Mounds and pits

Monday, 25 March, 2024 - 6:48 am

Bob and his wife were the architects for the Chabad House Synagogue that my brother built in Westport. They were visiting Thailand two weeks ago and came to meet me.

Bob told me about one of the challenges. The land that had been purchased for the parking lot needed to be raised to conform with local requirements. Getting the ‘fill-in’ earth was a costly undertaking. It just ‘so happened’ (i.e. Divine Providence) that a builder friend was doing a redevelopment and needed to dump earth and other materials to clear his site. The developer was happy to offer his earth for free, so long as the Chabad House sent the trucks to pick it up.

It reminded me of the story in the Megillah of Esther that we will be reading on Purim.

Haman said to King Achashverosh, "There is one nation, scattered and dispersed among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation and who do not obey the laws of the King. It is not in the King's interest to tolerate them.

"If it please the King, let [an edict] be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand silver talents to the functionaries, to be deposited in the King's treasuries."

The king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite, persecutor of the Jews.

The king said to Haman, "The money is yours to keep, and the nation is yours to do with as you please."

It seems that Achashverosh turned out the offer of a large sum of money being offered to him by Haman.


The Talmud tractate Megillah provides more details to this part of the story of Purim.

The actions of Ahasuerus and Haman can be understood with a parable; to what may they be compared? To two individuals, one of whom had a mound in the middle of his field and the other of whom had a ditch in the middle of his field, each one suffering from his own predicament. The owner of the ditch, noticing the other’s mound of dirt, said to himself: Who will give me this mound of dirt suitable for filling in my ditch; I would even be willing to pay for it with money, and the owner of the mound, noticing the other’s ditch, said to himself: Who will give me this ditch for money, so that I may use it to remove the mound of earth from my property?

At a later point, one day, they happened to have met one another. The owner of the ditch said to the owner of the mound: Sell me your mound so I can fill in my ditch. The mound’s owner, anxious to rid himself of the excess dirt on his property, said to him: Take it for free; if only you had done so sooner. Similarly, Ahasuerus himself wanted to destroy the Jews. As he was delighted that Haman had similar aspirations and was willing to do the job for him, he demanded no money from him…

Much has been said about this and how it relates to anti-semitism throughout the ages. For example an article by Aron Moss or Rabbi Josh Gordon.

When I heard this exact story being told by Bob the architect as something that had transpired in real life, with my own brother’s shul, a mere few years ago, it prompted me to look into some of the commentaries on this story.

Chacham Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1832-1909) commented on this story.

From the way the Talmud depicts Achashverosh, he too, was a hater of the Jews and was pleased to have Haman dispose of them. Why then, does Achashverosh not meet an ignominious end just like Haman? Haman was killed for scheming to kill the Jews; shouldn’t Achashverosh have been at least demoted for his role in enabling this diabolical plan? Yet the Megillah ends off with Achashverosh firmly ensconced on this royal throne.

The matter can be understood by the following analogy.

There was a king who had a son that was captured by two people who were sworn enemies of the king. They planned to kill the prince, but the actual killing was delayed.

The motivation for the delay was not the same by each of the enemies. One of them recognized the innate dignity of the royal family and wanted to procure a poison that could be inserted into a drink and kill the prince in a ‘gentler’ and more ‘refined’ way.

The other enemy was delaying the killing as he wanted to create a big fire and cause the prince a more agonizing and ‘dehumanizing’ death.  

The king swooped in just in time to save his son the prince.

He treated the two captors very differently.

The cruel captor he puts to death for his role in planning his son’s murder.

The other captor, who also wanted to kill his son, but was more respectful of the king’s stature and wanted to preserve some of the royal dignity even while killing the prince, was allowed off without being punished by the king. It was this delay that allowed the prince to live. Although admittedly, had the king not come in time, the more ‘genteel’ opponent would have murdered the prince.

Similarly says R’ Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, Achashverosh respected the stature of the Jewish people. To be sure, he hated them and was going to facilitate the extermination plans against them. But at the same time, he didn’t want to do it in a demeaning way. Which is why he rejected the money offer.

You see, Haman wanted to pay money for the right to kill the Jews as part of his plan to demean the Jews. He wanted them to feel like human chattel and mere assets and thus dehumanize the Jewish people.

Whereas Achashverosh did not agree to take the money as he wanted to avoid demeaning the Jewish people in that way.

This also fits the ‘mound’ and ‘pit’ in the Talmud’s analogy.

Achashverosh saw the Jews as a mound, something elevated above the flat earth. Whereas Haman saw the Jews as a ‘hole in the ground’ as something totally worthless and disgusting.

When Hashem brought about a salvation for the Jews on Purim, He treated Haman and Achashverosh differently. For Achashverosh, although he was innately antisemitic, he at least treated the Jewish people with a modicum of respect.

Do you see any parallels in the patterns of anti-semitism as they play out in 20th and 21st centuries?

I find the Haman figures very identifiable. We can quite easily identify our enemies who want to kill us and treat us like dirt.

It is the Achashverosh kind of antisemite that to me seems more difficult to identify. On the outside they may be quite genteel, but a deeply rooted intolerance of the Jews may be lurking in the background, only waiting for a ‘cover story’.

The Talmudic story with its various commentaries is like dots. Applying the story to the contemporary geopolitical situation is like drawing the lines to connect the dots.

I have provided the dots. The drawing of the lines and the lessons for the world news headlines of today, I leave to you. No two people think alike. I am curious how you understand this topic.

Some Torah scholars share Torah thoughts with each other (in addition to food items) as a form of ‘Purim gifts’ Mishlach Manot.

Perhaps you have a thought to share with me in honor of Purim about this story. I would love to hear feedback from you.

To draw two quick lessons from this story that are applicable in our personal lives.

Sometimes a person may have a ‘mound’ in their life. Perhaps they have gone through a very difficult challenge that they would have preferred to avoid. They have layers of experience that others who have not gone through those circumstances don’t have.

The way to move forward in a positive way is to understand that there must be purpose in gaining the wisdom that could only be gained by going through this difficulty. And to pray to Hashem that He guide you to find the person with a ‘hole’ that can be benefited by the experience gained.

I have seen people who have gone through very difficult things take that experience and use it to counsel, console and bring positivity to others. I am in awe of such giants.

For the second positive message garnered by this story, let me end with another story.

The Alter Rebbe once sent a messenger to a chassid of his to ask him to participate in a very urgent life-saving cause. It was a significantly large amount of money that the Rebbe was requesting. The messenger, himself a very devout chassid was sure that it would take a few days for the benefactor to put together such a respectable sum of cash. To his surprise, the moment he arrived at the persons house, he was greeted warmly, and asked by his host ‘how much money does the Rebbe need to alleviate the crisis’. The messenger named the amount, and the host went to the next room and brought the full amount.

The messenger asked incredulously, ‘how did you know to prepare such a generous sum and have it on hand’?

To which the benefactor replied ‘yesterday I transacted a very successful business deal, and I said to myself ‘if Hashem sent me such a tidy profit it must be that the Rebbe has a larger than usual need and I have been sent this amount to be able to provide Tzedaka for this need’.

My dear friend, if you have a ‘mound’, understand that your excess is for a higher purpose. The extra money you have found in your budget can be used to help someone. Find someone who has a hole and help him or her fill it.

There are a number of people I know, who are ‘baalei tzedaka’ philanthropists that look at their financial success in exactly this way.

As well as people that are blessed with other blessings, who give freely of themselves and their gifts to fill the needs of others.

This is a truly inspirational way to live life.

So relevant to Purim, as two of the four mitzvahs of Purim are about helping others.

These are the four mitzvahs:

Hear the Megilah by night and then by day

Send food gifts to at least one other person.

Send monetary gifts to at least two other needy people.

Eat a Purim feast.

May Hashem bless us with salvation from our enemies just like he did in the time of Purim.

In closing:

Let my talk about antisemitism not G-d forbid be taken in the wrong way.

The celebration of Purim is all about the reality that has been borne out over the millennia of world history of the eternity of the Jew.

We are Hashems people, his precious children and He has promised that we will always be here.

As we say in the Haggadah on Pesach:

For not just one enemy has risen against us to destroy us. But in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands.

Nations and superpowers have come and gone. Am Yisrael is still here, proud, strong, positive, and passionate.

In just a few short moments the history of the world will take a giant leap, to welcome Mashiach and usher in the world of peace that we yearn and wait for.

So let us now cower and hide and pretend that if we act invisible and try to ‘blend in among the nations’ we will be better off. The opposite is true. Let us stand up with determination and pride and engage with Torah and Mitzvahs with joy and enthusiasm.

During those few short moments before Mashiach comes let us have ‘light’ אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר , may Hashem bless our soldiers, return our hostages, heal our wounded and banish antisemitism to the annals of history while we the Jewish people spread the message of G-d and His universal laws of morality to the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom

Purim Sameach

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

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