Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, March 20, 2024


Illustration Credit: Costumewonderland.com.au


            One of the sentences that keeps popping up in my "Duolingo" Yiddish language app is a Purim related utterance:  "ha-yur hub ich mich nisht farshtellt", meaning, "this year, I did not dress up [in a costume]." With Purim approaching, this year, that sentence takes on a darker meaning.
            A word of personal explanation: Over the past two years, I have been studying the Yiddish language.  I have long reproached myself for not having learned it as a child, when it would have been so natural, simply by speaking with my grandparents and my mother. Again, after completing six semesters of German in college, picking up Yiddish would have been quite simple, and I had the desire to accomplish that life goal.... But I did not move forward. Life was pulling me in different directions, and my equally strong desire to be fluent in Hebrew claimed the time needed for foreign language mastery.  Fast forward to today: the roots of my family tree have been gone for decades, and now, the effort to learn the Yiddish that watered those roots brings me closer to them in some manner. It is the mamaloshn, the mother tongue, of my mama, of her own mama and papa, and of theirs, going back centuries, from the USA to Ukraine, from the Bronx to Belarus and beyond.
            Back to the Yiddish sentence. Why didn’t the speaker dress up in a Purim costume this year? The sentence gives no hint. Maybe the speaker was in mourning. Maybe life had sudden and time-sensitive demands.  
            This year, there could be a different reason: fear. Maybe the speaker is concerned not to advertise his or her Jewishness in a dangerous space… a space that has become dangerous since the catastrophe of October 7, 2023, when the massive Hamas attack on Israel unleashed a tsunami of antisemitism.
            Let us anchor this meditation properly, in Scripture.  Please recall the scene in the Book of Esther, Chapter 2, when the most beautiful maidens are taken to the fortress of Shushan, housed in the king's harem, and prepared for months, for each one to have her one night with the king. The conclusion of that contest will be the naming and coronation of a new queen to replace the deposed Vashti.


Illustration: Movie Still from the film One Night with the King: Mordechai (John Rhys-Davies) and his young cousin Hadassah (Tiffany Dupont).
            The young, orphaned Jewish woman Hadassah, growing up in Shushan as a ward of her cousin, Mordecai, is among the women being taken to the harem. Mordecai cautions her not to reveal her true name or her religious/ ethnic identity.  The Bible does not explain his advice. She follows his guidance and assumes the proper Persian name Esther.
            The narrative art of the Biblical story often involves motivation for an earlier plot element emerging from later action or interior monologue. Mordecai might have been trying to shield Hadassah from danger. One chapter further into the story, we learn that once the new Prime Minister, Haman, learns that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman's fury against the one man who did not kowtow to him becomes a genocidal rage against all the Jews.  By the end of chapter 3 of the Book, Haman has convinced King Achashverosh to order the extermination of all the Jews of the empire. Facing this new challenge, in chapter 4, Mordecai convinces Esther/ Hadassah to risk her own life to thwart the genocidal plot.  The critical moment comes in chapter 7, when Esther invites the king and the prime minister to a wine soiree and reveals her true identity.  Haman begs for his life, but in so doing, he invades the queen’s personal space. Seeing that, the king is outraged and orders Haman’s execution. 
            Even Esther’s dramatic unmasking and the swift dispatch of Haman does not end the threat.  In chapter 8, the queen pleads unsuccessfully for the countermanding of the royal order of genocide. She has to settle for a royal edict of permission granted to the Jews to defend themselves on the day of the attack.  Only in chapter 9, the climax of the book, are the Jewish people saved, and by their own self-defense, not by any action taken by the Empire on their behalf. 
            All of this feels so close at hand in 2024:
            As for Hadassah being told to conceal her identity: It pains me to see my college students worrying about whether to conceal their Jewish necklaces or kippot.  In France, Islamist attacks on Jews have been going on for years, and the Orthodox rabbinate in that country has permitted Jewish men to dispense with the kippah in order to preserve their lives.  Since October, with the Progressive Left lining up behind Hamas and whitewashing their mass murder, rape, sexual mutilation and kidnapping as so-called-resistance, our sense of insecurity has spiked. Reports of "no-go zones" in central London, where a Jew risks his safety, make me wonder if it is 2024 or perhaps 1939 all over again. 
            And now, the tidal wave of antisemitism has crashed on our American shore. The popular Jewish singer Matisyahu has had to cancel three of his performances on his current tour, because the venue operators are surrendering to hints of violence from anti-Israel groups. This week, an antisemitic banner was hung from pedestrian bridges in Cincinnati attempting to link the popular St. Patrick’s Day revelry with anti-Jewish hatred. Antisemitism is more bold-faced now in America than any time in our nation’s history since the isolationists and German American Bundists of the 1930’s. 

Illustration: Anti-American and Antisemitic poster displayed in Tehran on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the US Embassy. Credit; Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2019.
             As for the threat continuing after the hanging of Haman: Even with Haman dead, his cohorts continued to attempt genocide.  This too feels like a message for 2024. Israel may yet eliminate the top murderer in Hamas. But there will be other proxies of Iran, other agents bent on the destruction of the Jewish people in Israel and beyond.  They are also bent on taking down America.
             As for the Persian emperor refusing to intervene to stop the genocide: The world—including the United States of America-- has not stopped Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. That is an existential danger to the existence of the state of Israel, a danger that is totally ignored in the news-cycle driven coverage of the Middle East.  If Israel finds a way to feed the hungry Palestinians--- and make no mistake, they are hungry because Hamas wants to use their hunger to turn world opinion ever more against Israel-- even if and when their hunger is assuaged, the basic existential problem will remain.  Iran wants to destroy Israel. It has said so many times. It has armed proxies to be channels of its aggression.  Why does the world refuse to signify this?
             The Book of Esther is not a work of secular history. It is a religious reflection upon some of the historical experiences of the Jews in the Persian period.  Its lesson, therefore, is based on its message, not on journalistic criteria. It reminds us that, at all times, there are people who are driven by hate and who use their image of the Jew as the way to concretize their hatred. When there are threats to the general peace, those haters can find a fertile field for spreading their antisemitic message.  Haman had no lack of Persians willing to fight on his side.
             The Book of Esther was set in ancient Persia.  Threats against all the Jewish people coming from modern-day Persia are all too real.  May this Purim be a time when we strengthen our resolve to defend ourselves. We want the peace of coexistence, not the peace of non-existence.
             I continue to hope in a day after, when the Gazans themselves will be free to express the view that the combination of Hamas indoctrination and repression totally suppresses: that Hamas is not a help to them but a lethal obstacle to their own advancement. Then they can belatedly take up the offer that Israel made in 2005, when it pulled out of Gaza completely.  Wouldn't living side by side by better than killing and dying?
            This Purim, I am wary.  In certain spaces, I wear my cap, not my kippah.  In others, I do wear my kippah in public, but first I scan the space, looking to identify threats.
             Thus far, those who have approached me and signified my kippah are generally friendly to me. They quickly self-identify as Evangelical Christians, telling me that they are praying for Israel. I appreciate that. I also know that those same people may likely support missionary to the Jews in Israel and around the world to win converts for their own faith community. Hence, I am ambivalent, grateful for support in a difficult time, but feeling less than truly and permanently accepted as a neighbor in faith.
             May Purim this year be a steppingstone to a more peaceful future.