A Lesson from Rav Soloveitchik’s Approach to Purim
Straightforward divrei Torah generally follow a basic pattern: Introduce a question on the simple reading of a section of Torah, hone in on a commentary that resolves it with a nice takeaway message, and explain how it connects the reader to the initial story. While the lessons of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik could be squeezed into this framework, I often encounter difficulty finding a classic philosophical resolution in his Brisker method of analysis. However, this more technical approach allows us to forge a stronger connection to Hashem. The Rav’s dissection comparing the reading of Megillas Esther and Hallel in his Sefer Hararei Kedem provides an illustration.
The Gemara (Megillah 14a) famously asks why Hallel isn’t recited on Purim, which commemorates a miracle and should logically necessitate singing Hashem’s praise. Among other opinions, which carry interesting implications in their own right, Rav Nachman responds that reading the Megillah counts as praise and supplants Hallel.
Normally, someone preparing a d’var Torah would use this gemara to launch into discussing how retelling a favorable event reinitiates our gratitude or elicits praise. However, Rav Soloveitchik (Hararei Kedem 1:217) takes a different approach. The Rav begins his exploration into the topic by quoting the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 689:5), which states that a reader can only fulfill another learned person’s obligation of Megillah with ten men present. He then turns to the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 689:10), who explains the aforementioned rule by likening the Megillah to prayer, which requires a minyan for certain functions; the Rav concludes that the Magen Avraham drew this comparison from Rav Nachman’s aforementioned statement about the Megillah and Hallel.
“The Rav’s focus on intense lomdus (halachic-style learning) — even when addressing a holiday known for its physical obligations — serves as a guide for our year-round approach to engaging with Judaism.”
Even from there, the Rav doesn’t expand on the philosophical implications of the Megillah serving as a form of prayer immediately. Instead, he spends the remainder of the first section of the siman (chapter) placing the repetition of the four verses of the Megillah (Biur HaGra 690:17) into the framework of repeating verses in Hallel (Sukkah 38b). The Rav then moves on to breaking down a dispute from Megillah 4a over reading the Megillah both at night and during the day. From that discussion, the Rav presents the svara (lit. explanation), tying the disparate concepts together with a more emotional message regarding the role of praise and prayer.
What stood out to me from learning Hararei Kedem is the emphasis that the Rav places on using halachic lenses on every topic, regardless of how conceptual the topic may originally seem. While more than a quarter of Maseches Megillah details Midrash-style stories full of inspirational morals or interesting tidbits from Esther, the Rav instead analyzes the holiday with his tried-and-true halachic nitpicking. The Rav’s focus on intense lomdus (halachic-style learning) — even when addressing a holiday known for its physical obligations — serves as a guide for our year-round approach to engaging with Judaism.
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (as quoted by Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky) similarly emphasized the importance of Torah study to building a connection with Hashem. He explained — in line with the Rambam (Laws of Teshuva 10:6) — that the more one learns Torah, the more one will know and love Hashem. However, this intimate knowledge of Hashem doesn’t come from surface-level observations, but from really understanding the logic of the Torah, Gemara, and halachic process, or in short: lomdus.
Purim is an apt day to recognize the underlying importance of engaging with Hashem through Torah, despite its superficial appearance as devoted entirely to physical revelry. Shabbos 88a tells that when Hashem offered the Torah to the Jewish people at Har Sinai, He held the mountain over them and threatened to bury them if they declined. Only in the days of the Purim miracle did the Jewish people take on the Torah of their own volition, as the verse states, “The Jews accepted and took on (kiymu v’kiblu)… these two days [of Purim]” (Esther 9:27).
“[T]his intimate knowledge of Hashem doesn’t come from surface-level observations, but from really understanding the logic of the Torah, Gemara, and halachic process.”
In a Jewish Press article from 2018, Rabbi Hershel Schachter explains that because of “kiymu v’kiblu,” Purim is, at its core, a day of reaccepting the Torah. As the Rav shows in Harerei Kedem, halachic analysis represents the way we relate to Hashem, and Purim contains a bounty of details to dissect. While I won’t go as far as Rav Schachter to suggest we stay up all night learning Torah, perhaps it would be worthwhile to crack open a sefer and give some time to in-depth Torah study this Purim — at least between all of the other celebrations. There’s plenty to learn, and a greater understanding of our connection to Hashem awaits.