For the week ending 28 February 2015 / 9 Adar I 5775

Until the Last Lap

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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Rabbi Akiva was sitting and expounding on the Purim story. Seeing that the congregation was dozing off, He wished to awaken them from their slumber, so he said: How did Esther merit reigning over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces? G-d said (i.e. decreed), “Let Esther, the granddaughter of Sarah, who lived one hundred and twenty-seven years, come and reign over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces (Midrash Rabba, Esther 1:8)

It is well known that the Sages of the Mishna instilled their holy words with endless depth through meriting a level of Divine communication called “Ruach Hakodesh”. As such, we must work to uncover the hidden wisdom within this intriguing episode recorded in our oral tradition.

Questions: Why does the Midrash refer to the listeners as a ‘congregation’ instead of ‘students’, and what is the deeper meaning behind the fact that they were sleeping? Since many generations separated Sarah from Esther, Why is she referred to as Sarah’s granddaughter? What possible connection could there be between the years of Sarah’s life, and the number of provinces that Esther ruled over? Finally, what is the significance that the author of this teaching is Rabbi Akiva?

The story of Purim teaches us to have faith in the darkest moments, to find the hidden hand of G-d that protects us in the most difficult of times.

The Talmud teaches us that just as Moshe, the Faithful Shephard of the Jewish People, led the Jews, nourishing them with emunah (faith) in his time (Zohar), so too, in all generations the Jewish leaders help guide and strengthen the people of their generation, in accordance with the verse, “We have only the Kohen (priest) in our day.”

Rabbi Akiva was the Jewish leader in one of the most difficult times for the Jewish People. After the destruction of the Holy Temple and subsequent exile it appeared as though G-d was no longer protecting His people. In the face of such tragedy and suffering it was Rabbi Akiva who sought to ensure that his generation would live on to father the next one.

Rabbi Akiva saw that the people of his generation were “dozing off”. With weakened faith they were becoming disconnected. Just as a head directs the body, as their leader he was responsible to awaken them — i.e., strengthen their faith in G-d. Drawing a parallel to a similar time in Jewish history, the Persian exile, when it also seemed as though the Jews had lost their protection, he began to explain:

In Esther’s time things seemed dark and helpless, as though G-d had abandoned His people. With a price on the head of every man woman and child, it seemed that the fate of the Jewish People was at its end. Surely a simple orphan girl like Esther had nothing in common with the Matriarch Sarah, whose life was constantly surrounded with miracles, indicating that G-d’s presence was always with her.

This idea can be understood in the Torah’s calculation of Sarah’s life. Rashi comments on the double reference to Sarah’s life in the verse. He explains that the Torah intended to teach us that all of the years of Sarah’s life were equal in a good and positive way. The reason for this is seemingly obvious: since throughout all her days she remained connected to G-d in perfect faith, meriting seeing the Divine presence in her daily life, therefore all her years were “good”, as there can be no greater good than experiencing life bound up with one’s Maker.

Although in the time of Purim, as in Rabbi Akiva’s time, the Jewish People did not merit to see G-d’s presence or His providence, he wanted to show them that G-d was still with them, controlling things, albeit in a hidden way, as He was in the days of Purim. This was his intent in pointing out the connection between the years of Sarah’s life and the number of provinces Esther ruled over. Just as Sarah’s life was totally under G-d’s supervision from beginning to end, so too every detail of Esther’s life, including what was seemingly an insignificant detail in the Purim story, was under G-d’s absolute supervision.

Most importantly, Rabbi Akiva wanted to teach his generation that the same applied to his time, and we must know that this lesson remains true in our time too. By calling Esther “Sarah’s granddaughter” he emphasized the strong connection between the continued generations of the Jewish People and their ancestors. As the Talmud states, “As long as the descendants of Yaakov are alive, he remains alive.” Just as in a relay race, only when someone is still running are all of the previous runners still in the race.

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