March 21, 2024 – י״ב אַדָר ב׳

Despite the rabbinic mandate to celebrate Purim with frivolity and silliness, this year it will be difficult to do so. Nearing the six-month mark of this war, Israelis are still reeling from the Hamas massacre, praying every day for the return of the remaining hostages.

The lesson of Purim is that we as Jews must be responsible for our own fate and that when we obtain power, it must not be abused. In the 10 short chapters of Megillat Esther, the Jewish people begin as a powerless people subject to the whims and wishes of a foreign king and his advisors, only to end up in the highest possible positions of power. When the story’s protagonist, Mordecai, refused to bow down to Haman, Haman went on a maniacal bender with the singular focus of destroying the Jewish people. What would have happened if Mordecai had agreed to bow down? Some sages pose the theoretical question that Jews over the ages living in exile have asked, ‘Couldn’t Mordecai have just held his nose, and just do it to avoid calamity on the House of Israel?’  We’ll never know, but likely that was an excuse for Haman – the descendant of Amalek bent on the destruction of the Jews – to expedite his evil plot.  Haman wished the demise of the Jews and Mordecai’s protest was merely the last straw.

During Purim we celebrate the fact that we took our own into our own hands, and were able to overcome existential threats. However, that’s not the end. The end is the controversial actions spelled out in Chapter 9 (often under-emphasized in many of our congregations).

“If it please Your Majesty,” Esther replied, “let the Jews in Shushan be permitted to act tomorrow also as they did today; and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on the stake.

The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil.” (Esther 9:13,16)

Esther, now in a position of power, used her position to carry out massive attacks on those who wanted to destroy the Jewish people. The reading of these verses in this critical moment should resonate strongly with our current reality. It is not a stretch to see the obvious connection between the death and destruction in Gaza during this war with what is described in Chapter 9 of Jews killing over 75,000 Persians. Is Esther a hero or are she and Mordecai guilty of enacting the same fate on others that they were afraid of in the beginning?

As we approach the holiday of Purim, we need to face a few significant realities.

  1. There is no question that pure evil exists in the world and was manifested through Hamas murderers in their killing spree on Simchat Torah. They are explicit in their desire to destroy the Jewish State and to use all power they have to murder Jews and Israelis.
  2. Israel’s leadership, and specifically Prime Minister Netanyahu, are dragging the country into a quagmire that could have long-term implications for Israel’s place among the nations. Many countries (most recently Canada) have balked at their commitments and support for Israel, and tensions in the American-Israel relationship are very high. America is Israel’s most important ally. Netanyahu’s top priority is his own political fate and the maintenance of his power as opposed to the best interests of the State of Israel. It was Netanyahu’s actions that led Senator Schumer to say what he did this past week. Whether you agree with the remarks or not, it is impossible to question not only Sen. Schumer’s lifelong dedication to Israel but the significance of the highest-ranking elected American Jewish leader in history feeling compelled to give that speech.
  3. The latest manifestation of the threat to Israel’s international standing came this week when the V-Dem 2024 index demoted Israel from its top-tier status of a “liberal democracy” for the first time, re-classing it as an “electoral democracy.”What does this now mean for us?

    Rabbi Ayalon Eliach poignantly and properly said:
    “The capacity to love something beautiful when those who speak most loudly in its name are distasteful is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We live in an era when too many of our leaders from all walks of life are, to borrow the recent words of an IDF general, not ‘worthy of us.’ A common response has been to throw out the baby with the bath water: compassion for Palestinians is rejected because of genocidal Palestinian leaders; Zionism is abandoned because of self-interested and zealous Zionist politicians; Torah is avoided because of self-righteous and judgmental rabbis.”

Let’s use the story of Esther and Mordecai, Haman and Ahasuerus as a mirror reflecting to us our situation, embracing the mitzvah of sending gifts / משלוח מנות (Esther 9:22) to those we love and to give “מתנות לאביונים / gifts to the poor and those in need.” We might ask how we are helping the families of hostages who lie awake worrying about the welfare of their loved ones.  What about the thousands of families who are bereaved and have to go on with life without their beloved family members? And yes, we must assist the innocent among the Palestinian people who are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Purim can be less about frivolity and drunkenness, and more about a moral reckoning.

Shabbat Zachor Shalom and Purim Sameach!