi Akiba. To arouse their curiosity and interest, he resolved to say something startling, and this is what he said to them: "How come that Esther was privileged to rule over 127 provinces?" And his answer was, "Let Esther whose great-grandmother lived 127 years come and rule over 127 provinces" (Midrash Esther 1:8; Gen. Rab 58:3).

One wonders at the meaning of this odd saying. Rabbi Akiba was too serious-minded a leader to make idle statements or to issue pronouncements for their mere sensational effect. Evidently he had something important in mind when he compared Esther's attainments to that of Sarah, the first Jewish woman in history.

I think that the sage who lived in the age of Bar-Kochba, a period of travail and stress, wished to exhort his disciples to emulate the example of Esther who was willing to give her life to save her people from the clutches of tyranny and death. He pointed out that Esther, the heroine of Purim, was influenced by the example of Sarah who stood against the ruthless teachings and practices of the idolatrous tyrants of her day because she had a vision of one God and one humanity, and a resolve to bring the message of righteousness and benevolence to her generation. Esther, he said, was a queen in the truest and highest sense of that word because she ruled over all her possessions. The other queens who reigned before and after her time were ruled by their possessions. Esther was unique in that she put the ideals of her people and the convictions of her faith before her personal ambitions and above material considerations. That fact made her the true spiritual heir of Sarah, the first prophetess and co-founder of our people.

This thought is brilliantly expounded by the Vilna Gaon in a comment about the cantillations, known in Yiddish as tropp. He points to the difference in the tropp of two similar verses that appear in the Megillah. The Book of Esther describes the fierce competition for the office of Queen of Persia that took place in that land. The most beautiful and talented women vied with one another for the attention and favors of the King. The verse which refers to the efforts of the lovely ladies has the notes of Kadma ve'azla on them, which bespeak the zeal, push and strenuous efforts that were exerted by them. Whereas the phrase describing Esther's behavior is marked with the notes of munach, munach, which implies softness and ease, prudence and care. This, the Gaon declares, bespeaks two divergent attitudes and modes of conduct. Those who do not live in accordance with the teachings of the Torah, lead a life of kadma ve'azla, ever forging forward, forever bitten by the bug of ambition and success, determined to push ahead regardless of what moral principles or humane considerations have to be violated in the process. Their lives are ruled by one consuming passion --to get ahead, to reach the peak of affIuence and power. They push relentlessly forward even when they must step on the prostrate forms of others. They are willing to sacrifice principles of decency and humanity on the altars of renown and glory.

In the case of Esther, however, it was munach, munach. She took it easy. She was careful not to embarrass or cause chagrin or pain to good people. She believed in the philosophy of "live and let live," or "live and help live." She weighed in her mind what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is fake, what is just and what is unjust.

How prevalent is the kadma ve'azla variety of humankind today, and how rare is the munach, munach specimen! One can observe the streak of selfishness and push even in minor areas of life. One can see it in buses and in subways, while driving on the highway or waiting for a taxicab or near a telephone booth to make a telephone call. There may be a line of people waiting to use the telephone, while someone in the booth is jabbering calmly about what the next-door neighbor did or failed to do. When one motions to them to hurry, they pretend that they do not see anyone, and go on and on.

The other day I entered a busy barber shop in our neighborhood. There was a man there who came later than most of us. But as soon as a barber chair became vacant he jumped into it. There was nearly a riot in that shop, but the man wouldn't budge. It was only when the barber refused to cut his hair that the man uttered a vile oath and moved out of the chair. These individuals who scheme to get an inch ahead of you when driving their cars or waiting in line for gasoline, chose who push everyone aside in grabbing a seat in a crowded subway, or at the check-out counter of a supermarket --what are they if not minor examples of the selfish and brutal kadma ve-azla philosophy?

The Torah Jew knows that success must not be bought at the price of decency, consideration for the feelings of others and fair play. He is a disciple of the munach, munach teaching of Esther, the Queen.

Rabbi Akiba connects the life of Sarah with that of Esther as an illustration of the immortality of influence. Mother Sarah spent her life like a queen, and so did Esther. Both ruled over their possessions. And both achieved what they really wanted in life. Sarah created a people of God, and Esther was the savior of that people. The munach doctrine proved to be not only ethically correct but also practically sound.

Back Page Contents Next Page