Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

“For If You Keep Silent At This Time…” (Esther 4:14)

March 2017

Our Jewish traditions teach us that when the month of Adar enters, joy increases. It should. For, in this month, we observe that most joyous of celebrations - Purim. It is easy to get wrapped up in the glorious story of Queen Esther’s triumph over wicked Haman (ptui, ptui, ptui), the joy of hamantaschen, the giving & receiving of mishlo’ach manot. We dress up, along with our children, & choose the fairest queen Esthers & the most scholarly Mordecais. We eat, drink, & have fun. And, according to our traditions, this is just what we are supposed to be doing.

However, there is a brooding dimension lurking behind the pomp & regalia of Purim. Just as Hook is indispensable to the story of Peter Pan, Haman is a fundamental part of Purim. Sadly, as we view the events of the world today, we come to realize that Haman is very much alive & well & still weaving his nefarious plots against the Jews. Today, the tentacles of Haman reach far. Not only do they breed in the anti-Israel bias of the UN, not only do they thrive in the blatantly antisemitic rhetoric & activities of the BDS movement, they are beginning to reach out & take root right here in the US, to a degree unprecedented during the last 20 years. The world, to me at any rate, is beginning to feel more like 1933 than 2017. Nowadays, at least, we do have a few friends: many Protestants & the Catholic Church, to name a few.

Still, for me there will always be a melancholy surrounding this most joyous of times. You see, 1 week before Purim, 21 years ago, my friend & fellow student Matt Eisenfeld & his lovely fiancé, Sara Duker, were blown out of existence as they were riding the No. 18 bus in Israel. It is a grim coincidence that the number 18, in Hebrew, means “chai,” or life. To those of us who knew them, some crazed Haman’s act of martyrdom robbed the Jewish world of a wonderful Torah scholar whose only sin was being Jewish. I think Haman would have approved of this absurd senselessness as do many in the world today. Considering the political climate in the US today, the number of bomb threats against Jewish institutions, & the number of Jewish cemetery desecrations, I wonder how long it will be before another Matt & Sarah perish right here in our own back yard.

I don’t know if the proximity to Purim was a factor or not in that maniac’s choice of date & time 2 decades ago, but I do know that the deed, & hundreds more like it since then, have left their impact on our world. In spite of all this, we go on celebrating because, in the end, celebrating life - chai, or 18 - is the only sane response to the mindless hatred, terror & wanton death that always follows in the wake of Haman’s re-emergence.

There is another dimension to Purim, one that we seldom teach in Religious School. The events described in the book of Esther, the foundation of our Purim celebration, take place in the Diaspora. They do not occur in Israel. Like the events that we celebrate on the later-day festival of Hanukkah, which does take place in the Holy Land, Purim celebrates a victory over the forces of intolerance, greed, & unbridled hate, the same motives animating modern day antisemitism in the US. In both the Purim & the Hanukkah stories, the Jews do not sit idly by & wait for salvation. They took up arms & provided for their own defense & succeeded. This is a lesson we may wish to keep in mind in times of peril such as these.

This year, when you munch your goodies, when you don your crowns & fake beards, when you stamp out Haman’s (ptui, ptui, ptui) name, remember our brethren who cannot celebrate with us this year because too many people think that Haman has a legitimate grievance against our people. Perhaps from his insane perspective he does. While there is some comfort in the conviction that the Hamans & Hitlers will always be defeated, the price is high & the sorrow runs deep. And this is just what Torah predicts: That God will always be at war with Amalek. Let us wish God a speedy victory over hatred & bigotry. Moreover, let us firmly resolve not to become silent victims of that hate & bigotry, but to side with God against it. Hag Purim kasher v’same’ach.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman