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Thoughts on Al Tira MiPachad Pitom

For the last couple of days I’ve had an “ear-worm,” a song running through my head endlessly wherever I go.  This is not an unusual phenomenon for me.  I always seem to have songs running through my head.  However, I’m not sure where this one came from and why.  It is actually a lovely melody for a couple of verses that are often found in traditional prayerbooks toward the end of the service, either after Alenu or after the Mourners’ Kaddish and they are supposed to help us meet life’s challenges. So, I decided to look into those verses and report back where they came from and how they ended up in the siddur even if I don’t know how this melody got into my head.

 

The daily prayer book that I have been using lately is the “Siddur Aliyot Eliyahu” which offers not only a very precise text of the siddur, but also includes notes about some of the prayers and footnotes indicating their source.  In the case of this passage, not only does the footnote inform us of the source of each of the three verses in the Bible, but also tells us that these three verses as a unit are added based on a statement in the Kitzur Shnei Luchot HaBrit in the name of Sefer Zichron Tziyon based on the Midrash in Esther Rabbah 7:13.  The note also refers us to the Taz (Turei Zahav commentary on the Shulchan Aruch) at the end of section 132, in the first division which deals with daily life and the holidays.  My investigations show me that the KItzur (the abridged) Shnei Luchot HaBrit is by Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein, published in 1742 and is roughly based on a well-known, massive work by Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz from the mid-17th century, the Shnei Luchot HaBrit, the Two Tablets of the Covenant, named because of his commentaries both on the written Torah and the oral Torah, the Talmud. As for Sefer Zichron Tziyon, that is a more elusive, mystical text that may be from the late 17th century.  I am not sure about that.  In any event, I could not find the actual text of either book to find why they decided to recommend this passage for our daily worship.  However, the Midrash on Esther is readily available as well as the statement by the Taz.

 

In the Midrash, following Haman’s decree to wipe out the Jews, after consulting with his friends, Haman finds Mordecai who had dressed in sackcloth and ashes on hearing the decree.  At that moment, Mordecai spots three children coming from school and runs after them. Haman follows behind to see what’s up.  Mordecai asks each young student in turn to share with him the latest verse in scripture that they have learned.  There are similar passages in the Talmud where sages inquire of young students, “p’sok psukecha,””Tell me your verse.” These Jewish kids are always, even inadvertently, beyond average in providing an appropriate verse for every situation.

 

The first child, being a more advanced student perhaps, was studying the book of Proverbs and quotes the verse, “Al tira mipachad pitom umishoat reshaim ki tavo.” (Proverbs 3:25) “You will not fear sudden terror or the disaster that comes upon the wicked.”  Turning to the next child, a younger student perhaps, studying the book of Isaiah, he told Mordecai his verse.  It was (Isaiah 8:10) “Utzu etzah v’tufar dabru davar v’lo yakum, ki imanu El. ”Plot and plan – you will fail, confer, conspire – it will not come to be.  For God is with us.” Finally, Mordecai asks the third child to share his verse as well.  He, too, is studying Isaiah, and quotes chapter 46, verse 4. “V’ad ziknah ani hu, v’ad seivah ani esbol, ani asiti va-ani esa va-ani esbol va-amaleit.” “When you grow old, I will be the same; when you turn grey, it is I who will carry; I was the maker and I shall be the bearer; and I will carry and rescue you.”  When Mordecai heard these three answers, he began to laugh and felt great joy.  Haman was perplexed and asks him, “What is it that these kids have said that makes you so happy?” He replied, “They have given me good news, besorot tovot.  They have told me that I should not fear the evil plot that you have planned against us.” Immediately, Haman got angry and said, “These children will be the first whom I will strike down.”  As we know, the young students got the last word and their verses have been incorporated into the traditional prayerbook.

 

The Taz, short for Turei Zahav, written by Rabbi David Halevi Segal, in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, notes that his personal custom was to recite these verses during the reader’s repetition of Sim Shalom at the end of the Amidah.  Though I do not find these verses in the various Siddurim of the Conservative movement, they do appear in most Orthodox, Ashkenazi,prayerbooks at the end of each service. Some authors place themimmediately after the Alenu, while others put them after the Mourners’ Kaddish.  In any event, these verses are to be recited toward the end of the service as one prepares to go out into the world in spite of its many problems, with a positive attitude, confident in God’s protecting care.

 

Dr. Yaniv Efrati of the Orot Yisrael College, discusses this passage in a short Hebrew essay I found on-line.  He cites the Midrash on Esther and then refers the reader to the commentary of the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550 –1619), who was the rabbi of Prague in the early 17th century and who comments on a passage in Exodus.  Efrati also mentionsanother perhaps better known rabbi from Prague, the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew, best known by his famous Golem, who comments on a passage in Deuteronomy.  Both rabbis speak of three levels of relationship between the people of Israel and our God.  Sometimes we are seen as in a relationship of a parent to a child, where God takes care of us like our mother or father.  Other times, our relationship is described as if we were on the same level as siblings, in a kind of partnership.  In some other passages we are called m’lachim, rulers, kings, where we can take some initiative in the relationship, sanctifying God, or taking responsibility for establishing the holidays.  

 

Dr. Efrati suggests that the three statements, the three verses quoted by the children in  the Midrash on Esther represent these three levels.  In the verse from Proverbs, “Al tira mipachad pitom,” The author of the book of Proverbs acts like a mothersoothing her child.  We are called upon to rule over our fear which Efrati says one achieves through studying Torah.  The second child, who quotes the verse ‘Utzu etza v’tufar,” represents the sibling relationship.  God is in partnership or fellowship with us and thus any evil plot will be annulled. We work in tandem with the Almighty to overcome the plotting of our enemies. The third verse, “Asiti v’ani esa,” sees us in a totally dependent way, putting our trust in God to carry us through whatever challenges life presents.  God remains faithful even when our faith is weak.

 

Dr. Efrati turns now to the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna,who suggests that these three responses and the three versesparallel three encounters with Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people, in the Bible. We first encounter Amalek very suddenly and unexpectedly, as the people of Israel depart Egypt and head off into the wilderness. We’ll read this passage again in next week’s portion of Beshallach. Out of nowhere, Amalek attacks; truly “pachad pitom,” sudden fear or terror comes upon the people.  Here we are called upon to rule over that fear, to conquer it, like a king, a ruler.  Al tira mipachad pitom, do not be afraid of this sudden terror, umishoat reshaim ki tavo, or of the disaster, the shoah, of the wicked when it comes.  We have applied that word “shoah” to the disastrous policies of Nazi Germany, the modern day Amalek, and thus this verse takes on a powerful meaning in our time.  The English word “disaster” is not nearly strong enough to encompass it.

 

The second encounter with this nation descended from Esau (Amalek originally appears in the genealogy of Esau as his grandson) is found in the book of Numbers. There in chapter 21,the Torah speaks of the Canaanites who dwelled in the South.  Our rabbis understood this passage as referring to the Amalekites who are said to dwell in the South and thus here theypretend to be Canaanites and speak the language of Canaan, trying to plot against the Israelites as they approach the land at the end of the 40 years of wandering.  To the Vilna Gaon, the second verse from the Midrash of Esther applies to this situation:  Utzu etzah v’tufar, Plot and plan – but you will fail...for God is with us, ki imanu El. We are partners with God, like siblings, facing life’s challenges together and overcoming those who may plot and plan against us.  Amalek may sometimes be cagey and not so direct in his attacks, but even so, we’ve got his number and with God’s help we will overcome.

 

The Purim story in the book of Esther presents the third encounter with Amalek. (Haman is called the Agagite, the descendant of the Amalekite king Agag who appears in the book of Samuel.)  The sages in that same Midrash about the three children, tell us of Haman’s consultation with his advisors, “the wisemen of the nations.”  He tells them that in the past, God was a mighty power, but look what has recently befallen Israel.  Their God has grown old and he allowed the Babylonians to overtake them and destroy His house, the Temple in Jerusalem.  Certainly, we can defeat the Jews now that their God is on Social Security.  The third verse is a response to this challenge. The prophet quotes the Almighty as saying, “When you grow old, I will still be the same.  When your hair turns gray, I will still carry you, I made you, I will bear you, I will carry you, and I will rescue you.”  Even at our weakest point, even whenperhaps we do not seem to be following the commandments and showing our loyalty to God, God remains the same, powerful, faithful, compassionate, and we may depend on His loving response in times of trouble.

 

Thus all three of these verses, recited at the end of each service remind us of our very unique ties to God and the various ways our ancestors have interfaced with Him to deal with adversity. Our path through history has not always been easy and yet, in spite of all that the Jewish people have faced in the past, we continue to put our trust in God, to find strength even in times of trouble, even when our enemies seem to be plotting our downfall, even when God seems distant, old, hidden away.  As we reaffirm at the Passover seder, V’hi sheamdah lavoteinu v’lanu, God’s covenant with us has stood by our ancestors and us and given us the strength to go on and to meet life’s challenges and to ultimately prevail.  

 

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