Not All Fun and Games – Unmasking The Disguise of Purim

The Chachamim wanted to conceal Sefer Koheles because [it seems] there are conflicting statements: It is written, “To laughter (sechok), I say it is frivolous” (2:2); and it is written, “I praise the joy (simchah)” (8:15), and [yet] it is written, “And to joy (simchah), what does it accomplish?” (2:2) … “I praise the joy” [refers to] the simchah of a mitzvah, [and] “And to joy, what does it accomplish?” [refers to] simchah which is not of a mitzvah … (Shabbos 30b).

“Sechok,” which the Targum and Rashi in Koheles translate as “worthless mirth,” simply has no benefit; it is plain foolishness. Simchah, on the other hand, should not be dismissed out of hand. It must be examined to determine “What does it accomplish?” If it is the simchah of a mitzvah, then it can bring a person to elevated levels, up to the actual resting place of the Shechinah…”

The Midrash Rabbah on this passuk tells us that if there is even a minuscule amount of frivolity mixed in, it can destroy the benefit of the simchah.

This is how the simchah of Purim must be treated. The simchah should be for the good that Hashem bestows on Klal Yisrael, for His kindness with which He saved us from the wicked Haman, and for the greatness of Mordechai and Esther. For bnei Torah, there is a unique simchah, since in those days they accepted the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and we delve into it day and night (Harav Avraham Pam, zt”l; see Atarah Lamelech 1:191).

Sweet Purim Melody

Harav Avraham Pam, zt”l. (Tsemach Glenn)
Harav Moshe Wolfson, shlita. (Tsemach Glenn)

As a young bachur, I remember Harav Pam saying these words in his inimitable way during his pre-Purim shmuess, urging us to utilize the exalted day of Purim to rise in our quest for sheleimus in Torah and avodas Hashem. Harav Pam would decry the all-too-common misconception that in the merriment of Purim, all rules of bein adam lachaveiro — interpersonal behavior — may fall by the wayside.

“Singing grammen — poetic songs — can be used as a tool to elevate one’s spiritual pursuits,” he would say. “Harav Baruch Ber Lebowitz, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Kaminetz, would sing grammen on Purim and Simchas Torah. The content was filled with yiras Shamayim and his love for Torah; he merely brought it out through the poetry of the grammen.” (Harav Pam clarified that the Rosh Yeshivah did not prepare these grammen beforehand.)

Harav Pam then added a short tale that we could all see was extremely close to his heart. “I recall that, many years ago, one bachur stood up in our yeshivah and sang very sweet grammen,” Rebbi began. “This bachur depicted the upheaval that will take place when Moshiach arrives (bimheirah b’yameinu) and how the heretics and non-observers will change to believers and chassidim. He described how they will sing and dance with all their hearts and might to accept the yoke of Heaven, and all places of promiscuity and sin will transform into shuls and batei medrash. He illustrated how Klal Yisrael would be a ‘mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh,’ dwelling in our Holy Land, which will be brimming with the light of the Shechinah. Finally, he depicted the splendor of the face of the King of All Kings.

“The words of these grammen left an indelible impression of simchah and spiritual uplift for everyone who attended that gathering.”

The shmuess itself left an impact on the yeshivah, and we were all curious to find out the identity of this bachur. It did not take long for word to get out that he became none other than our very own Mashgiach, Harav Moshe Wolfson, shlita.

Purim’dige Niggun

Harav Shalom Schwadron, zt”l. (Tsemach Glenn)

It was Purim, and the bachurim in Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland were anticipating the evening, as Harav Shalom Schwadron, zt”l, the Maggid of Yerushalayim, would address them. Although then, in the early 1960s, Harav Schwadron was not yet that well known, the bachurim were familiar with his style of drashah, with which he would regale his listeners with stories and divrei Torah in a jovial manner. With the spirit of Purim in the air, their expectation was raised for an enjoyable evening.

As they gathered in the home of one of the yungeleit, Rav Shalom began retelling the story of the Chofetz Chaim and the dibbuk. For many years, Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, would tell this story to his talmidim each Purim, until one year he stopped and never told it again. The assumption was that the neshamah of the person had reached its tikkun, and Rav Elchonon no longer felt he had to tell the tale.

Rav Shalom began his narrative about the dibbuk, and the bachurim soon realized he was far from the cheerful maggid they were expecting to hear. For over an hour, he described in detail how the trapped neshamah tormented the body of the person, how it revealed the sins of those gathered, and finally, how it conveyed the esteem of the Chofetz Chaim in the upper realms.

“I must say, he scared the living daylights out of us,” says Rabbi Michoel Levi, a talmid of Telshe in those days and today the Dean of Bais Yaakov D’Rav Meir in Brooklyn. “We were all wondering why he chose tonight, Purim, of all nights, to deliver this shmuess. Finally, when he finished, someone gathered the gumption to ask that very question. ‘All year, you tell jokes during your drashos. So why did you give us such a scary drashah tonight?’

“‘All year, I say Mesillas Yesharim with a ‘Purim’dige niggun,’ Rav Shalom replied. ‘Tonight, I said ‘Purim Torah’ with a ‘Mesillas Yesharim-dige niggun.’”

The Rosh Yeshivah’s Grammen

Harav Yaakov Moshe Kulefsky, zt”l. (Tsemach Glenn)

Harav Yaakov Moshe Kulefsky, zt”l, was a Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel for nearly half a century. During this time, he taught hundreds of talmidim and was admired for his erudition and total devotion to his shiur.

Each year before Purim, he delivered a special pilpul shiur on the inyanim of Purim on one of the days preceding the Yom Tov. He would make a point of telling the bachurim not to become inebriated so that they could experience the greatness of the upcoming day.

On Purim day, before the bachurim went to their own seudahs, he would invite them over for a mesibah at his home. Inevitably, there were many who had not taken his words to heart, and they arrived well under the influence. “Despite the rowdiness of the boys,” says Harav Ben Zion Mellman, a talmid muvhak and presently a Maggid Shiur in the Mechinah (high school). “I don’t remember him ever letting on that he was upset.”

Harav Kulefsky used the opportunity to speak words of drush and mussar connected with the Megillah and Purim. When he finished, he had a tradition of singing some Yiddish grammen he had composed many years earlier, before he took his position in Ner Yisroel. An unsubstantiated legend has it that Harav Kulefsky was once stuck over Purim in a remote motel, far away from family and friends, and composed these grammen, recording the words on napkins provided by the motel. Regardless of the veracity of the story, the words, which tell the tale of the nes of Purim and the commitment with which Klal Yisrael accepted the Torah, became a tradition at his yearly mesibah. He would sing the stanzas with great emotion and his talmidim would join in with the refrain.

Purim Grammen by Harav Yaakov Moshe Kulefsky, zt”l

On Purim we’re inebriated from what we drank.

To give praise and Hashem to thank,

For all the miracles, for the redemption we had,

The Rose of Yaakov is cheerful and glad.

Chorus:

You have been their eternal salvation,

You have been their eternal salvation,

You have been their eternal salvation,

And their hope throughout the generations.

Let us go back several millennia,

To the source of our dilemma,

Prophecy said by Yitzchak, our father:

Yaakov to sing, Esav to clobber.

 

When Yaakov’s voice is strong with Torah and prayer,

Then there is no reason to have any fear.

But if they should weaken a bit,

Esav’s hands are ready to hit.

 

Immediately after the Sea did divide,

“Is Hashem with us?” our nation cried.

Amalek who feared not Hashem swiftly arrived,

In Refidim they rested, from Torah they tired.

 

This is the secret of every disaster,

The long saga of our diaspora.

And even with this…I didn’t despise them,

The acts of the fathers are a sign for the children.

 

Seventy wolves and one sheep survives,

Is the greatest miracle when Hashem’s Face hides.

During the miracle of Purim, we all witnessed

The Yidden accepted and established.

 

Cursed is Haman, who sought to destroy me,

Because we didn’t obey Mordechai HaYehudi.

We enjoyed the meal of the villain.

Woe is to us from the day of rebuke and decision.

 

Blessed is Esther [who sacrificed] for me.

“Go, gather the Jews and fast,” said she.

And after that, when teshuvah was done,

We merited “and they hanged Haman.”

 

The Oral Torah they accepted afresh,

For the love of the miracle, says the Midrash.

This invalidated the stipulation.

The Jews had Torah, the illumination.

 

All holidays will disappear after the Redemption,

But the festival of Purim will be the exception.

It will not pass from the Jewish nation,

In the month of Adar, the fish constellation.

 

Like fish, who live in water,

Water is Torah, our vim and vigor.

Our Father in Heaven, to do His will,

Choose life! — is our principle.

 

Our hope is for Moshiach to come in a hurry,

Preceded by Eliyahu HaNavi.

The Beis Hamikdash from Heaven will descend,

The Avodah done by those whose hands are cleansed.

 

Moshe Rabbeinu will teach a Torah lesson,

And Aharon HaKohen will serve with passion.

After techiyas hameisim we will all see,

If we merit to follow the path of the Alm-ghty.

Harav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l.

With Your Own…

Harav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, the legendary Mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir, related a story that occurred with Harav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, and Harav Naftali Amsterdam, one of his closest talmidim and a prime promulgator of the teachings of his Rebbi.

One year, on Purim, Rav Naftali told Rav Yisrael, “If I had the Rebbi’s middos, and the heart of the Yesod V’Shoresh HaAvodah, and the mind of the Shaagas Aryeh, I could really accomplish a lot.”

Rav Yisrael responded, “Naftali, with your middos, with your head, and with your heart”(Daas Chochmah Umussar 2:55).

“Holey” Hands

Harav Chaim Kreiswirth, zt”l. (Tsemach Glenn)

The city of Antwerp, Belgium, is unique in that it is one of the few remaining places that still maintain the structure of the kehillahs that existed in the cities and shtetlach in pre-World War II Europe. The entire kehillah is united under one banner of Machzikei Hadas of Antwerp, and Harav Chaim Kreiswirth, zt”l, served as its Rav for nearly half a century.

As the Rav of the city, Harav Kreiswirth was accorded unique respect: He was honored with every siddur kiddushin; he delivered the Shabbos Hagadol and Shabbos Shuvah drashos to the entire community; and his word was final in all communal affairs. On special occasions, the residents of Antwerp would visit his modest home to hear his words of chizuk.

Harav Kreiswirth had a heart bursting with love for others, and he spent an inordinate amount of time and resources assisting people in need. He had a special spot for widows and orphans and would disburse massive amounts of money to pay for weddings involving such families.

Reb Naftali Lunczer, a longtime resident of Antwerp, described the Rav as having “lechedigeh hent.” Reb Naftali explained, “His hands seemed to have been perforated like a sieve. As soon as he got hold of funds, he immediately gave them away to people in need.”

Each year on Purim, the members of his kehillah would come to his home where he would regale them with divrei Torah and stories of the numerous Gedolim he knew, or tales of tzaddikim from bygone eras. They would present the Rav with “Purim gelt,” which ostensibly was meant for his personal use.

“Right after Purim,” Reb Naftali related, “he would fly off to Eretz Yisrael and give away the $100,000 that he had received from the people of Antwerp. He returned weeks later empty-handed but with a joyous smile.”

Another longtime Antwerp resident, Rabbi Yossie Bronner, told of an incident he witnessed about 40 years ago, when he was just a young boy. “I was sitting by the Rav on Purim together with dozens of other people, listening as he told stories of Gedolim, when in walked one of the wealthiest men in Antwerp,” Rabbi Bronner recalled. “This fellow reached into his pocket and removed an envelope bursting with Belgian franc bills. Obviously, it contained a tremendous amount of money. He placed it on the table in front of the Rav and wished him ‘ah freilichen Pirim.’ The Rav responded likewise, but as far as the envelope was concerned, the Rav seemed to overlook it. It remained in its spot, seemingly forgotten.

“Several minutes later, an unfamiliar fellow entered and spoke earnestly to the Rav. ‘I am making a wedding for my child in Eretz Yisrael, and I am desperately in need of some funds for hachnasas kallah,’ he told Harav Kreiswirth. Suddenly, it seemed that the Rav remembered the envelope as he reached for it and handed it over in its entirety to the guest. Some were flabbergasted, since it obviously contained a large sum of money meant for the Rav’s personal needs. But those who knew Harav Kreiswirth understood that helping out others in need was very personal to him.”

Unmasking

Harav Simchah Sheps, zt”l, on Purim with his shiur. (Tsemach Glenn)

Harav Simcha Sheps, zt”l, was a talmid of the citadels of Torah of yesteryear: Baranovitch, Mir and Brisk. When he arrived in America at the onset of World War II, he brought with him the Torah of the Brisker , zt”l, and was among the first to spread it on these shores. For nearly 60 years, he gave one of the highest shiurim in the beis medrash of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, delivering it with infectious excitement despite his suffering from myriad physical ailments.

The talmidim loved his shiurim, yet because of his weak constitution, it was not easy to become close to him on a personal level. All that seemed to change on Purim of 5742/1982. Some two months earlier, Harav Elya Chazzan, zt”l, one of the greatest Geonim of the pre-World War II yeshivos, passed away, and it weighed heavily on the heart of Harav Sheps, who was one of his closest friends. As Purim approached, his talmidim decided to show their deep appreciation for his dedication by purchasing a pair of tickets to Eretz Yisrael for him and his Rebbetzin. After clearing it with Rebbetzin Sheps, they made arrangements with a travel agent, who presented them with vouchers for the trip.

The custom in Torah Vodaath was for the Rebbi to join his talmidim in yeshivah on the evening of Purim, where they would spend a few hours together in the spirit of Purim. As usual, Harav Sheps delivered a masterful drashah on a relevant topic, and then the talmidim announced they had a special present for him. When he opened the envelope containing the vouchers for the tickets, he was literally speechless. He sat silently for a few minutes as he gathered his thoughts and then expressed his heartfelt thanks for their gift.

When the talmidim visited him the next day to deliver mishloach manos, Harav Sheps opened up to them as never before. He regaled them with stories of his Rebbeim: the Rosh Yeshivah of Baranovitch, Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d; Harav Dovid Rappaport, Hy”d (Mikdash Dovid); the Mashgiach Harav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, Hy”d; Harav Hirsh Kamai, Hy”d (Rav of Mir); Harav Leizer Yudel Finkel, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Mir; Harav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, the Mashgiach; and of course, Harav Velvel Soloveitchik, zt”l, the Brisker Rav.

From that Purim on, Harav Sheps’ relationship with his talmidim became closer than ever, and they always looked forward to Purim when he would share with them tales of the great Roshei Yeshivah of Europe. This tradition continued for another 16 years.

As time went on, Harav Sheps broke his hip and walking became a struggle. The talmidim made a minyan in his house each Shabbos, and of course on Purim they came for krias haMegillah. During the day, they returned to deliver mishloach manos as usual, but his mood was not the same as it had been in the past. A talmid approached Rebbetzin Sheps to make her aware of the situation. Because Harav Sheps had severe diabetes, they were concerned that perhaps his sugar level needed to be checked.

“Let me explain why he seems so tired,” Rebbetzin Sheps began. “Harav Sheps insisted on standing throughout krias haMegillah, as he always did in the past, despite the pain he was in. When they finished, he called the baal korei, Avrumi Weissberger, to the side and asked him for a favor. Due to his condition, he had been distracted for a moment, and he was afraid he might have missed a word. So he asked him if he would mind reading the Megillah for him once again. Avrumi was glad to do it, and he made sure that Harav Sheps followed along. Despite our protests, Harav Sheps insisted on standing for the second reading of the Megillah as well!

“He is truly exhausted,” Rebbetzin Sheps told the talmid, “and I begged him to rest up. Yet he wanted so badly to spend time with the talmidim, since he feels obligated to them for coming each week for the minyan.”

With best wishes for a true simchas Purim to all.