Purim and Passover: the lessons of history

Purim and Passover: two festivals confronting antisemitism

In the coming months we celebrate Purim and Passover, two very different chagim (holidays) but with common themes and lessons. Both point to two real challenges to the continued existence of the Jewish people. Both tellus that Jewish history contains real and brutal efforts to destroy our people, pointing to a constant aim in the arc of Jewish history – the attempt to hurt us, destroy us, wipe us off the map.

The book of Esther, which contains the story of Purim, reminds us of Haman’s attempt some 2,500 years ago to annihilate every Jewish man, woman and child. It is the first description of the existential threat that springs up periodically, reminding us that Jew hatred can arise at any juncture, often without much of a coherent ideology. As scholars of antisemitism have correctly suggested, it is also a barometer of society, an indication of an inherent weakness in the society from which it originates.

Perhaps that is why we are so troubled today because we know that the dramatic rise in antisemitism across Continental Europe, the Arab Middle East and even in Britain as well as the USA, indicates fundamental weaknesses at the core of our society. Going after the Jews never ends well for anyone – certainly not for the Jews, but not for the rest of society, either.

What saved the Jews in ancient Persia, before the rule of Ayatollahs? The drama of Esther points to the heroic behaviour of the Queen who, with the support and direction of her cousin Mordechai, went straight to the King, Ahasuerus, and demanded freedom for the Jews of Shushan. When she realised what was really afoot, she was not afraid to speak out and expose Haman’s murderous plot. In other words, the message of Megillat Esther is that cowardice and fear of exposing antisemitism allows Jew haters to succeed. Stand up and speak out, yesterday, today and tomorrow!

At Passover the Jewish people, as we read in the Haggadah, faced excruciating bondage in Egypt, whips and burdens that constituted our people’s unbearable suffering at the hand of others. But through Moses’ courageous leadership and his challenge, together with his brother Aaron, to the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Israelites, precursors of the Jewish people, were liberated from bondage and found the gift of freedom that enabled them to create a nation state based on Torah and the word of God.

One of the most startling facts of the Exodus is that the Israelites celebrated Passover, the Seder, BEFORE they left Egypt, not after liberation. The reason, according to our Sages, is that the value of freedom had to be articulated first, assimilated inside every member of Israel, before they could be truly free. In other words, freedom begins from inside. No external enemy can defeat us or destroy us if we are free inside, if we stay loyal to our religious values and heritage. No enemy can destroy us if we remain true to ourselves.

So, to Jeremy Corbyn and all his antisemitic followers,to so many in the Arab Middle East, to supporters of the rising BDS movement, we must affirm our commitment to pride in ourselves, to combat assimilation and rampant acculturation, the breakup of the Jewish family, and the scourge of Jewish selfhatred. The internal struggle against all thosefactors that weaken Jewish observance and understanding of who we are and what we represent to the rest of the world, will be the test as to whether antisemites succeed in weakening us. From Esther and Mordechai, Moses and Aaron, and the resolve of all those Jews who knew who and what they were, we are here today, under orders to keep our Judaism and Jewish identity strong and mighty, impenetrable to attack.

The argument as to which factor is more important, freedom from external threats or from internal weakness and assimilation, is clearly spelled out in the Haggadah. Shmuel (2nd century rabbi) argues that the greatest threat to the Jewish people is the external enemy (“We were slaves in the land of Egypt”). Rav claims it is idolatry or, in modern terms, our abandonment of Judaism, our exit from Jewish life (“My father was an Aramean”, meaning an idolator, as Abraham was brought up to be).

What do you think is the greater threat to Jewish existence? Enemies bent on destroying us or the enemy within us? There is ample material here for a good discussion in synagogue when we celebrate Purim in March, and at your Seder tables in April.

I extend my warm wishes to you and your loved ones for a joyful celebration of Purim and a meaningful and blessed Passover.
Mo’adim l’simcha (times for joy)

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler