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Zachor 5779 - They Tried to Kill Us, We Won, Let’s Eat! Fear, Revenge, and the American Jewish Identity

03/19/2019 12:19:10 PM


Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

There is a joke that has emerged in American Jewish society in the past few decades - that every Jewish holiday can be summarized as follows “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Pesach is “Pharaoh tried to destroy us, we won, let’s eat.” Chanukah is “The Greeks tried to obliterate us, we won, let’s eat.”

I’ve been thinking about this joke the past few days and I’ve realized that, while funny, it isn’t actually true. Pesach celebrates God liberating us from slavery (which, while brutal, is not the same thing as being killed). Shavuot celebrates receiving the Torah - kind of the opposite of being killed. While the summer fasts certainly are about mourning Jews over history who have been killed, the focus is usually on mourning the loss of the beit hamikdash, and therefore our connection to God. Rosh haShanah and YK don’t have anything to do with God saving us from an enemy, nor do Succot, Simchas Torah, or even Chanukah. In fact, as funny as this joke may seem, it only applies to one holiday on the Jewish calendar - Purim. Purim is unabashedly the holiday of “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”

Why then has the American Jewish community so proudly claimed this as the humorous summation of all of our holidays if it isn’t what our holidays are actually about? What does this say about Purim and the American Jewish identity?

In order to to really answer this question we should start by examining Purim in greater detail. Purim is a rabbinic holiday, which gives it a lower status than a biblical holiday. It is neither one of our better known nor better observed holidays. Even Taanit Esther, the fast associated with it, has the lowest halachic status among any of the fast days on our calendar. Many Americans may even refer to it as the “Jewish Halloween” in an attempt to explain what it is. It is by no means our most important holiday. And yet, Purim takes on a remarkable identity in rabbinic literature. The rabbis transform Purim from one of the lowest holidays statuses to the highest. 

Some of us may be familiar with the gemara in Shabbos that states that the Jewish people did not fully accept upon ourselves the Torah and commandments until Purim. The gemara notes the language at the end of Chapter 9 of the megillah:

)כו(...עַל כֵּן עַל כָּל ּדִבְרֵי הָאִּגֶרֶת הַּזֹאת ּומָה רָאּו עַל כָּכָה ּומָה הִגִּיעַ אֲלֵיהֶם: )כז( קִי ְּמּו וקבל )וְקִבְּלּו( הַי ְּהּודִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל זַרְעָם
(26) …In view, then, of all the instructions in the said letter and of what they had experienced in that matter and what had befallen them, (27) the Jews fulfilled and accepted upon themselves and their descendants…

Ostensibly, these words refer to the Jewish accepting upon themselves the observance of Purim not just that year but every year in the future. However, our rabbis argue that this refers not to their acceptance of Purim, but of the whole Torah. The gemara in shabbos says that when the Jews stood at Sinai, when we received the Torah, God held the mountain about them like a barrel and said accept the Torah - or else this will be your burial place. And so, the people accepted the Torah out of fear for their lives. The gemara argues that this partial acceptance only became a full acceptance when the Jews in exile in Persia accepted the Torah upon themselves voluntarily at the end of the story. And so, Purim now represents something even more significant than the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and actually REPLACES matan Torah as the time when the Jews received the Torah. That’s pretty radical!

Another example is the statement in a midrash on the following pasuk in the megillah that says that the memory of Purim will never cease from among the Jews. The midrash explains this pasuk to mean that although all of the holidays will be nullified in the future - ie messianic times - Purim will survive:

And the memory of [Purim] shall never cease - for even though all of the holidays are to be nullified in the future, the days of Purim will not be nullified." (Mid. Mish 9:1 on Est. 9:28). This too is a profound statement. In the future there will no Pesach, no Yom Kippur, but there will be Purim!

Our intern Tali Schaum Broder taught a beautiful Pachad Yitzchak on this midrash when she was here two weeks ago. Rav Hutner compares the biblical holidays to the experience of two watchmen on night duty. The first has a candle, so he holds it up to everyone’s face to see if they’re safe or not. Once the day breaks, he no longer needs the candle. The second watchman doesn’t have a candle, and so he has to learn how to discern passersby more creatively, in the dark. Once the day breaks, he can continue to use his skill because the sunlight hasn’t rendered it obsolete, like it has the candle. The biblical holidays are the watchman with a candle - they were miraculous, but God did them for us. God showed us the way, and did the hard work. And so when daybreak, ie the mashiach, comes, we won’t need them anymore. Purim in contrast is the watchman without a candle - ie the Jew in Exile without God’s miracles. And that Jew has to learn how to find God in the darkness, without any help. And when day breaks he will retain that skill of hearing, feeling, etc as opposed to the candle, which is no longer needed. 

In other words: the biblical holidays are easy because they are about God’s public miracles. It’s easy to have faith when God is splitting the sea for you. But Purim - Purim is the hardest. On Purim, God isn’t there to give you miracles. Famously, God’s isn’t mentioned once in the megillah. You have to learn how to fumble around in the darkness. That’s a lot harder than having a light, and the skills you develop will outlast everything else.

While this is fascinating, it also isn’t terribly surprising, for our rabbis have always lived in diaspora. The entire purpose of the Torah is to provide the historical narrative of the world and the Jewish people that will lead up to our conquering and inhabiting the land of Israel. The Torah speaks to a people that will enjoy full autonomy once they arrive at the land of Israel. All of the holidays are connected to the land, and harvest cycles. 

And yet, paradoxically, not a single one of the rabbis in our vast two thousand year old tradition has ever lived in this world. The Jewish people are a people of exile. Over the course of our history rabbis have had to make sense of the fact that they and their communities would never be able to live the Torah in its fullest expression. They have lived in societies where, even if things were going well for the Jews, they were always looking over their shoulder wondering when someone might come attack. In that sense, the story of Purim is their worst fears realized - a Jewish community enjoying success in the diaspora until one Jew upsets one officer of the king and in an instant their mass extinction is in order. It is a stark reminder of our constant vulnerability. “They tried to kill us” is the reality of a Jew in diaspora. 

But in 2019 especially, this is only part of the narrative. The second part of the saying - “we won” - is just as important. 

Purim is a brutally violent holiday. The Jews are about to be massacred. Esther saves the day, and stops the order - “They tried to kill us.” But there are also 2 chapters devoted to “we won”, when the Jews are given full license to kill anyone who seeks to harm them. And not just that, the text tells us that their enemies were paralyzed with fear, and terrified of the Jews. The Jews had an unopposed right to kill whomever they wanted to. This is a complete reversal from just moments prior, when the Jews were the terrified ones about to be slaughtered. Suddenly they are the ones slaughtering tens of thousands of terrified Persians - so many that Esther has to ask permission to continue on the 14th because they needed more time. It is a persecuted Jew in exile’s violent fantasy of revenge.

As the late Professor Elliot Horowitz notes in his incredibly well researched book “Reckless Rites,” the way that biblical scholars over history have viewed this story is in some ways more interesting than the story itself. He notes that especially amongst 19th century Christian biblical scholars there was a lot of disdain for the book of Esther. The book was described as barbaric, and was declared to have no place in the bible. Many dismissed it as a book of brutal, gratuitous violence, with no positive contributions.. As Professor Horowitz notes, these declarations say more about the scholar than they do about the actual story; a lot of the disdain for the notion of Jews taking full revenge on their enemies is clearly a reflection of the scholars’ antisemitic inclinations. They are deeply uncomfortable, even disgusted, by a Jew taking revenge on his enemy. Some early Reform Jews expressed similar sentiments, and took steps to downplay Purim, like banning groggers in shul, or even suggesting that we eliminate the holiday altogether. 

I find these reactions fascinating, especially because they are so relevant for American Jewry today. The conversations these scholars had about Esther are the same conversations that we have about Israel today. On one extreme there are critics of Israel, Jewish and non, who make totally unfair claims about Israel - claims they don’t make about countries committing much worse atrocities. Some even suggest that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist. While this paints a large group of people with a broad brush, I do believe that many of these extreme opinions are a reflection of an underlying discomfort with the “we won” narrative. Extreme critics of Israel are often really rejecting the notion that a Jew might ever have to be in a position of power over those whom they perceive to be their enemies.

At the opposite end of the extreme, as Professor Horowitz discusses, is the rise of attacks by Jews on Arabs in Israel on Purim. There is a reprehensible growing trend in Israel that Jews are using Purim as an opportunity to exact violent revenge on Palestinians, the people they perceive to be their neighboring enemy. There is an urge to celebrate the “we won” narrative and to flaunt their power over their Arab neighbors. These Jews have therefore turned a day of Jewish celebration into a day of fear for Palestinians. Unfortunately this violence towards Arabs and Palestinians is spreading to the rest of the year, in addition to increasingly violent sentiments that we see emerging in the Israeli political sector. This cannot be tolerated or justified, and we must condemn this fully under no uncertain terms.

So where does that leave us Jews today? First and foremost, I stand here today not to discuss politics or policy; I am merely interested in the underlying forces shaping our perspectives. Regardless where each of us stands on the political spectrum, we must recognize that we have reached the point where “they tried to kill us,” the identity that has defined diaspora Jewry for millennia, has become secondary to “we won.” The “we won” identity comes with new layers of complexity, and millennia of trauma. This baggage is so strong that it can push people to untenable extremes. While I am not advocating that we tolerate these extremes, I do believe that our conversations will be much richer and productive if we allow ourselves to try to understand their origins. If we do we might be able to heal some of the rifts in our community and political landscape and move the conversation forward in a productive way. We cannot afford to wait

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780