Over the next two months, we will celebrate Purim and Passover, both festivals laden with meaning relevant to us today. Yet, we often mark them without considering their importance to our collective being. Remembering what they mean to us is critical because we live in an age increasingly forgetful of the past. The new “histories” are mostly attempts to rewrite the past, often bypassing truth, especially regarding Holocaust denial.
For example, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, billed as a “new history of the world”, completely eliminates the uniquely Jewish factors of the Holocaust and instead interprets what happened to the Jews as an unfortunate by-product of Germany’s food shortage in June 1941! I call this kind of “history” (one of many, all very trendy) attempts to turn history upside down and fabricate new truths to accommodate political or social agendas.
We know all about short memory. In the Torah, after Bnei Yisrael were liberated from bondage in Egypt and crossed miraculously into Sinai, they almost immediately complained about the lack of water, forgetting all they had overcome and achieved, through God’s help and Moses’ leadership. Such is human nature, as we learn from the Rabbis. We forget perspective, we forget what has only just happened.
Judaism has always attempted, through observance of our festivals and even in the weekly recounting of the Torah tale of our ancestors’ travel through Sinai, to preserve memory as the link to understanding. We have yahrzeit, we have yizkor. We try not to forget our loved ones’ lives. They may no longer be physically here but they remain preserved in our hearts and souls.
We do not let go. We remember. At Purim, we go back some 2,400 years to remember how the foreign minister of the Persian Empire, Haman, attempted to exterminate the Jewish people. The story of the Book of Esther is not the first or last time this has happened in the course of our people’s long history. We take seriously the episodic attempts to destroy us as a people. Purim celebrates a miraculous deliverance.
And is it not interesting that in today’s Iran, as in ancient Persia, the ruling theocratic regime continues to declare its desire to destroy the State of Israel? They are quite open about it. Iran is the only nation state since the Second World War to declare openly its desire to destroy another nation state.
What is our response to all this? Like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish people today are ready to meet the challenge head on and to remind the world of the real danger of the rhetoric of hatred and destruction. Yet we celebrate raucously, to emphasise our will to live and outlive any tyrant’s or antiSemite’s ambition to stamp out the Jewish people.
From the story of Passover we learn the struggle for true freedom, which brings with it responsibility.We also learn how our ancestors viewed the importance of establishing a Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael, the land promised by the Almighty.
The battles with hostile neighbours, the readiness to fight for our right to be free in our own Jewish land, all this is reflected today in Israel’s struggle for true security and peace in our ancient homeland.
The reminders of the past are current and real today. The Jewish people have survived because of our special relationship with the strength that comes from memory. May it long continue.
Please join us for yizkor/mazkir at the end of Pesach. When we remember our loved ones no longer with us, their souls remain as vibrant and real as ever.
May you and your loved ones enjoy the festivals. May they usher in a new understanding of our faith and values, signalling a new era of freedom, secure from hatred and accepting our obligationtowards our fellow man.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler