One of the questions that rabbis are most often asked about stories from the Tanach, from the Bible, is: Did that story really happen? Whether the question comes from an argumentative adolescent, a student of history or someone trying to come to terms with the tradition, it is a valid question which I answer in different ways depending on what story we’re talking about.
So, how do I answer this question when it is asked about the story of Purim from Megillat Esther? I answer it this way: “Probably not, at least there is no evidence that it actually happened. But, except for some of the cartoon like exaggerations of the story, it very well could have happened”.
After all, one could easily imagine a situation in which a nation was ruled by a ruler who was better known how far his empire stretched and the stories of his opulent wealth and glamorous parties than experience in actually governing; a leader who had a history of negative attitudes and behavior regarding women; one who turned to advisors to tell him what to do rather than offer his own vision and policies and one who had at least one advisor with a dangerous and offensive attitude towards minorities.
I guess it could happen.
So, I always answered the question by saying: “If it didn’t happen, it could have” and that makes the story critical.
And the story becomes even more critical for us given the threat that the entire situation presented to the Jews of Shushan.
This Purim is different from many others. Many Jews in America feel like the story of the threat of annihilation makes it all hit too close to home to treat with the usual joy and celebration that marks the holiday.
I am sympathetic to this and understand why people would feel that way. Even one bomb threat that leaves a child or her parents feeling endangered is one too many. Even one vandalized cemetery, an act which tears at our heart and our respect for history and family, is one too many. Even one incident of anti-Semitic graffiti is one too many. We have a right and an obligation to be concerned about our and our children’s future as Jews in America.
I personally believe that talk of the existential threat to American Jews is being exaggerated to a great degree but I accept without question that the situation is different now than in past years. So let me share with you today three actions that I believe we must take given our situation at this time of Purim.
First, when presented the opportunity, we have to be Esthers. We have to stand up proudly for who we are. We can not hide. We can not feel pressured to tone down our public commitment to our faith or to our people. Perhaps, as an aside, that is part of the reason why so many of us are talking so much about the Israel baseball team in the World Baseball Classic which is writing its own Cinderella story, winning game after game. This team is made up largely of American Jews who are proud to stand up for who they are as Jews and we are all elevated by such actions in all phases of life. They and so many others provide us with good examples to follow for all of us on and off the field.
Secondly, we need to act to protect ourselves and our institutions appropriately as we have and will continue to do at Beth Israel. You need to know that we have taken appropriate steps to make our and our children’s gathering in this place as safe as possible and you will be hearing more about this in the days to come. Know that we take these issues very seriously and that we want everyone to feel securely embraced by the warmth and security community provides.
Finally, we need to do one more thing. We need to realize that as concerned as we may be about our own security as American Jews, we are part of a bigger picture and if we turn inward only, if we become so obsessed with our issues of security and safety that we ignore the other issues that are being faced in this nation, our community will still, in the end suffer, no matter how safe we are.
We can not focus so deeply on our situation that we ignore the issues that face us, among them: the availability of affordable health care to all, concern for the environment our children will inherit, the need to ensure a commitment to truth and honesty in government rather than exaggerated or fabricated alternatives, and our responsibility to be a nation which provides for safety and respect for all regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or financial status. We can not become so self-absorbed that we ignore our greater role as Americans- a role becoming more and more crucial with each passing day.
Let us look back at the book of Esther for a moment. How did the Jews of Shushan respond to their salvation from Haman’s plan? Leave aside the story of the massacre in chapter 9 and focus on the positive. The Jews of Shushan expressed their joy by celebrating and sharing gifts with their friends. But then, when Mordecai institutes the holiday of Purim for the future, another aspect of celebration is added: the people not only gave gifts to friends, but matanot l’evyonim, they gave to the needy as well. Mordecai realized that people who were restricted in their concern to those just like them were not being the people they could be or the people they should be. So, he widened the obligations of Purim to include giving tzedakah, giving charity as we do today.
Earlier today, at our Shabbat limmud Torah study, we discussed the commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek that we read in the Maftir. We read a commentary by Nechama Leibowitz, who perhaps was inspired by an exquisitely beautiful commentary on this commandment by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch about what it means to be a Jew. They both expressed the idea that the reason given in the Torah for the need to destroy Amalek: that they did not “fear God” meant that they rejected human responsibility to seek justice for all. Listen to some of Hirsch’s words written in the 19th century as he explains what we can not forget when it comes to destroying Amalek:
“Do not forget this if you should ever falter and, like Amalek, forget God and your duty, seeking only opportunities to use your superiority in matters great or small to the detriment of your fellow men. Persevere in the humanity and justice that your God has taught you. It is to these virtues that the future belongs. Justice and humanity will forever triumph over brutality and violence.”
Wise words for us to consider.
So, tonight and tomorrow, we will celebrate our salvation with unrestrained joy as our tradition demands of us. But, the next day and every day, while we seek calm and peace for ourselves, we must return to stand and to labor for justice and humanity for all.