Rabbi Boaz Tomsky

      The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5,27) quotes the famous words of Rabbi Meir, "Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine."

      The Talmud gives a behind the scenes view of Achashverosh and his corrupt perception on the functions of the Beit HaMikdash and the Kohen Gadol. The Megilla relates in the third year of Achashveroshs' reign, he made a lavish feast for all of the prestigious nobles and leaders. Why would he wait until the third year? The Talmud explains he was celebrating the culmination of the seventy year exile in which HaShem did not redeem and reinstate the Jewish people. After the seventy years came and went, Achashverosh felt Klal Yisrael would no longer be redeemed. He then went into the Beit HaMikdash and removed its vessels and vestments. Achashverosh brought the vessels into his palace and donned the garments of the Kohen Gadol.

      It is clear that Achashverosh was trying to create Shushan as the new world headquarters, his palace as the Beit HaMikdash, and himself as the Kohen Gadol. This is further indicated by a peculiar dialogue he had with Queen Esther. Achashverosh was willing to give the Queen up to half of the Malchut- kingdom. The Talmud learns from this that only half he was willing to give but he would not give something which would cause division and conflict to his kingdom. What can cause division? The Talmud answers, the Beit HaMikdash. At this point in time in the story line, Achashverosh was completely unaware of Queen Esthers' true Jewish identity and family background. Still, the Beit HaMikdash was on the forefront of his mind.

      This further explains a seemingly difficult interpretation from the Gemara (Megilla 12A). The Talmud asks what  the entire Jewish nation did to deserve this terribly harsh decree from Haman. The Gemara attempts to answer that the Jewish people shouldn't have derived any benefit from the feast of Achashverosh. Since they derived benefit, they deserved to be annihilated. How is this a valid reason to destroy all of Klal Yisrael? Where is the justice here? Does the punishment really fit the crime?

      The feast of Achashverosh was more than a friendly get together. Instead it was a blatant declaration that HaShem was no longer involved with Klal Yisrael and that Achashverosh was the new leader. By deriving benefit, the Jewish people were condoning his behavior and thus deserved retribution.

      The mistake Achashverosh made was that the Beit HaMikdash was built on more than its physical appearance. The element of ruchniut- spirituality was a foreign concept to Achashverosh, something he knew nothing about. Achashverosh based his entire life on judging things solely on their physical appearance. This phenomenon is shown forth in the story line found in the Megillat Esther.

      On the seventh day, Achashverosh summoned his wife, Queen Vashti, to stand before him wearing only the royal crown. He spoke of Vashti as his "kley hamishtamesh"- a vessel which is to be used to my benefit. Achashverosh treated his own wife in such a downgrading and disgraceful manner because he felt her only positive quality was her physical appearance. He never looked at anything but the vessel, the exterior, the physical.(This is demonstrated in his effort in beautifying his palace as well.)

      Queen Vashti disobeyed her husband and refused to come. Vashti was smitten with tzara'at and would have embarrassed herself and the king to present herself in such a state. This alone did not infuriate the king, rather the message she sent along. "You stable boy of my father, (Belshazar)! My father drank wine the equivalent of what a thousand people drink, and did not get drunk. Whereas you, (Achashverosh) became foolish from your wine." Why did Vashti say such slander and insult the king? She instead should have given an excuse why she couldn't come and her life may have been spared. Why did she say something so suicidal?

      There is a Latin proverb, "If you always live with those who are lame, you will yourself learn to limp." Vashtis' philosophy was also to judge solely based on physical appearance. Therefore, when she no longer considered herself attractive and appealing, she felt a total lack of any self worth. Vashti resented her husband Achashverosh who gave her this shallow way of thinking. She therefore went and verbally attacked him. Vashti may have acted reckless but due to her deflated ego and devastating condition, she felt as though she had nothing more to really lose. This is the danger of attaching oneself to something as insignificant and temporary as beauty.

       The Talmud (Megilla 12B) relates that Queen Vashtis' punishment was mida kineged mida-measure for measure. Since Vashti forced Jewish women to perform labor on Shabbat and stripped them of their clothing, she in turn was asked to stand before the king on Shabbat without any clothing. How is this an appropriate quid pro quo? Vashti didn't observe the Shabbat and was completely immodest and lewd! The connection is that Vashtis' intention was to destroy the kedusha, dignity, and self worth of the Bnot Yisrael. A suitable punishment was to remove her beauty and thereby destroy her self worth and esteem. The punishment fits the crime mida kineged mida.

      Achashverosh and Vashti together share a grave character flaw-judging a book by its cover. This is certainly a trait to distance one's self from. We should instead strive to emulate the traits of tzadikim like Mordechai and Esther. Why then does the Talmud state (Megilla 7B) one is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one does not know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai? We teach our children to shake their graggers only upon hearing the name of Haman in order to disassociate and blot out the name of a rasha! Why then is there a mitzva on Purim to show no distinctions between the evil and the righteous?

      The Talmud (Megilla 12B) states that the seventh day of Achashveroshs' party was on Shabbat. This is coming to show the difference in behavior between Jews and idolaters. For when Jews eat and drink, they begin discussing words of Torah and words of praise to HaShem. But idolaters who eat and drink,  begin discussing only indecent matters. What is this teaching us that we don't already know? It is obvious that Jews are different than rishaim in a myriad of ways! Why is the Talmud compelled to make yet another distinction?

      "Nichnas yayin yatsa dod"-when wine enters, out forth comes a persons' essence. When one drinks wine until they are completely unaware right from wrong (cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai), then their true colors are exposed. An Achashverosh displays an essence of mere physicality and one's exterior. A Jew displays an essence of spirituality and one's interior. When a Jew consumes wine and connects himself to ruchniut, he is testifying his devout connection to the acceptance of the Torah b'ratzon- willingly. This is why the Shulchan Aruch forewarns that if drinking will cause lightheadedness, than it is better to not drink to such a capacity rather let all of your dealings be Leshaim Shamaim- for the sake of heaven. One should only fulfill "Ad Delo Yodah" when you are confident that you will only speak words of Torah and not words of foolishness.

      There is a minhag to wear costumes and masks on Purim. Some explain the reason for the custom is because Purim is a holiday of hester panim- an era in which HaShem hid His role and identity (the name of HaShem is not found even once in the whole Megillat Esther). Another possible approach can be based on the misperceptions of what is considered most important to Achashverosh. They say, "the clothes make the man". The reality is that clothes only represent one's exterior. One must look beyond the physical and the material. We instead should concentrate on the person himself. We should be  less hasty to judge our fellow solely on our first impressions. Instead, we need to look at their essence. This is what really counts. This is what is real! By wearing a costume one is stating, "Don't judge by appearances. This isn't the real me. Rather look what is behind the mask."

      In conclusion, this can explain why Yom HaKippurim is a day like Purim. The purpose of both holidays is to reconnect to our spiritual essence. On Yom Kippur we accomplish this by disconnecting ourselves from any physical activity. On Purim we accomplish this by drinking  "Ad delo yada" until our actions, words, and thoughts express our true selves. Both holidays, celebrated properly, can give a person the ability to search inside oneself and find out what you're really made of.

      May we all have a very Frelacha Purim and a year in which we do not look at the vessel but rather that which is in it.

First Published March 9, 2001  for National Council of Young Israel Weekly Divrei Torah