Courage in Ukraine

         I delivered this sermon last Shabbat morning, March 4, 2022 at Congregation B’nai Israel in Toledo, Ohio.

I had planned today to teach a text related to the upcoming holiday of Purim. The text, a section of liturgy entitled Shoshannat Ya’akov, is often sung after the reading of the Megilla on Purim evening. It is one of my favorite sections of Jewish liturgy and my plan was to uncover some of the meaning of the text by sharing with you a midrash that Shoshannat Ya’akov is based on.

         But the entire spirit of that Torah lesson is one of joy and humor and I felt that it wasn’t appropriate today given our concerns and our fears for the people of Ukraine and for the entire world.

         So, instead of teaching the text, I’ll go directly to the message I was going to share at the end of the Torah lesson and elaborate on it by reflecting on the situation in Ukraine.

         Before I do, let me tell you that while I have never been in Ukraine, I did spend a harrowing week in the former Soviet Union 40 years ago this Pesach on a mission visiting Soviet refuseniks. As part of that trip, I am my rabbinical school colleague Allan Berkowitz traveled both in Russia itself and in the Soviet republic of Moldovia, now the independent country of Moldova, a country which is currently absorbing many Ukrainian refugees. My memories of that week in the former Soviet Union are of fear and of the overwhelming sense of a complete lack of freedom and any sense of control over our fate. 

         Many years later, in 2013, I traveled to the former Soviet republic, now the independent nation, of Latvia. Walking in the streets of the beautiful capital of Riga and of my grandfather’s home town of Daugavpils, I saw Soviet era buildings and that took me back to that week in the Soviet Union some 33 years before. They reminded me so vividly of our frightening experience and, more importantly, of the horrendous era of oppression of Soviet citizens. But today those buildings today are the backdrop for cities brimming with freedom and people seeking to better their lives in the blessing of democracy. The cities, while facing the universal issues cities face, are full of people living their lives with hope and joy and I felt so comfortable and safe.  This is what the people of Ukraine are trying to save, and we stand with them in their fight.

         Now let’s think about Purim. The book of Esther is the only book in the Tanach which does not mention the name of God. God is not present in the story at all. But the post Biblical tradition tried desperately to find ways to prove that in fact God was present in Shushan watching over God’s people and ensuring their victory over Haman. 

         This was done in different ways. Some found clues in the text itself. For example, the name Esther was related by some of the rabbis to the Hebrew word for “hidden” and they claim that this shows that God was hidden from sight but still active. This idea strikes me as reflecting  the famous words of James Russell Lowell quoted by Martin Luther King during one of his most beautiful and passionate speeches delivered in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.”

         The Seputagint, the Greek translation of the Bible from the end of the Biblical period takes God out of the shadows and brings God right into the spotlight, right into the book of Esther itself. The translation features additions to the Biblical book which include fervent prayers by Esther and Mordecai, prayers which our text never even imply. Esther’s prayer includes these words: “O my Lord, you only are our King, help me who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand. Ever since I was born, I have heard in the tribe of my family that you O Lord took Israel out of all the nations and you did for them all that you promised… And now save us”

         Mordecai and Esther turn their attention to God for salvation and God is brought front and center into the story.

         Finally, there is the tradition I was going to teach about Shoshannat Yaakov which is that the Harbonnah, King Ahasureruas’ servant who suggested to the king that he hang Haman and finally end the threat was not the same Harbonnah, mentioned in chapter 1 of the megillah. This Harbonnah was none other than Elijah the prophet who made himself look like Harbonnah at that moment so that the king would listen to him. So, Elijah was there as he always is to bring about our final redemption. Esther and Mordecai laid the groundwork and God through God’s agents got the job done.

         Rabbinic tradition often tried to bring God into stories lest people think that human beings could achieve their own salvation. We see that at Hanukkah time as well as the rabbis, dare I say, invented the story of the oil burning for eight days. This was clearly a divine miracle, not mentioned at all in the book of Maccabees, the source for the Hanukkah story, which focuses only on the bravery of the Maccabees.

         But, despite all of the efforts of the post-Biblical tradition, the stories of both Hanukkah and in Purim feature  acts of salvation, initiated by human beings: courageous, brave and loyal human beings who seek to save not only their lives but their way of life. 

         We may wonder where God is present in the world. We look at the pain and suffering of desperate people and we wonder why God would allow this suffering to take place. We ask the same question when we consider the Holocaust and when we experience or witness some horribly unfair tragedy affecting our or others’ lives. 

This question is so difficult but let me give two brief answers. First, I believe that, as we read in today’s Torah portion, as our ancestors gave all the materials to build a perfect, symmetrical sanctuary, human beings have been given the tools by which to save the world, to create a perfect world. We know what we have to do. But we have also been given free will and with that blessing comes the threat that people like Putin and those who support him, seek to emulate him or praise him can wreak havoc on the world and they must be stopped.

         And the second thing I can say is that if God is in fact present today and I believe God is, God is present in inspiring the valiant courage and determination of the proud and brave Ukrainian people who with the support of well-meaning people throughout the world are seeking, against all odds, to save themselves and their nation. We wish them strength and continued courage.

         Like the rabbis taught about Esther and Mordecai prayers may help but they are no substitute for action and courage. 

         I will share a prayer with you, a prayer for Ukraine, but know that it is not prayer that will save Ukraine. I fervently believe that while God is inspiring the people of Ukraine with courage and strength, it is the human effort which will save this nation and I believe that God, in fact, is praying that the people of Ukraine and their nation survive. 

A Prayer for Ukraine by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth:

Sovereign of the Universe
Who hearkens to our prayers.
We stand before You in solidarity
with all who are enduring the darkness of human conflict in Ukraine.
May You protect all innocent men, women and children
at this moment of great peril for them,
their country,
for Europe and the world.
Bring fortitude to the vulnerable,
resilience to the insecure
and strength to those who live in fear.
Incline the hearts of national leaders towards peace and reconciliation
and bless them with the wisdom, vision and perseverance needed
to end this war and restore peace to the region.
Almighty God,
strengthen the hands of those who pursue peace, not war.
Bring harmony where there is hostility;
relief where there is pain and hope where there is despair.
May He who makes peace in high places
Make peace for all on earth.

May it be God’s will…And may it be our will to make it happen. Amen

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