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Congregation Shomrei Torah

The Eerie Echo of Purim in the War in Ukraine

03/14/2022 09:45:32 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

We celebrate Purim this Wednesday. Most folks think of Purim as a pediatric event with costumes, hamantaschen, fun music and revelry; a good time for all ages, especially the kids! Celebrating Purim is a lot of fun, but even a cursory look at the the biblical book of Esther, the basis for Purim, reveals that it is not really a kid’s tale. What you find instead is a story full of dread and violence, about the vulnerability of exile; what happens when one lives at the whim of another society and power structure.

Think about it. Early in the story, Esther is recruited to join King Achashverosh’s harem.  Do you think she was looking forward to her new “relationship” with the king? With homelessness comes sexual exploitation and violence. Remember also that Haman was just a few “parties” away from perpetrating a genocide against the Jews, and even when his murderous plot is thwarted, we still have to fight for our lives: King Achashverosh does not rescind the decree to kill us; rather, he simply gives us permission to defend ourselves!

It is chilling to think that this story has reflected the Jewish experience since it was written some 2,500 years ago. The shadow of the Purim story even falls on America today with a former, yet still powerful, president, who at times seems like the idiotic King Achashverosh, and at other moments more like the villainous Haman.

And then there is Ukraine.

Recently, I have been asking folks to raise a hand if their families are from Ukraine. Often the hands of half the people in the room go up!

While it’s hyperbole to call Ukraine holy ground, Jews have been living in what is now Ukraine since the eighth century and some of the most important members of our tribe have come from there, such as the founder of Hassidism, The Baal Shem Tov; the fourth Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir; and the renowned violinist, Isaac Stern.

Sadly, the Purim story has been played out in Ukraine (and all over Europe), over and over again, but without the triumphant ending. That is to say, the murderous pogroms and the Shoah were not averted by the intervention of a queen like Esther, nor were we able to defend ourselves. This makes the war in Ukraine especially troubling for many of us; we can’t help but see our ancestors and ourselves in the T.V. footage of distraught and frightened refugees fleeing for their lives.

That’s where the way we celebrate Purim, as opposed to the story of Purim itself, becomes very important. We celebrate Purim with “Purim Torah,” making fun of that which we hold most dear as a prescription for dealing with the heavy weight of our own history.

Our history, our faith, our very being can be too much for us: shver tsu zayn a yid, “It’s hard to be a Jew.”

It’s hard to be a human being! Purim is a safety valve, a way to, at least for a little while, leave the weight of our personal and communal history behind.

Purim also reminds us not to make an idol out of our suffering, defining ourselves by what has been done to us instead of the great and evolving civilization that we represent.

Perhaps that is why the Talmud commands us to drink so much we can’t recognize our left hand from our right?

Mockery is a form of protest; a way to remind ourselves and the world that our contributions as a people, and our lives as individuals transcend the price we pay for being an am kadosh, a holy people, an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations.

Hag Purim Sameakh!


For ways to support the Jewish Community in Ukraine, Click Here.

For information about our Purim Spiel on Wednesday 3/16 at 6:15pm, Click Here.

Sun, June 4 2023 15 Sivan 5783