La’daas mah zeh v’al mah zeh (Esther 4:5)
After Mordechai became aware of Haman’s decree against the Jewish people, he responded by donning sackcloth and mourning bitterly. When Esther heard about these developments, she sent a messenger to ask Mordechai what this was all about. The Gemara (Megillah 15a) relates that Esther commented that never in Jewish history had there been such a crisis, so she instructed Hasach to find out from Mordechai what was the spiritual cause underlying Haman’s decree.
Playing on Esther’s words “Mah zeh v’al mah zeh,” the Gemara explains that she asked if perhaps the Jews had transgressed (Shemos 15:2) “Zeh Keili V’anveihu — This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him,” or what is written in the Tablets, which are described by the Torah (Shemos 32:15) as being “Mi’zeh u’mi’zeh heim kesuvim — they were inscribed on one side, and the other.” Even though Esther understood that Haman would not be able to make such a decree unless the Jews had sinned, why did she specifically single out these two sins?
The Beis HaLevi explains that in the Torah, Amalek came to attack the Jewish people for two sins. One is that they asked (Shemos 17:7) “Ha’yeish Hashem b’kirbeinu im ayin — Is Hashem in our midst, or not?” — which demonstrates a lack of emunah, and second, the Torah records (Shemos 17:8) that Amalek attacked in Refidim, which, the Midrash explains (Tanchuma Beshalach 25), hints that when they were there, “rafu yedeihem min HaTorah” — they weakened their involvement in Torah study.
Esther understood that Haman, who was descended from Amalek, would only attack if the Jews had repeated one of these sins, so she asked Mordechai if they violated Zeh K’eili V’anveihu, which is code for a lack of emunah, or the Luchos, which represent Torah study. However, when alluding to the Luchos, Esther curiously referred to the fact that they were written “mi’zeh u’mi’zeh — from one side to the other.” Why is that feature relevant to the question of whether or not the Jews were learning Torah and keeping the mitzvos?
The Be’er Yosef explains that both of their sins, bowing to Nevuchadnetzar’s statue and eating at Achashverosh’s party (Megillah 12a), had one common underlying basis. The mistake of the Jews was that they thought that now that they were in exile, surrounded by non-Jews and no longer living by themselves in Eretz Yisrael, they could not live completely separately and observe all of the mitzvos with every detail, as this would cause them to be hated even more by their new neighbors. They reasoned that they needed to be a little flexible in order to be accepted in their new countries, and this reasoning caused them to justify their decisions to bow to Nevuchadnetzar’s statue and to attend Achashverosh’s party.
Obviously, this philosophy is completely mistaken, and not a single letter or law in the Torah can be changed at any time for any reason. But what symbolizes the eternality of the Torah? The fact that the Luchos were not written in ink, which can be erased over time, but were permanently carved out, and not just in one direction, but from one side to the other to represent the fact that the mitzvos are eternal and applicable in all locations and at all times. While Esther understood that the Jews would never willingly and intentionally sin, she hinted to Mordechai that perhaps they had fallen prey to this mistaken philosophy by not internalizing the message of the eternal and permanent Luchos.
Q: The Midrash teaches (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) that in the absence of the Beis Hamikdash, one who recites and studies the laws of the sacrifices will be considered in Hashem’s eyes as if he actually brought them. Does this principle mean that the study of the laws of any mitzvah is considered tantamount to fulfilling it, or is this concept unique to the study of the laws of sacrifices?
Q: Was a blessing recited by a person performing the mitzvah of bringing a sin-offering (Vayikra 4:2)?
A: Even though none of the laws were applicable in their era, Rashi writes that some of the Amora’im were not as familiar with the laws of Zera’im and Taharos as they were with Kodashim. He explains that this is because one who studies the laws of Kodashim is considered to have fulfilled them, implying that this concept doesn’t apply to other mitzvos. The Chofetz Chaim adds that for this reason, there are tractates of Gemara expounding upon the order of Kodashim but not on the sections of Zera’im and Taharos. However, the Kiryat Sefer and Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh disagree and maintain that this principle applies to all mitzvos, which one is considered to have fulfilled by studying their pertinent laws.
A: Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, cites the Rashba, who writes that no blessing is made when performing the mitzvah of returning a stolen object because the opportunity to perform the mitzvah only came about through a sin, which would seem to imply that no blessing would be said when bringing a sin-offering. He adds that a blessing would still be said when bringing an elevation-offering, as even though it also effects atonement, it isn’t classified as resulting from sin. He notes that the Mishneh L’Melech writes that the Kohanim who performed the mitzvah of eating the guilt- and sin-offerings did recite blessings, and he suggests that because the offerings weren’t brought as a result of the sins of the Kohanim, they were therefore able to make blessings when eating from them.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.