My dear fellow Jews:
We live in a time of great peril to our small and precious nation. A modern day Haman has arisen in the country once known as ancient Persia, homeland of the Haman of antiquity. And, sadly, the threats this man spews forth are every bit as frightening as those of his evil forbear: his evil wish to wipe the Jewish homeland and its inhabitants from the face of the Earth. Indeed, this wicked man’s designs extend to Jews wherever they may reside as he makes it clear that Jewish interests anywhere are legitimate targets for his malevolent aspirations.
As Purim fast approaches let us pay close attention to its lessons, for the keys to our ancestors’ survival in those times are the very lessons we need to hold onto for our own survival now.
The Rabbis of the Talmud posed a difficulty question asking, “What did the Jews of ancient Persia do to deserve a decree of total annihilation?” The answer given seems to raise more problems than it resolves: “Because they partook of the feast of that evil man (Achashverosh, King of the Persian Empire).” This merely begs another question–after all, we are told that kosher food was provided for the Jews at the feast. What then about their participation at this meal warranted such grave punishment from Hashem?
However, when we review the condition of world Jewry at the time of Purim, we can discern the underlying causes of our ancestors’ imperiled existence. What’s more, uncanny parallels emerge between their situation and our very own today.
Following the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem and the ensuing exile from Eretz Yisrael, the Jews suffered close to seventy years of persecution and oppression in foreign lands. But with the ascent of Achashverosh to the Persian throne, a period of relative emancipation and physical freedom was ushered in for Jews living throughout the Persian Empire. Seemingly, Jews had been accepted into society; this is made evident by their invitation to attend Achashverosh’s party. Their acceptance, so to speak, created a new dilemma: By actively maintaining their isolation, they risked insulting the king. However, by participating, they risked assimilation. The consensus among most Jews at that time was to avail themselves of their new found freedom; most of them relished in their new freedoms and heartily participated in the king’s feast. They were convinced that entrée into the upper echelons of Persian society would provide safety-a welcome reprieve. In fact, this may have been the king’s very design-to eliminate Jewish identity via assimilation.
Morechai the Jew recognized the folly of this path. He understood that the more his people assimilated, the more they would be estranged from their Father in Heaven. In fact, we believe that the Al-mighty programmed into the very fabric of nature a mechanism whereby Jewish identity would forever be maintained; whenever Jews abandoned their heritage and drew too close to their gentile neighbors, a swift, severe backlash always followed. We have seen this all too clearly in our own recent history-the so-called “Enlightenment” of European Jewry, which began in the later part of the 18th Century, had its roots in German Jewry, whose leadership adopted the creed “live as a Jew at home and as a German on the street.” They believed this would appease their non-Jewish neighbors and once-and-for-all end the problem of anti-Semitism that had so dreadfully plagued European Jewry. Of course, history tragically disproved their theory.
As the Purim story unfolded, the arch nemesis of the Jews Haman, the scion of Amalek, made it clear that a Jew is a Jew; assimilated or otherwise, Jews are alike in the eyes of Jew haters throughout the ages. Regardless of their recent and (seeming) acceptance by the gentile powers, the Jews-all Jews-were no safer than they had been when isolated and living as full Jews both at home and on the street.
In the end, what saved the Jews of Persia was the lesson of Mordechai’s unwavering commitment to observing Hashem’s Torah and mitzvos in their most pristine form. Secure in his faith that the mission of the Jewish people is eternal, Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Hamen-to bow down to non-Jewish culture-testified that G-d would continue to protect His people. Indeed, Mordechai’s statement to his niece Queen Esther was one of complete faith: That her reluctance to risk her life to help her people would not alter Jewish history, only her own; that Hashem’s salvation would come to the Jewish people regardless. Because G-d doesn’t make promises He doesn’t keep. Of course, having grown up in Mordechai’s home, Esther’s faith was, ultimately, as strong as her uncle’s. And, indeed, the Al-mighty’s promise was fulfilled.
As we contemplate the forces of evil arrayed against us today, we must ask ourselves frankly and honestly if we have become too complacent, too comfortable, in the societies in which we live. Does our desire to assimilate overwhelm and obscure our commitment to our heritage-to the laws that G-d gave us? Are we as guilty today as our ancestors were thousands of years ago?
We must follow Mordechai’s lead once again, joyfully re-committing ourselves to Hashem’s Torah and mitzvos, recognizing that this is our very life’s blood. Our rabbis tell us that when the Jews of Persia recognized this truth, they once again whole-heartedly embraced the core articles of Jewish identity: Shabbos, Jewish holidays, bris millah, and t’fillin.
May we do no less. And may the merits of our commitment tip the scales in our favor and see us emerge victorious once again.
Wishing you a joyous and meaningful Purim filled with all blessings.
Special thanks to Avraham Shalom and Yehuda Leib Meth for the translation.