April 13, 2024 -

Purim’s Cautionary Tale for the Modern State of Israel

Rabbi Joshua Caruso shares his March 3 sermon about Purim and our current world of increasing antisemitism:

Happy Purim!

It’s the time of year to enjoy sweet-filled Hamantaschen, swing the grogger, and attend the Megilla reading!

It’s common for folks to dress up in costumes, be silly in the Purim Spiel, and take the kids to the carnival. It is even a mitzvah to imbibe alcohol (for those who drink), all in an effort to make merry and rejoice over the Jews’ victory thanks to our heroes, Mordechai and Esther. Of course, any good story must have its enemies, and the dastardly Haman (“BOO”) fills the role as the central figure set on killing all the Jews in the City of Shushan.

I don’t think I am spoiling anything if I fast forward to the end, and sum up the story as follows:

They tried to kill us.

We won.

Let’s eat!

And yet…there is more to the story of Purim than is often told. In fact, if certain scriptural stories were given the equivalent of movie ratings, the Purim tale would qualify under the “No one under 17 allowed without a parent or guardian.”

Let’s review…

After Vashti denies the king his desire that she trot out before him as he sought out his queen…and after Esther and Mordecai’s success in turning the tables on the king’s plan…and after Esther reveals her Jewish identity in the palace…and even after the wicked Haman (“BOO”) is impaled on a stake, there is an accounting of death and destruction at the hands of the Jews that largely goes untold amidst all the frivolity, food, and fun.

In the words of Maharat Ruth Balinsky Freidman: “Purim is a brutally violent holiday.”

The Book of Esther, known as Megilat Esther, states that on the thirteenth day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the very day when our enemies had planned to attack and execute the Jews of Shushan…

…the tables were now turned: the Jews overpowered those who hated them! The Jews had gathered in the cities…to lay hands on those who were seeking their ruin. Not one man was able to stand up against them—fear made cowards of them all…Mordecai by now was a power in the palace…So the Jews finished off all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering them right and left, and did as they pleased to those who hated them.

The massacre, ordered at the direction of our heroes, was so wide in scope that Queen Esther had to ask the king for a day’s extension of the decree in order for the carnage to continue. In an epilogue to this challenging passage, the Book of Esther sums things up:

The next day…they took it easy and celebrated with much food and laughter…

Friends, the language of Jewish power (in the Purim story, and in the modern State of Israel) lands differently for some of us, particularly because the story of our people is often told through the frame of our oppression, servitude, and extermination.

And yet, Scripture tells tales of Jewish power time and again – starting with Abraham’s role as a militant conqueror who defeats his enemies, and follows with Jacob’s sizable largesse, not to mention Joseph’s close proximity to power in ancient Egypt. Further on, a new generation of Israelites conquer the Land of Israel, ruling over its enemies, and handing down authority to numerous kings down the line.

But our time in the Diaspora, 2,000 years of it, marked Jews as second-class citizens, oppressed by the Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, and Nazis to simply name the headliners.

Even so, the turn of the 20th century brought along possibility for Diaspora Jews here in America, and eventually the establishment of the State of Israel. It’s not a small thing to say that, in our own time, we have seen a striking shift in Jewish self-determination.

As such, Jews became powerful again, but always kept the memory of the oppressions readily accessible in the rear-view mirror (we do that each Shabbat in our prayers). Memory, Zachor, is what maintains our story of oppression…a reminder that any power we may possess can easily be stripped away.

In fact, the Shabbat right before the holiday of Purim is Called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory.

On this day, we remember the prototypical biblical enemy, Amalek, who, our sages teach, rises up in every generation. “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. (Lo Tishkach) Do not forget!” says the Book of Deuteronomy.

At a time of increased antisemitism, this biblical passage is a cautionary tale that we don’t know when the “Amaleks” of our time will rise up and strike again.

Perhaps, then, the Purim story of the massacre perpetrated by our own people – living in exile – provides a scriptural catharsis of sorts; WE are the ones in control, calling the shots; WE are the masters of our own destiny…and that must have felt SO GOOD to the authors of the Megillah of Esther!

Maharat Balinsky may have put it best when she says, “(the Purim tale) is a persecuted Jew in exile’s violent fantasy of revenge”.

And yet…it is reasonable for many of us to skip over the fun of Purim and observe Shabbat Zachor tonight with heavy hearts. If only it was as simple as saying, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” What with antisemitism and unrest, clearly visible in our rear-view mirrors, the road signs ahead also signal trouble.

Today, in the State of Israel, we have seen the ways in which Jewish power can be controversial, self-serving, and even downright dangerous. Two major crises have emerged since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu assumed power once again with the most radical coalition of political parties every assembled in the Kenesset, Israel’s governing body.

First, proposed legislation, likely to go through, will limit the powers of the judiciary in favor of legislative decree. The bill in play now, featuring massive reforms, exploits the fact that Israel has no constitution; only a Declaration of Independence from which to derive Basic Law.

If the reforms pass, the changes will likely impact all reaches of Israeli life, including the economy, less accountability to the military, stripped-down rights for vulnerable communities, reduced protections for law-abiding Palestinians, and relaxed restrictions for politicians who have previously been indicted, tried and convicted of corruption.

Second, one result of these reforms gives radical Israeli settlers free reign to terrorize their Palestinian neighbors as they wish with little recrimination. Earlier this week, following the unconscionable murder of two Israeli settler brothers, more than 100 Jewish settlers initiated a riotous rampage that can be likened to a pogrom before law enforcement could do its job to identify and punish the murderers who killed the brothers.

These Jewish terrorists set fire to homes cars and stores – and assaulted residents. A 37-year-old Palestinian man was killed as a result of the violence.

Following this sickening uprising, these so called “religious” terrorists had the temerity to halt for a short break to recite their evening prayers, in the midst of what they had wrought, before resuming their path of destruction.

If Purim is a holiday where all is supposed to be turned on its end, then everything that our tradition teaches about compromise, resolution and peace has perversely followed suit.

As a progressive Zionist, I will not defend this behavior, and every diaspora Jew – every Zionist – should be calling it out. It is still possible to believe in the viability of the State of Israel as a beacon of the ironclad values…but the current government is threatening that vision.

If the judicial reforms pass, the normal checks and balances that have been holding together the idea of peace will fall away. For example, there are nine illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank that are deemed illegal by current Israel law. Should the reforms pass, there will be nothing stopping extremist settlers from seizing that land without culpability. As we know all too well, scripture can be weaponized to foster and promote radical ideas that are not consistent with the spirit and force of our faith.

Sadly, our Jewish brothers and sisters are using our sacred texts to justify their profane behavior.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

…some have likened the Palestinians to Amalek and, as such, have justified any violence against this people. It is no coincidence that Baruch Goldstein, a fanatical Jewish settler in the West Bank, chose Purim day to carry out his 1994 massacre of Palestinian worshipers in Hebron.

When equated, by those of a certain political viewpoint, to the contemporary Jewish experience, the Purim story becomes an incitement to violence and not simply a satire about a distant time and place. The seriousness with which some have understood the megillah’s apparent sanction of mass murder demands that those of us bothered by the ending of the story offer an equally serious ethical response.”

Back to the Book of Esther. I’d like to zero in on one single verse that highlights the Jewish attack on the people of Shushan: the Jews finished off all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering them right and left, and did as they pleased to those who hated them

וַיַּכּ֤וּ הַיְּהוּדִים֙ בְּכָל־אֹ֣יְבֵיהֶ֔ם מַכַּת־חֶרֶב וְהֶרֶג וְאַבְדָן וַיּעֲשׂ֥וּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם כִּרְצוֹנָם׃

This verse reveals that there are two separate groups of adversaries: the אֹ֣יְבֵיהֶ֔ם, who are the “Enemies” of the Jews (yes, that is where “Oy Vey” comes from!), and the שֹׂנְאֵיהֶם, the “Haters of the Jews.

What’s the difference?

Rabbi Meir Leibush, known as the Malbim, points out that there is a distinction. The enemies were killed outright, but the haters were not treated as such…the text delineates a difference between enemies and haters.

I think there is a learning here.

Jews have many enemies in this world: virulent antisemites who want to make us go away. This fact is evidenced by last week’s Day of Hate, designated by white supremacists, and this week’s revelation that a person, after making threats on social media, had traveled to the Michigan statehouse to carry out attacks on Jewish members in the government. These people are enemies of the Jews, and they seek to destroy us; they must be stopped, and law enforcement should do everything in their power to find, detain, and punish them before they reach any of us.

AND… there are others in the world who lambast us, criticize us, protest us, call Israel an apartheid state, and oppose us…but I would argue that not every person who launces rebuke at us is an enemy of Israel. It is the challenging role of each and every one of us to discern who our enemy really is.

That leads me to a thought: what does it say about Israel’s current government structure that arrested only a fraction of the radical Jews who wantonly terrorized a Palestinian village, but sprayed tear gas, launched stun grenades and opened water cannons on the largely peaceful protests of individuals who are pushing back on radical reforms that are endangering the future of their Jewish home?

With that in mind, the great Chassidic master, Levi Yitchak of Berditchev, asserts that Shabbat Zachor should not only be about remembering our external enemies…

He writes:

Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek…but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart.

So long as the descendants of Amalek are in the world—and each of us is also a small world, when the power of evil…arises in each of us, Amalek is still in the world…

The eternal struggle against Amalek, according to Levi Yitzhak, is “an inside job”, a matter of our own ongoing work on ourselves.

May we all seek to discern who are the true enemies in our world, and may we also work to address the enemy within.

Rabbi Joshua Caruso