Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Merit of Mordechai

In the opening verse of Shoshanas Yakov, we say, שושנת יעקב צהלה ושמחה בראותם יחד תכלת מרדכי – “The rose of Jacob (i.e. the Jewish people) was cheerful and happy when together they saw the techeiles ( cloth) of Mordechai.” The language of the poem seems to indicate that there was some special significance to the techeiles worn by Mordechai, as if it was this, in particular, that brought joy to the Jewish people. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (d.1869), in an essay for Parshas Zachor (ספר קהלת יעקב על המועדים, פרשת זכור, דרוש ג), raises this question, asking why the poem specifically mentions the techeiles of Mordechai.

To answer this question, R’ Shlomo Kluger begins by citing the Talmudic statement (Shabbos 55a), “תמה זכות אבות” – “the merit of the Patriarchs has ended.” (ועיין שם בתוס' ד"ה ושמואל אמר) The Jewish people were therefore afraid that, without zechus avos (the merit of the Patriarchs), they would be destroyed by Haman.

What is zechus avos? R’ Shlomo Kluger explains:
עיקר זכות האבות התחיל מאברהם, שכולם היו כופרים בו ית' והוא בשכלו חקר ודרש והבין שיש בורא כל העולמים, והכיר את בוראו, ומסר עצמו על כבוד שמו להיות נופל לכבשן האש, וממנו התחיל זכות האבות.
The primary merit of the Patriarchs began with Abraham, for [his contemporaries] were all deniers of His existence, but [Abraham] delved and sought with his intellect and came to understand that there is a Creator of the Universe. He willingly gave his life for the honor of God’s name when he was cast into the fiery furnace [and was miraculously saved]. It was from this that the merit of the Patriarchs began.
R’ Shlomo Kluger continues that when our relationship with God is based only on the tradition that we received from our ancestors, without coming to know God from our own understanding, then we are dependent entirely on zechus Avos. Just as we find, in Jewish law, that those idolaters who engage in idolatry simply on a cultural basis, following in the path of their ancestors (מנהג אבותיהם בידיהם), are not considered to be idolaters in the full sense, the same is true, in reverse, for the Jewish people. When we base our belief in God and our observance of His Torah on nothing but the fact that this is what we were taught by our ancestors, without any independent recognition and understanding of our own, then we do not truly have a fully developed relationship with God. In such a case we are dependent entirely on the merit of our ancestors, for it is only due to their efforts that we have any connection to God at all. This merit, as great as it is, is ultimately finite, and it is for this reason that the Jewish people were afraid.

However, R' Shlomo Kluger explains, a new zechus Avos for the Jewish people began to shine forth from Mordechai. For like Abraham, Mordechai had come to know God through his own understanding, fulfilling the injunction of King David to his son, Solomon, to "know the God of your father" (1 Chronicles 28:9) and not simply rely on your father's tradition.

The Talmud (Sotah 17a) tells us that the symbolic message of the string of techeiles on the tzitzis is that the color of the techeiles resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles God's "Throne of Glory." R' Shlomo Kluger understands this to symbolically express the idea that we are supposed to study and contemplate the world and through this work our way up to an independent recognition of God.

By emphasizing the techeiles, the Shoshanas Yakov is telling us that the Jewish people recognized that Mordechai had this characteristic, and it is for this reason that they rejoiced for they understood that in this merit there would be a new zechus Avos for the Jewish people.

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