The Seventh of Adar: Haman and the Death of Moses
A deep analysis into the connection between Purim, Moses and the Oral Law.
Haman will forever be remembered as the first person in history who would plot to kill all of the Jews - men, women and children, from young to old.
In the month of Nissan, Haman cast “purim,” lots, as part of his effort to choose the most auspicious time to carry out the mission. The lottery pointed to a date in the month of Adar, a full eleven months later. Rather than being disappointed over the delay, our rabbis tell us that Haman was overjoyed. His lottery fell in the very month in which Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, had died. Moses died on the seventh of Adar. Haman saw this as a sign that he would succeed.
Birth Negating Death
But Haman was oblivious to one very relevant fact: Moses hadn’t only died on the seventh of Adar; it was also the day of his birth. Our rabbis explain that Moses' birth was sufficient to atone and counteract for his death. 1
Moses hadn’t only died on the seventh of Adar; it was also the day of his birth. What is the significance of this?
At first glance, the focus on Moses is difficult to understand. Why would the month of his death matter to Haman? Further, it appears that there was truth to Haman’s premonition. The month of Moses' death should have been a bad time for the Jewish people. And most puzzling, how does Moses' birth in Adar counter his death in Adar? One would logically expect the opposite to be true. Doesn’t death conclude the life that the birth brought on?
There is clearly a deeper meaning to the significance of Moses' birth and death in Adar. A closer look leads us to an explanation that does far more than explain a cryptic comment of the rabbis. It reveals a key principle that remains as true today as it did in Persia some 2,500 years ago.
The Meaning of Moses
Moses was far more than a charismatic leader who led the Jewish people from servitude to freedom. We received the Torah through Moses to the point that it is even called Toras Moshe – the Torah of Moses.
Moses embodied all of the Jewish people. The Medrash relates that Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi, the sage who compiled the Mishna, once delivered a lecture during which the students began to doze. To wake them up, he challenged them with an opaque statement: There was a single woman in Egypt who had 600,000 children in a single birth. And who was she? Yocheved, Moses' mother. 2 The number 600,000 is associated with the number of the entire Jewish nation and Moses was that child – the person who included every Jew. Indeed, after the sin of the golden calf, God proposed to rebuild the entire nation from Moses who included everyone.
Moses represents our link to God's revelation at Sinai. Then, we stood as a unified nation like a single person with one heart.
Attacking When We Are Vulnerable
Haman knew this well. He understood how our national unity and strength was linked to our bond with the Torah of Moses. Haman was a descendant of Amalek, the first nation to ever wage war against the Jews. They attacked us in the desert after we left Egypt with the goal of weakening our link to Torah. The battle took in Refidim and our rabbis reveal that the name of the place alludes to rafu yedeihem min haTorah, the Jewish people’s softening their grip on Torah.
Haman understood that we are vulnerable when we lose our connection to Moses and our unified bond to the Torah.
Haman understood that we are vulnerable when we lose our connection to Moses and our unified bond to the Torah. The calculated formulation of Haman’s successful petition to Achashveirosh for permission to annihilate us shows just how well he appreciated this.
Our rabbis reveal the subtle implications in Haman’s accusatory words. Haman suggested that we were a scattered and divided nation, having lost the unified state of a nation which was like one person of a single heart that we had attained at Sinai. He suggested that we had fallen asleep in that we no longer performed the statues of the King – i.e. the King of Kings.
Haman’s efforts succeeded and he received permission to kill us. That decree attests to the fact that there was painful truth in Haman’s words.
A Dark Point in Our History
The historical context of the story of Purim is no coincidence and Haman was acutely aware of it. The nation that Haman had sought to kill had been freshly exiled and scattered across the civilized world. Mordechai himself was among those cast out from Jerusalem. We lost our kingdom and our sovereignty and we found ourselves as unwanted guests in a strange land.
While this eventually became our default state over the centuries that followed, at that time the notion of exile was very new to us. As a nation, we did not know what would happen next. Could it be that our bond with God had ended? Indeed, at the advent of exile, Jewish elders challenged the prophet Yechezkel with this very question. “When a master casts out his servant, when a man divorces his wife, do they still have any obligation to one another?”
The bond between God and the Jewish people is unbreakable – no matter what happens.
Yechezkel’s answer was unequivocal: the bond between God and the Jewish people is unbreakable – no matter what happens. But we hadn’t yet experienced just how it would work in the dark context of exile. How would be saved?
Forging a New Bond
Herein lies the secret of Moses' birth and death – a secret which Haman did not know. We had indeed lost one level of connection to the unbroken chain that linked us to Mount Sinai. But something else – a phenomenon far more subtle – became part of our national identity. To appreciate it, it is helpful for us to focus on a particular incident in the aftermath of Moses' death.
The Talmud teaches that during the mourning period following Moses' death, some 1,700 laws that Moses had taught were immediately forgotten. But all was not lost. An individual named Osniel ben Kenaz was able to restore them by deriving each law through his meticulous analysis of what was known. 3
This story reveals far more than a historical detail about the aftermath of Moses' passing. It is a paradigm for Jewish history and the different means through which we relate to Moses' Torah.
While Moses lived, Torah was accessible directly through him. The clarity of his level of prophecy was unmatched by any Jewish prophet. Moses could resolve every ambiguity and answer every question. When Moses died, although prophecy would continue to exist for hundreds of years, Moses' singular clarity was lost. On account of that loss, there arose a need for us to delve within ourselves, to ponder all the things we could remember, in our effort to understand Torah.
While at first it appeared that the forgotten laws would be lost forever, we soon learned that we could still access Moses' Torah – albeit through a new means. Rather than relying solely on prophetic revelation, we understood that Torah study would require introspection and effort that would enable us to arrive at Torah by looking deeper into our own understanding. It was a new and more subtle way through which we would connect to Torah.
Our discovery of this new connection was born only through Moses' death.
Although none of our prophets ever reached Moses' level, in the years that followed, prophecy remained in the world and it was still possible for us to connect to Torah through some level of Divine revelation. The destruction of the first Temple, however, marked the sunset of the prophetic era.
Once we went into exile authority over Jewish law passed to a body of rabbis known as the Anshei Knesses HaGedola, the Men of the Great Assembly, in which Mordechai was a member. While the Anshei Knesses HaGedola included several prophets among its original numbers, they would all die out at the beginning of the second Temple and the basis of Torah scholarship had moved toward intellectual analysis and looking deep into ourselves as a means to connect to Torah. Torah moved to the more subtle realm that Osniel ben Kenaz had begun; it was still very much with us but required closer analysis and deeper thought to notice its patterns.
The story of Purim took place exactly at the crossroads of this transformation in Torah. In confronting Yechezekel, the elders essential asked whether we were still bound during an era when our direct connection to the Torah Moses revealed to us at Sinai was lost and the Temple which represented the unbroken transmission lay in ruins. Their challenge essentially asserted that we nationally experienced Moses' death and they questioned the future relationship to Torah.
Yechezkel’s unequivocal answer revealed that we were still bound. One thing, however, had changed. In exile, we would need to connect to Torah through a different means rather than through one which abounded with prophecy and the open miracles that characterized the second Temple.
The incredible key to understanding the new and subtle connection lies in Moses' death. Then, we discovered that although Moses was no longer with us in the physical sense, his Torah remained very much alive with us. We discovered that, like Osniel ben Kenaz, we needed to look deeper into ourselves and what we know and that when we do, we can rediscover everything.
We realized that our bond with God had never been broken. Instead, it simply manifested in a different way.
Herein lies the incredible secret in how Moses' birth “atoned for his death.” In a sense, Moses never died. In fact, what at first appeared to us as Moses' death turned out to be Moses' rebirth. It was specifically following, and because of, Moses' death that we discovered a deeper connection to Torah. It would later manifest in form that continues until this day: Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Law. Torah Shebaal Peh also emanates from revelation at Sinai. However, in lieu of continued prophetic revelation, it develops through the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.
On some level, Moses is never dead to us; his Torah lives on through our toil in the Oral Law.
The Torah tells us that no human would ever know the location of Moses' grave. This is more than a prediction of what archaeologists would discover at some future point. It reveals that on some level, Moses is never dead to us; his Torah lives on through our toil in the Oral Law.
The fantastic message of our rabbis is now clear. The birth that atoned for Moses' death was Moses' death itself. While in the natural world, death is the ultimate reversal of birth, in Moses' case the opposite was true. Through his death, Moses and all he represents was reborn. It brought out the full force of the Oral Law, giving the Jewish people a clear avenue to access the same truth.
What Haman Didn’t Know
Haman appreciated that after the Temple was destroyed the Jewish people had entered into a dark era. It was a national state akin to Moses' death and when his lots fell on the Adar, the month of Moses' death, Haman saw that as a sign that his view was confirmed.
What Haman did not know was that Moses' death itself brought about the birth of a new era in Torah and Jewish history. In fact, the very threat of genocide through Haman’s decree fostered a new national birth. In their interpretation of the Book of Esther, our rabbis emphasize how on Purim, we reaccepted Torah in a different way. In so doing, we affirmed our everlasting bond with God, regardless of whether or not we were are on land or whether we experience revealed miracles.
Moses' death spawned a new birth in Torah during which we discovered a new way to maintain our connection with revelation at Sinai. In the same way, the looming prospect of our own death on Purim incredibly brought about our own rebirth. When we were saved, we realized that even though the Temple had been destroyed, we could still maintain our bond with Torah. It was then that we reaccepted Torah and from the depth of exile were reborn into a new dimension of national existence.
Haman saw only Moses' death; he was blind to our national rebirth, one that he himself helped bring about.
Haman saw only Moses' death; he perceived only the end of a golden era in our history. He was blind to our national rebirth, one that Haman himself helped bring about.
A closer look reveals that this idea lies at the root of our salvation on Purim. No plagues descended upon our enemies, no sea split, and no obvious miracles made the Persian headlines. Instead, something more fantastic happened: God saved us through a series seemingly unrelated events, political developments, rises and falls from power, and “coincidences” that transpired over a period of several years. While a superficial review of the story shows only natural events and human action, a contemplation of the facts on an inner level – from the very type of perspective that enables us to access the Oral Law – makes it clear that it was all a miracle. And we didn’t just embrace the miracle. We realized that while one era of our history had ended, another had just begun.
This new perspective remains with us through the present day. We haven’t yet witnessed the return of revealed miracles or prophecy. And while the guise of our enemies shifts frequently, we still find ourselves under constant threat. We need to appreciate nonetheless that the story of our survival is always miraculous. The Torah of Moses' rebirth lasts forever and against all odds, in yeshivas, classrooms, and households across the globe, we continue to flourish and reveal new depths in our eternal law.
- Rashi, Talmud Bavli,Megillah, 13b
- Medrash Rabbah, Shir Hashirim, 1:65
- Talmud Bavli, Temurah, 16a