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Thoughts on Purim after October 7th

Thoughts on Purim after October 7th


Purim begins this Saturday evening, March 23, with a service at 8:00pm, during which we will read the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther.  Purim is a very joyous holiday commemorating the events described in the Book of Esther.  People wear masks and costumes.  We use noisemakers, graggers, to blot out the name of Haman.  We feast, we send shalach manos to our friends, gifts to the poor, and drink uncharacteristically for Jews, “ad d’lo yada,” until we no longer can distinguish between “Blessed is Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman.”


Admittedly, many contemporary Jews question the historicity of the account in the Megillah.  Nonetheless, as with many of our biblical stories, as I noted a few weeks ago, it is less important whether the events actually happened than what message the book is attempting to convey.  Esther was almost left out of the Bible by our sages and, in fact, it is the only biblical book whose text has yet to be found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscripts found in the Judean Desert.  Its big problem is that it fails to mention God’s name even once.  That glaring absence, however, may be its greatest teaching.  When the Talmud seeks a source for Esther in the Torah, they cite Deuteronomy 31, where Moses warns the people that if they go astray, God will hide His face from them, “Va-Anochi haster astir panay bayom hahu.”  I will indeed hide My face on that day.  One can hear the name Esther in the repeated verb for hiding, Haster, Astir.  As we read the book of Esther, however, being familiar with another story back in Genesis where another Jew is raised to royal station, Joseph, and where God is mentioned continually, we easily recognize God’s presence behind the scenes in the similar situations in the book of Esther through the many “coincidences” that occur in the Megillah.


The message we receive then is, as Mordecai tells his cousin Esther, as he urges her to risk her life for her people, “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter...”  “Revach v’hatzalah ya’amod layehudim mimakom acher.”  Since our sages often refer to God as HaMakom, literally the Place, the Omnipresent One, they see this statement as a veiled reference to Mordecai’s faith that, even without human agency, God would intervene to save His people. We are witnesses, however, to many times throughout Jewish history, where God’s face remained hidden and when many Jews died. Theologian Martin Buber called this the “Eclipse of God.”  That very term indicates that God’s disappearance was only temporary, as will be the case with the eclipse of the sun anticipated on April 8th. Several of our prayers and hymns seem to affirm the notion that, in spite of God’s temporary eclipse, we can be sure that He ultimately will emerge and step in to save us.  As we sing on Passover, “In every generation they arise to destroy us, but the Holy Blessed One saves us from their hand.”


Obviously, that faith seems misplaced in a generation where the memories of the Holocaust are still vivid and the last survivors of those horrible years are still among us.  Various theologians have presented their understanding of this paradox and sought ways to justify God’s glaring absence then and many times before and since. One somewhat unsatisfying argument that is made is simply that the promise in the Divine covenant applies only to the people of Israel as a whole and not necessarily to individuals. Some or even many may die, but Am Yisrael Chai, the People Israel lives on.  We survive as a people, but too often we’ve had to mourn death and destruction within our communities and have experienced and continue to experience hatred without cause.


Nearly six months have passed since the vicious attacks by Hamas violated the sanctity of the last day of the fall holidays, Simchat Torah. More than 130 hostages are still being held in captivity and their fate remains unknown.  Families anxiously await their return.  Other families have sent off their young men and women to fight and root out the enemy and they too anxiously await their children’s safe return, Hundreds of people are still traumatized and grief-stricken by the savage butchery wreaked upon loved ones. Thousands of Israelis have been uprooted from their homes and many of those homes no longer exist and the livelihoods of these families are still uncertain.  Jews around the world continue to join Israel in mourning these tragic losses and praying for an end to hostility and a lasting peace in the region.  Accompanying all of these events in Israel and the ongoing war in Gaza in response, is the rise of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-semitic rhetoric and activity, striking fear in our young people on campus, as well as in our own communities. Many whom we may have thought of as friends, if they have not joined this chorus of hate and misinformation, have remained silent, disappointing many of us.  We need to hear from them.  Many Jews as well are torn by love of Israel and concern for its future as well as by our innate sensitivity to the loss of any human life, particularly of innocent civilians used as shields in a war zone.


As a people who profess that all people are created in God’s image, the loss of a single life represents the loss of a whole world and is viewed as a great tragedy and a diminishment of God’s presence in the world. You may recall the famous quotation from Golda Meir: “We can forgive [the Arabs] for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with [the Arabs],” she said, “when they love their children more than they hate us.”  Hamas is well aware of these sentiments.  No other nation has held itself or been held by the world to the same standards of morality as Israel.  In consequence, Hamas has exploited our concept of the sanctity of life, a value they seem to have no use for, and they are playing for time, as we continue to suffer both in Israel and around the world and the people they are supposed to govern suffer even more. They are counting on the world to force an end to hostilities and, if at all possible, to return to the status quo prior to the war, so they can continue their reign of terror upon Israel and their subjugation of the inhabitants of Gaza.


In light of the circumstances in which the Jewish people finds itself this year, how can we go to the synagogue and how can we make merry on Purim?  Where can we find the “light and gladness, happiness and honor” mentioned in the Megillah, to which we respond each week during Havdalah, “Ken tihyeh lanu,” may this be so for us as well? The answer, if there is an answer, is in our defiant faith. Even if Esther is not a historical document, it still represents Jewish aspirations to blot out the memory of Amalek, to always remember what Amalek and those throughout history who would follow in his evil path sought to do.  So, Haman, the Amalek of his generation, meets his end on the same gallows he prepared for Mordecai the Jew.  Those who rose up against the Jews on the 13th of Adar, likewise, suffered the consequences, a massacre of our enemies.  Typically, many of our young, idealistic people have problems with chapter 9 of the Megillah and its report of the deaths of 75,000 people even if they had risen up to kill the Jews.  


So, we read this story, but we still live in a world filled with Amalekites who seek to do us harm.  We still mourn the losses and remember the tragic outrages perpetrated on our people last fall and many times before. We still are waiting for the captives, held hostage, to be released.  We continue to live with the rising statistics of antisemitism in our country and elsewhere in the world. We pray for peace and look for the ultimate redemption of the messianic age.  And yet, in spite of all, we continue to affirm life and our continued survival, we go forward and celebrate our joyous festivals in spite of the efforts of our enemies to destroy us and to break our spirit. If we look back at the period of the Shoah, for all of its horror, one can still read of defiant efforts by Jews to celebrate life even in the ghettos and the death camps.  The produced books and music and works of art, poetry and craft, held lectures and presented plays.  Can we do any less? 


One of my rabbinic colleagues reminds us that one of the themes of the Megillah is that life can change in an instant, v’nahafoch hua, it all turned upside down.  The peace and security of October 6 changed in an instant on October 7 to horror and terror.  The author of the Megillah tells us that things can turn upside down for the better just as quickly as we’ve seen the good turn to bad.  When there is a death in our community, no matter how tragic and life-shattering, mourners stand at the graveside and affirm their faith in God.  They return home and are met with a meal of condolence, food that cannot bring comfort yet affirms that the community is with them and shares their grief and wants to help them affirm life.  They carry the memories of loss throughout life, but our presence and support helps them through their sorrow.


Every day in our morning prayers, we recite Psalm 30, with its hopeful message, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, You have removed my sackcloth and girded me in joy.  So I might sing of Your glory and never be silent, O Lord my God, I will offer thanks to You forever.” 


Yes, we will celebrate Purim this year with joy outwardly, even if our heart is broken for those who have been lost and those who are suffering and those being held hostage and pray that the One who makes peace on high, will grant peace to us and to all Israel and to all those who dwell on earth, speedily and soon.


Shabbat shalom and Chag Purim Sameach!

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