March 2, 2012 • Parshat Tetzaveh
An enemy arose to destroy us... We managed to survive. Now we celebrate by eating special food. Or as the common saying goes, they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!
This cliche is a common theme of Jewish holidays. With Purim coming next week, we have yet another opportunity to eat our defeated enemy -- this time, in cookie form.
The story of Purim is found in the Book of Esther, one of the most enigmatic in all of Tanakh. I want to touch on just one aspect of Esther tonight.
We think of the Purim story as “Haman vs. the Jews,” but it didn’t start that way. We know that Esther had a Hebrew name, Hadassah, and that “Esther” is probably a Persian word (related to “star”).
Consider Esther 2:10: "Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordechai had told her not to reveal it." These Jews in ancient Persia are not, to be anachronistic, Hasidim. They look, speak, and dress like other Persians.
That’s why, when you look closely, you see that Haman didn’t know Mordechai was Jewish, at first. Consider this episode of their fateful encounter (Esther 3:1-6):
3:1 "Some time afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials. 2 All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. 3 Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” 4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. 5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage. 6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahashuerus."
From anger at one courtier who refuses to bow, Haman goes on a rampage. Once he finds out who Mordechai’s “people” are, he has a bigger target for his rage.
In that detail is the all too familiar history of our people living among the nations. A powerful ruler decides “the Jews” are inconvenient, second-class citizens, or worse -- less than human. Anti-semitism has often been a tool of demagogues to consolidate power; to distract and unite a disgruntled populace; to target the eternal scapegoat, the Jew. “All of our problems will be solved,” they have said through the centuries, “if we just get rid of the Jews.” (Sounds horrifyingly similar to the hateful words spewing forth from modern-day Persia, Iran.)
It’s doubly interesting that these Persian Jews, these Jews who dressed and spoke like Persians, and lived and worked among their fellow Persians, still felt enough connection to peoplehood, to unite, at least when threatened. Esther’s leadership and courage brought them together to act as Jews. I suppose it’s not so unlike Jews in the modern world, who may go in a thousand different directions, politically, but when they feel Israel is threatened, they rally around it together.
This ancient story is still the story of our people. But part of it is changing. That feeling of unity, of peoplehood, is one of the casualties of the modern world. In an open marketplace of religion and affiliations, anyone can opt in or out at any time. In the next generation, we risk seeing fewer Jews connected to Judaism, and fewer to Israel. We're already seeing it.
Some blame intermarriage, but I think that’s only a sign of a much bigger trend underneath.And by the way, talk about glorifying intermarriage -- Esther’s marriage to the definitely-not-Jewish King Ahashuerus allowed her to save the day! And the traditional commentators had to do serious mental gymnastics to avoid the obvious conclusion that she ate traif and slept with a non-Jew while living in the royal palace...)
One way we might address this challenge of a new age is to change what we mean by “Jewish unity.”
I want to share two lessons to illustrate what I mean: one from Esther, one from this week's parshah.
First, a striking detail toward the end of Esther, after the King issues his decree saving the Jews: (Esther 8:17) "And in every province and city to which the king's edict and law reached, there was happiness and joy for the Jews, a celebration and a holiday. Many of the gentiles converted to Judaism, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them."
The plain reading is that the other Persians feared the Jews’ collective might. And that has been one important element in the fight against anti-Semitism in the world: Jews who can fight back, e.g. the IDF.
But Rabbi Moses Isserles has another interpretation: “fear of the Jews”/pachad ha-yehudim can mean either, the Persians’ fear of the Jews, or that which the Jews themselves feared. Hence, Isserles teaches: "'that which the Jews feared fell upon them [the gentile Persians]' -- the awe of Heaven experienced by the Jews was of such intensity that it infused even their countrymen, inspiring them to convert."
Not by might, and not by power, said the prophet Zechariah (4:6), but by the Spirit of God.
Jewish might without Jewish spirit is amoral, empty, and purposeless. In our efforts to build up Jewish defense, let’s not forget to shore up our Jewish souls, the spiritual core, after all, of what we’re fighting for.
An anecdote, from one of my teachers: In the early 1990s, Jewish population surveys
concluded that intermarriage and assimilation were the death knell of Jewish life in America. Fears were fueled, “Jewish continuity! Jewish continuity!” became the communal battle cry, and many funds were raised. My teacher went to class in rabbinic school that year, with his teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who said to the class -- as if the one still, small voice amidst the panic -- “Jewish continuity, but for what?” That should still be our guiding question, today.
The second lesson: In this week's parshah, Tetzaveh, we heard verses chanted about the Urim & Thummim. They were, it's believed, some kind of decision-making artifacts that adorned the high priest. Notice how they’re designed and worn:
"Aaron shall carry the names of the Children of Israel over his heart...for remembrance before Adonai at all times." (Exodus 28:29)
Here we have actually a perfect image for how every Jew should carry him or herself in the world: with the names of all the Children of Israel over your heart.
I’m not going to suggest that we Jews should not disagree, even vehemently. I’m actually saying that we should embrace our unique ability to disagree for the sake of Heaven. Since the days of the first Rabbinic quarrels between Hillel and Shammai, which were amplified, even celebrated, in the Talmud, we Jews have been perfecting the art of sacred arguing.
But what I see now in the Jewish landscape, especially among American Jewry, is a failure to maintain reverence in our arguments. And it’s only going to get worse in an election year, and when so much is at stake for Israel’s future.
We would do well to learn from those Persians who “feared” the Jews and converted -- let’s be motivated, too, by Pachad HaYehudim, fear -- or, better, awe and reverence -- for other Jews, and for the divine author that we share. Let’s carry all the Children of Israel in our hearts -- those with whom we align, and those with whom we eternally argue.
Surely we are not so naive as to think that enemies won’t continue to rise against us. But we will
not defeat them if we turn each other into enemies, too.
May this coming Purim, a time of celebration -- this carnival holiday when we mask and unmask ourselves -- renew our faith in our fellow Jew, and in our commitment to find a new Jewish unity with diversity that can withstand the challenges that the 21st century brings.
La-Yehudim hayta ora v’simcha v’sason vikar (Esther 8:16).
May we too experience light, joy, happiness, and honor in our days.