For those paying attention, I haven’t written anything in the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, my Friday (the day I usually write my message) got tied up with an email threat to the congregation, which turned out to have been a boilerplate message that was also sent to other congregations across the country. I spent a part of that day not only getting ready for our monthly Shabbat Salon, but talking with the authorities and congregational leaders about safety and security.
And the Friday following was in the immediate wake of the attacks on the mosques in New Zealand, and I felt the need to be present for our local Muslim community. I spent my afternoon in prayer and community with our Muslim friends and neighbors.
Time, then, has become a premium, and I was drawn to other places than my weekly message. For that I apologize, and believe you will forgive me.
But I have had the same message on my mind for the past few weeks, and its relevance is unfortunately not time bound, nor disconnected from the two events mentioned above. Within these two weeks, we have been confronted with two threats: one unfounded and unsubstantiated, the other unfortunately frightening real. Both were rooted in hatred, a hatred that can and will boil over into violence and murder. The response to both is what we need to do regardless of the outcome: we need to take care of our own safety, and do what we can to protect ourselves, and we need to show up for others to let them know we care about them too, and are there to protect them.
As we draw towards Purim, which falls on Wednesday, we get ready by practicing jokes, baking hamantaschen, prepping our costumes, and dusting off the megillah. What we don’t often dwell on is the challenging parts of Purim: while we celebrate the topsy-turvy nature of life, how that which is bad can be turned into the good, we don’t often remember that the “bad” in the story is a planned genocide rooted in hatred of the Jews.
Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews is averted when Esther, in a courageous act, defies royal protocol and approaches the king to expose Haman. And so therefore we celebrate. But it would do us well to remember that while we should celebrate deliverance, we should not take such threats lightly. Indeed, in recent times we have seen increases in anti-Semitic activity, in both words and deeds.
In the Purim story, there is an allusion to an edict that Haman sends out to the country in the name of the King announcing the impending killing of the Jews. The text of the book of Esther is silent on what the edict contains. The ancient rabbis, however, fill in the gaps with a midrash, or commentary, imagining what the letter said. It is quite a fascinating midrash, and appears in a slightly different form in different texts. Here is the commentary, as found in the anthology Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg:
The edict issued by Ahasuerus against the Jews ran thus: “To all the peoples, nations, and races: Peace be with you! This is to acquaint you that one came to us who is not of our nation and of our land, an Amalekite, the son of great ancestors, and his name is Haman. He made a trifling request of me, saying: ‘Among us there dwells a people, the most despicable of all, who are a stumbling-block in every time. They are exceeding presumptuous, and they know our weakness and our shortcomings. They curse the king in these words, which are constantly in their mouths: “God is the King of the world forever and ever: He will make the heathen to perish out of His land: He will execute vengeance and punishments upon the peoples.” From the beginning of all time they have been ungrateful, as witness their behavior toward Pharaoh. With kindness he received them, their wives, and their children, at the time of a famine. He gave up to them the best of his land. He provided them with food and all they needed. Then Pharaoh desired to build a palace, and he requested the Jews to do it for him. They began the work grudgingly, amid murmurings, and it is not completed unto this day. In the midst of it, they approached Pharaoh with these words: “We wish to offer sacrifices to our God in a place that is a three days’ journey from here, and we petition thee to lend us silver and gold vessels, and clothes, and apparel.” So much did they borrow, that each one bore ninety ass-loads off with him, and Egypt was emptied out. When, the three days having elapsed, they did not return, Pharaoh pursued them in order to recover the stolen treasures. What did the Jews? They had among them a man by the name of Moses, the son of Amram, an arch-wizard, who had been bred in the house of Pharaoh. When they reached the sea, this man raised his staff, and cleft the waters, and led the Jews through them dryshod, while Pharaoh and his host were drowned….
“‘To this day they are among us, and though they are under our hand, we are of none account in their eyes. Their religion and their laws are different from the religion and he laws of all the other nations. Their sons do not marry with our daughters, our gods they do not worship, they have no regard for our honor, and they refuse to bend the knee before us. Calling themselves freemen, they will not do our service, and our commands they heed not.’
“Therefore the grandees, the princes, and the satraps have been assembled before us, we have taken counsel together, and we have resolved an irrevocable resolution, according to the laws of the Medes and Persians, to extirpate the Jews from among the inhabitants of the earth. We have sent the edict to the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of my empire, to slay them, their sons, their wives, and their little children, on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar none is to escape. As they did to our forefathers, and desired to do unto us, so shall be done unto them, and their possessions are to be given over to the spoilers. Thus shall ye do, that ye may find grace before me. This is the writing of the letter which I send to you, Ahasuerus king of Media and Persia.”
It’s a fascinating text because it imagines what the “charges” would be against the Jews from someone who wishes to destroy them. And it’s even more fascinating to think that these were rabbis imagining what those charges would be. And what is still even more fascinating, is that so much of what is written here, in a text centuries old, still resonates today.
In this “letter” the Jews are charged with lack of loyalty to the nation in which they live, of being foreigners and different, of not being grateful to the ruling powers, to theft and desiring of wealth, and of possessing magical powers that are used to overthrow governments. This probably sounds familiar. Not much has changed between the anti-Semitic arguments of the past, and the anti-Semitic arguments of today.
One could read into this a sense of hopelessness, that things will never change no matter what is done. But that would not be reading the whole story. For again, the entire story of Purim tells of the overcoming of this hatred and the averting of the violent plot. Hatred does not win out in the end. It may persist, but so does hope, courage, community, love, and respect.
So this Purim, let us remember the persistence of hatred. It existed then, it exists today. And let us remember that we have the tools to overcome it, embodied in the figure of Esther, who stood along side her neighbors, spoke out on behalf of the oppressed, exposed those who would seek to destroy others, and used her privilege to the benefit of all, not just herself.