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Purim: What Haman Learned From Mordechai

We read in the Megilla of how Ahashverosh wanted to repay Mordechai for saving his life, and he summoned Haman to ask him what would be an appropriate way of honoring somebody. Haman, incorrectly assuming the king was referring to him, suggested that the person should be dressed in royal garb and marched through the city on the king’s chariot. Ahashverosh immediately ordered Haman to do so for Mordechai.

Hazal teach that when Haman went to get Mordechai, he found him delivering a Torah class. Specifically, he was teaching the laws of "Kemisa," the procedure performed in the Bet Ha’mikdash when a Minha (grain offering) was brought. The Kohen would take a handful of the offering and place it on the altar, while the rest was eaten by the Kohanim. After listening to Mordechai’s words, Haman said to him, "Your handful neutralized my decree against your nation!" Somehow, the law of Kemisa which Haman learned by listening to Mordechai indicated to him that his plot to eradicate the Jewish people would fail. The obvious question is, what does the Misva of Kemisa have to do with Haman’s decree against the Jews?

To answer this question, we need to understand how Haman had perceived the Jews. Earlier in the Megilla (3:8), we are told that when Haman presented his plan of annihilation to Ahashverosh, he derided the Jews for failing to observe the king’s laws. The Gemara in Masechet Megilla explains that Haman accused the Jews of always saying, "Shehi Pehi." This phrase is an acrostic for the words "Shabbat Hayom, Pesah Hayom" – "Today is Shabbat, today is Pesah." The simple explanation of the Gemara’s comment is that Haman accused the Jews of being lazy, always finding excuses to avoid work by claiming that it is Shabbat or a holiday. But Rabbi Yosef Nehemya Kornitzer (1881-1933), in one of his printed Derashot (lectures), gives a deeper explanation. Haman, like the followers of most faiths, believed that religious devotion is expressed only through separation from worldly, mundane pursuits. He felt that one can only be truly "religious" if he does not marry and lives a very simple, austere lifestyle, without enjoying the material and physical delights of this world. Judaism does not subscribe to such a notion. We believe that one can serve G-d while being involved in worldly affairs. Indeed, the Gemara cites two views as to whether the proper lifestyle to adopt is to abstain from work and spend all of one’s time learning, or to engage in a profession and spend some time each day and night studying Torah. The accepted Halacha follows both opinions. Most people are to engage in professional pursuits and spend some time each day and night learning Torah, while the select few who are able to devote themselves fully to Torah study, compromising their material standards, should do so. Those who live a lifestyle that combines spiritual and material pursuits are no less "religious" or devoted to G-d than those who learn fulltime. Each person must adopt the lifestyle which suits his individual strengths and talents. We do not accept the approach that religion demands withdrawal from the physical and material pleasures of the world.

This is why Haman accused the Jews of "Shehi Pehi." He charged that they were not truly devoted to their G-d. After all, they have only specific days when they withdraw from worldly pursuits and devote themselves to prayer and study. Haman saw the Jews working and engaging with the world just like everybody else, and decided that this cannot be a "spiritual" people. If they are only "religious" a few days a year, on Shabbat and holidays, then they cannot be sincerely devoted to their G-d. Hence, they are worthy of destruction.

Haman realized his mistake when he learned about Kemisa. He heard Mordechai explain how just a small handful of the Minha offering is placed on the altar, while the rest is eaten by the Kohanim. This symbolizes the notion that a person can give just a "handful" to G-d – some time for prayer and study each day – and then devote the rest of the day to his material pursuits. (Only a Kohen’s Minha offering is placed entirely on the altar, because the Kohanim are set aside to be devoted entirely to Hashem without involving themselves in mundane affairs.) Haman then realized that it is possible to be committed to G-d by combining the spiritual and the physical, by giving some to the altar and keeping some for oneself. And thus he realized that his charge of "Shehi Pehi" was fundamentally mistaken. The Jews’ involvement in worldly affairs did not indicate their low spiritual stature. Rather, they did precisely what they were supposed to, serving Hashem by combining the realms of the physical and spiritual. And thus he realized that his plan would be foiled. He had banked on the fact that the Jews were condemned for turning their backs on their faith. But he was wrong – they were sincerely devoted to G-d even as they went about their ordinary, worldly activities.

In conclusion, it must be emphasized that one cannot neglect the "Kemisa" – the "handful" that goes to the "altar." There is no justification for devoting oneself entirely to his profession and to earning money with only occasional, halfhearted engagement in spiritual pursuits. Our mundane activities become sanctified only if they are done in accordance with the laws and values of the Torah, and are accompanied by consistent involvement in prayer and Torah study. By mastering this fusion of the two realms of existence – the physical and spiritual – we continue to prove Haman wrong and show that we are truly deserving of G-d’s ongoing love and protection.