The story is told of the adult children who joined together with their parents to celebrate Shabbat. After enjoying a delicious meal together and even cleaning up all the dishes too, they were all exhausted from a long week. As the evening hour grew late, the son saw that his parents were very tired, yet he knew that they would not go up to bed until the sabbath candles had burned out. Standing near the candles he engaged his parents in a conversation about the Jewish holidays. “Mother,” he asked, “What was the name of that holiday we just celebrated?”
“Why honey, you know,” she replied, “It was Purim!”
“Oh yeah!” he blurts out “It was PURIM!” And with an extra wisp of a breath, he extinguished one of the candles.
The daughter catching on then inquired of her father, “Dad, what’s the next Jewish holiday coming up?”
“Why honey, you know,” he replied, “It is Passover!”
“Oh yeah!” she blurted out, “ of course it’s PASSOVER!” And with an extra wisp of a breath, she extinguished the other candle.
With the Shabbat candles safely extinguished, the parents could go to bed with peace of mind. So the family wished each other “Shabbat shalom” as the door closed behind them.
Like the family in the story, we find ourselves in this season between PURIM and PASSOVER--two of the holidays which many have summed up as “they wanted to destroy us, we prevailed, let’s eat!” And the lessons we learn from each of these holidays continue to shape who we are as Jew in this sensitive moment.
Consider that for the celebration of PURIM, we traveled through history to ancient Persia, present day Iran, to remember the importance of Jewish survival. As you know, for this holiday we read from the Book of Esther which tells of the evil Haman’s desire to annihilate all the Jews and to destroy our legacy. It’s not hard to make the comparison of Haman to other villains who have tried to do similarly to the Jewish people over the millennia, and from around the world and back to Iran. Haman, Hitler, Hamas, Hezbollah, and so many more have tried in similar vein to eradicate the Jews.
No doubt, as you listened to the Megillah, you heard Haman’s reason for hating the Jews and his accusation against our people. Listen again how he couched his hatred in the argument of dual-loyalty when he approached King Ahasuerus:
**HAMAN** said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and distinctive among the nations in all the provinces of your empire. Their laws differ from every other people and they do not obey the king’s laws. If it seems right, let the king decree that they be destroyed!” (3: 5-6, 8-9)
It’s the same troupe we hear today from those who act as if they are making some moral high ground argument for stoking hatred of the Jews.
As you’ll remember, however, Mordecai upon hearing of Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews sent word to Queen Esther to seek King Ahashuarus’s intervention and protection for her people. Esther was initially reticent and feared for her own safety for the king had not called her to visit in quite some time. But Mordecai prevailed upon her saying: “Who knows if it was not for this purpose that you have attained royal position.”
When I read Mordecai’s words, I hear echoes of the words of Nobel Prize Laureate Doris Lessing who reminds us: “Coincidences are God’s anonymous signature.” In that moment Esther embraced her duty to be a strong advocate for her Jewish people and was transformed from a woman noted for her beauty, into a queen remembered for her courage. For a brief moment in history, Esther conquered the Jew hatred that masqueraded as anti-Semitism in her day, and has evolved into anti-Zionism in our day.
You see although Purim is often celebrated as a children’s holiday, its lessons are no childish matter. In a few weeks we will celebrate PASSOVER. We are commanded “v’higaddeta livacheca—and you shall tell it to your children. But similarly, this holiday is no childlike story of woe.
For the Passover story, the palace intrigue happened in Egypt. There Pharaoh declared “Let us deal shrewdly with them (the Hebrews), otherwise in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us.”(Ex1:10.) This time God overtly call to a reluctant Moses to lead the people out of Egyptian slavery. But Egypt is only the physical space of story. The Hebrew name for the location reveals the eternality of the kind of place the Jewish people has often encountered. This story is about the exodus from Mitzrayim! Mitzrayim, if we break down its etymology is made up of: mi—meaning from, tzar—from the Hebrew meaning a narrow, constricted, oppressive place, like Tsuris in Yiddish meaning troubles, and im—which indicates a plural. Moses was charged to take the people out of Tsuris—out of their problems. And he does so, as you remember, by leading them through a narrow passage of water.
I like the image of the waters parting almost like a birth canal so that the people pass through like a baby—initially dependent upon others until the baby will mature into a fully self-sufficient person.
On this Shabbat between PURIM and PASSOVER, we are reminded of the holiday stories, and we also find ourselves in the Torah portion of Tzav. This parasha contains the description of the ordination ceremony for Aaron the High Priest, and for his generations to follow. The Torah describes how an animal would be slaughtered and its blood placed on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. This, the rabbis say, would serve to consecrate the High Priest’s ear—to hear God’s word; the hand would thus be dedicated to performing God’s duties; and the foot would learn to walk in the path of righteousness.
Since we are all commanded to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” it follow that we are all to embrace that same responsibility. As we gather together on this shabbat, in anticipation of the AIPAC Policy Conference, we are here to use our ears to listen/to Shema/to hear the remarkable stories of our journey to the modern Promised Land. Some of us came here because we listened to a Mordecai, a friend or relative urging us to do so, others perhaps because we heard some Divine call. Perhaps we were reluctant at first, but if we’re here, we grasp the urgency and significance of our sacred duty to act like the superheroes of this season. In these days ahead, it’s so important to listen to each other, and to develop a greater sensitivity to hear the biblical proportions of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments which still exist in our midst: from accusations of dual loyalty, to threats from countries like ancient Persia or modern day Iran, to realizing again that many of Israel’s neighbors near and far spout the same kind of threats and are ready to deal shrewdly with her.
Like many of you, I look forward to hearing from our leaders from both sides of the aisle who use their legislative ability to deter anti-Semitism, to eradicate the BDS—boycott, divest and sanction movement that threatens the hearts of our young/our banecha/our children and Israel, and to halt the development of nuclear capabilities in Iran. I come to Policy Conference to also hear about the high-tech innovations in the security, social and medical fields that are transforming our world.
But listening to the ancient and modern news of Shushan and Mitzrayim is not enough. Remember the responsibility imposed upon Aaron. The blood placed on Aaron’s hand is the symbol of being called to action. I’m never going to be that person who serves in the US military or in the Israel Defense Force, but I know that through my AIPAC involvement, I can serve as an advocate to fortify those who do.
Let me tell you a little about why I am motivated to this end. When I spent my junior year of college in Israel, my parents made sure that I met some of their dear friends from their youth in Turkey. They had a son around my age who was in the Israeli Navy at that time, and I met many of his friends at some of the navy activities I was invited to attend. At the end of that year, I returned safely home to finish college, and he went into battle in the Lebanon War. When I returned to Jerusalem the following year for my first year of rabbinical school, I would often visit at our family friends’ home in Tel Aviv. I’ll never forget the Post Traumatic Stress screams that came from his room. You see, I had had a fun and fruitful year of study, while he had defended my values/our shared values, and his family/our Jewish family.
I come here with the prayer to help alleviate more bloodshed that ends up on the hands of our brothers and sisters—not because they bare guilt, but because they are forced to take responsibility for the soul and the security of Israel, and for the sanctity of our shared democratic values.
I believe that supporters of AIPAC endeavor to fulfill the highest mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh, of saving lives, by engaging in continuous action all year round that deepens Israel’s security and strengthens the important US-Israel alliance.
Like Esther, we may find ourselves in the right place with the necessary relationships to make a difference. Like Moses, who discovered that we are not an easy people to lead, let us, even when the people we lead may grumble a bit, remain committed to staying the course.
The thing is, Israel made it through the dangerous passage of its birth and through the early journey of the pioneers to build the country. And for the first 70 years, the country has thrived with courage and resilience to face the horrors of war and terrorism. It’s difficult for us to remember sometimes that Israel is no longer a baby and that she can stand on her own. But it’s good to know your friends have your back and are ready to stand with you at any age and at every stage/on every stage. That’s what the blood on Aaron’s big toe represents to me. For me, the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews must remain an unbreakable bond. I may not agree with everything Israel does, and vice versa. But I try to think about what the United States was like when she was 70 years old. Yesterday I wandered around the Smithsonian Museum of American History and I was reminded that in 1846 the US declared war on Mexico starting the Mexican-American War; the Civil War had not yet liberated the slaves of our country, and women only got the right to vote in 1919. Today, we still struggle with the ramifications of these historic events. There were growing pains in this country, and we’re an island. Israel is an island of democracy in a region that has only recently begun to understand all the good she has to offer.