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Op-Ed: A Purim Prayer

Purim is here again. Like its motto, "venahafoch hu", when nothing is quite what it seems to be, Purim represents complexity, confusion and conflict.
Published: Thursday, March 24, 2005 11:06 AM


Purim is here again. Like its motto, "venahafoch hu", when nothing is quite what it seems to be, Purim represents complexity, confusion and conflict. It was a time of shortsightedness, even blindness, of contradictory options and opinions, of danger and fear, of hopelessness, and finally, of renewed emunah (faith), teshuvah (repentance), salvation and unprecedented joy. Purim may be a joyful, "fun" holiday today, but while it was happening, it was not a fun time at all. And it took a long while to transpire - nine long years of tension and fear from the time of Achashverosh's first banquet until the Jewish celebrations of victory.

Each of our holidays is rich in connotations, different aspects, dimensions and lessons. In addition to its more obvious and familiar themes, Purim, which took place in Persia, also resonates with echoes of Eretz Yisrael. The story takes place against the background of the Churban, some seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple and the dramatic declaration by Cyrus allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and commence with rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash (Temple). The Jews, however, are slow to return and few accept the Divine opportunity. The majority prefer to remain in Babylon/Persia. The building of the wall around Jerusalem grinds to a halt and it is at this point that Achashverosh comes to the throne and Amalek, in the form of Haman, comes on stage.

The Megillah begins with a series of grand celebrations. Achashverosh is now king. Single-handedly, he alone rules the world. Confident that he sits securely on his throne, he dares even to use the utensils from the destroyed Beit Hamikdash for his opulent banquets. The Jews, anxious to retain their status as citizens-in-good-standing, comply, cooperate, are even complimented by the attention they receive from the king. Even the sight of the holy utensils from the Temple cannot keep them from the king's banquet. Many participate.

But not all. One ish Yehudi - Jew - refuses. Not just an ordinary Jew, but a member of the Sanhedrin, whose long and honorable lineage is traced all the way back to the tribes of Binyamin and Yehuda.

Binyamin was the sole son of Yaakov, the only one of the twelve tribes, who was born in Eretz Yisrael; the only one who did not bow down to Esav, the grandfather of Amalek. What is his descendant Mordechai doing in Persia? We are immediately informed that he did not emigrate of his own free will. He was among the exiles from Jerusalem with Yechonya the King of Judea. He, however, was among those who returned to the Land of Israel after the declaration of Cyrus. When the rebuilding in Jerusalem was stopped, he returned to Babylon/Persia to lobby for the resumption of the work on the wall and the Beit Hamikdash. No Babylonian Jew, he.

The Megillah concludes with the victory and salvation of the Jews and Mordechai's meteoric rise to power. The logical conclusion of the story should have been the Jews' return to Eretz Yisrael, and renewed construction of the Temple. That could have been the last glorious chapter of the Megillah. But it is not. Instead, we are told that the great deeds of Mordechai are recorded in the "annals of the kings of Medea and Persia" - a strange ending indeed. Since when does the Bible utilize outside sources to teach us Jewish history?

Perhaps because the continuation of the story was no longer Jewish history. Mordechai ruled a wold-wide empire, collected taxes, developed the economy, brought peace and prosperity to the hundred and twenty-seven provinces. He was second only to the king - a powerful, important public figure. But this was no longer Jewish history. The continuation of Mordechai's career rightfully belonged to the "annals of Medea and Persia".

Another, more direct connection between Purim and the Land of Israel is the designation of Shushan Purim. Unlike all other holidays, two days were designated for Purim - the 14th of Adar and a second day on the 15th . Although it originally marked the additional victory celebrations in the Persian capital Shushan, our sages decreed and then defined this second, special day of Purim in such a way that the People of Israel would honor and remember Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, which, at that time, were in ruins.

Despite the miracle and salvation, Purim is the one holiday when we do not say Hallel (a song of praise in the synagogue liturgy). One of the reasons given was that once the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel a communal Hallel is no longer said to commemorate miracles that took place outside the land.

While the three major holidays in the Jewish calendar are all intrinsically connected to Eretz Yisrael, and Chanukah is an Eretz Yisrael story par excellence, Purim seems to be a chutz la'aretz (exilic) story. But on Purim, nothing is what it seems to be. In addition to all the other messages inherent in Purim, we find the Megillah full of signs pointing to the eternal connection between Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Even amidst a miraculous salvation in Galut (Exile), we remain firmly anchored in the Holy Land, always connected to the center of the world, where the Torah is destined to be fulfilled and we are destined to establish a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, poised to glorify the Name of G-d for all the world.

This Purim, 5765/2005, Jews in Israel cannot help but hear echoes of the original Purim story. Just as the story of Purim unfolded over nine long, difficult, frightening years, today, almost 2,500 years later, we too are in the midst of another epic saga; this time in Eretz Yisrael itself. For the past twelve years, since the Oslo accords in 1993, life in the Land of Israel has degenerated from a constant, but low level, mini-war to a maxi-intifada, and onward to a dangerous, confusing era when the State of Israel no longer seems to know what it is doing or where it is going. No one seems to be in control and the government seems to feel that it has no choice but to "bow down" and conform to the dictates of the gentile world.

How are we to respond to the political and military issues facing us today? How fearful must we be of the nations of the world? Is it permissible to allow parts of the Holy Land, our Divine inheritance, to pass into non-Jewish hands? How can thousands of Jews be forced to leave their land, their homes and their livelihoods, their schools, yeshivot and shuls (synagogues)? Should our enemies be allowed to "inherit" our divine inheritance? One cannot help but view the entire scenario with a broken heart.

Personally, I keep thinking of the Jews in Shushan and the 127 provinces. They hoped and prayed for salvation, not knowing if, or when, or how it would come. Yet, it did come, and from the most unlikely places. We too hope and pray that we will be granted salvation from an incomprehensible governmental decree, and that we will not, chas v'chalilah, be the instrument for a universal desecration of G-d's Name. For there is no doubt that the world out there, all the descendants of Haman and Amalek and large numbers of other gentiles, are just waiting to see 8,000 Jews wrenched out of parts of Eretz Yisrael and the land given over to the modern day Philistines - a new Palestinian "nation" that never existed and who, like the original Philistines, invaded Eretz Yisrael and were (and still are) dedicated to our destruction.

Aside from the horrific desecration of G-d's Name inherent in such a scenario, how can we possibly countenance the terrible suffering which would ensue from the uprooting and dispersal of over one thousand Jewish families; hard working, upright Jews who learn, live and love Torah and who are mekadesh shem shamayim - sanctify the Heavenly Name - with their daily, unending mesirus nefesh for Eretz Yisrael? Like Queen Esther, we too must say, "Ki eychacha uchal v'raiti b'ra'ah asher yimtza et ami?" ("For how can I endure to see the evil that shall befall my people?")

Any Jew who does not contemplate this horrendous possibility with deep pain and anguish is not in sync with Am Yisrael and the communal Jewish soul. Rachel Imeinu (Our Mother) herself must again be weeping for her children; the Avot (Forefathers) must be crying; the Shechina itself must be shedding tears.

But even in the midst of our tears, Purim arrives - a time of hope and renewed opportunity. A time of surprises, salvation and joy. Just as Purim 5751/1991 brought us an amazing and thoroughly unexpected contemporary "venahafoch hu" - turnabout - with the end of the Gulf War, we pray that Purim 5765 will spell the end of the newest evil decree. We pray that the merit of the brave and wonderful people of Katif will stand us in good stead and help bring another wondrous turnabout for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Yaffa Ganz © 2005