Each Spring Judaism celebrates the holiday of Purim based upon the story found in the biblical Book of Esther. The holiday has always been marked by a balance of fun and seriousness. Children and adults dress in costume and humorous plays often accompany the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll of the Book of Esther.
By Peter Geffen
The Book itself is a surprise, never mentioning God and seeming to turn everything upside down. The villain, Haman plots to kill all the Jews of the Kingdom and is in turn hung himself on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai the Jew. The Queens in replaced by the beautiful young Esther who first hides her Jewish identity and then reveals it to save her fellow Jews from Haman’s murderous edicts. The almost Jewish victims become powerful and eventually kill thousands of their non-Jewish countrymen/women. It’s like those fairy tales of old where the victims become empowered and revenge becomes the practice of the day. (By the way, the day is also observed by giving gifts to the poor, sharing a festive meal with friends and family, and sending packages of different kinds of food to friends.). Finally, the day contains an encouragement to drink until when listening/following the reading of the scroll we cannot tell the difference between the names of Haman and Mordechai.
But lately, I have been wondering: Can I celebrate Purim this year? I think so, but only with caution. Only with an awareness that teaching stories about “getting even” may, in our day, actually be acted out in real-time. Words have meaning and power. If we are going to recite words in our synagogues that we now can see are not just words, but directives, maybe even command to some of the basest and crudest of our people, we had better begin to offer some caution. We have a tradition of reading the potential Divine curses in the Torah in a whisper (almost inaudibly). I think we should apply this practice to the reading of the 9th chapter of the Book of Esther. I am tempted to simply skip it, but I prefer to read it in a bit of shame. To read it as a quiet cautionary tale. And on the larger scale, I wonder too if Purim should be transformed from a day of drunkenness to a day of permanent reflection on how low we too can sink if we do not guard our values in the most powerful ways possible.
Until this week we might have thought ourselves incapable of what the Book of Esther describes in Chapter 9, of wanton acts of destruction, brutal and random acts of physical violence against people whose guilt or innocence is unknown to us, of Jews participating in a “pogrom” (as the Israeli press is calling it) against “others”. We would have thought it inconceivable to witness so-called religious (kippah-wearing) Jews pausing in their acts of destruction to “daven maariv”, to offer the evening prayer as they set fire to people’s homes, cars and businesses. Do they really believe that God will bless their acts that are in point of fact, acts of utter defamation of God’s name (hillul hashem)?
KIVUNIM students arrive in Morocco on Shushan Purim, on the day those who live within walled cities observe this complex festival and celebration. Is it a tale of Mordechai’s devotion?, of Esther’s hesitation followed by courage and commitment?, of the defeat of the foe?, of classical antisemitism?, of retribution?, of mass murder?
When in Morocco in each of the past 17 years we have always felt such pride in standing with our Moroccan Muslim brothers and sisters in the path of peace and justice. This year, what shall we say: “It wasn’t us! We don’t think or behave that way!” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Will our gracious hosts wonder if we think like the settlers who burned the village of Hawara? Will they wonder if we think like the official of the Israel Government who called for the village to be obliterated and completely destroyed? Will they wonder if we are just bystanders, willing to look away when innocent people suffer as long as they are not “us” in some way? Will they no longer trust us?
And what of the absolute threats to democracy filling the halls of the Israeli Knesset (parliament)…words filled with “nullification and vituperation” as Dr. King said in his “I have a Dream” speech in 1963. There are a few modern alternatives to democracy. One was communism and the other IS fascism. Is it possible to not recognize what is happening around us? In the United States, we had an afternoon of violence on January 6, 2022, that shook and stunned us, but we then returned to normalcy…a normalcy of falsehood and deceit in the halls of Congress and now daily on our television screens. In the United States, not a week passes without a brutal act of gun violence that ends in murder or mass killing. Our elected leaders seem to be too weak to STAND UP. And in our beloved Israel, in the face of enormous and majority opposition from across the political spectrum, a small but powerful group of people are about to take the entire country over the precipice and risk all that has been achieved in the short history of the State. Are we the good Germans of today, the ones who don’t see, or listen carefully enough to what is happening around us? To the biblical “handwriting on the wall?”
If there was a time for KIVUNIM students, alumni, parents, friends, staff members, and leadership to apply what we have learned over all these years of “building world consciousness” it is Now. Yes, of course, it is true that: “If I am not for myself, WHO will be for me.” But it is also true: “And if I am ONLY for myself, WHAT AM I?” But most powerful of all is the conclusion of this amazing teaching of Rabbi Hillel the Elder: “If NOT NOW, (for God’s sake) WHEN??
You ask what shall we do? Let’s begin to gather to think and plan. Dr. King used to teach: “the time is always ripe to do right.”
Peter Geffen, President and Founder of The KIVUNIM Institute and Founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC, former Director of the Israel Experience Program for the CRB Foundation and one of the most respected Israel education specialists in the world. He has been a social activist since serving as a civil rights worker for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965-66 and has been deeply involved in Arab-Jewish co-existence work since the early 1960’s.