Sinai Today: ‘For the Jews, there was light, happiness, joy and honor’

In a world of increasing anti-Semitism and threats to Israel, the Book of Esther points the way forward.

A hand-written scroll of the Book of Esther (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A hand-written scroll of the Book of Esther
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
We live in a world of gathering dangers facing the Jewish state and Jewish communities around the globe. What should our response be? How do we construct a vision for the future of the Jewish people? The Book of Esther provides a framework for addressing these questions. After the miraculous delivery from the attempted genocide planned by Haman, Queen Esther made an impassioned plea to the great Sages of the Sanhedrin at the time: “Inscribe me for generations.”
Her request was that the Book of Esther be included in the Bible for all time. The Talmud relates that although there were many thousands of prophets throughout Jewish history, only the writings of prophecies that had an eternal message for the Jewish people – and not one specific to their particular generation – were included in the final compilation of the Bible.
The fact that the sages agreed to Queen Esther’s request means that they viewed the events and ideas of the Book of Esther as having eternal relevance.
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The time was a turbulent one in Jewish history, where there was a mixture of redemption and exile, darkness and light.
The Babylonian exile had drawn to a close with the announcement of Koresh, the emperor, that Jews could return to the Land of Israel, where the rebuilding of the Second Temple had begun.
This process had been interrupted and in fact the banquet described in the opening lines of the Book of Esther was hosted by King Achashverosh in celebration of the fact that the Temple had not been rebuilt.
The Book of Esther deals with the threats of anti-Semitism and genocide.
When Haman comes to persuade King Achashverosh to authorize the genocide of the Jewish people, he does so using the classic anti-Semitic arguments that have been deployed over the generations: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from every other people’s and they do not observe the king’s laws; therefore it is not befitting for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king let it be recorded that they be destroyed.” (Esther 3:8-9) The celebrations of Purim constitute thanksgiving to G-d for delivering the Jewish people from the attempted genocide, one which threatened the entirety of the people. What is so significant is the response to the experience led by Mordechai and Esther and the Sages of the Sanhedrin of the time – a response that contains many lessons for today.
They chose not to focus on the hatred of Haman and the enemies of Jews throughout the empire. Instead, they led the people on a path of spiritual, communal and historic rejuvenation and renewal. They created a framework for the celebration of these events in the form of Purim, which guides us to practical action based on key dimensions of the central moral vision of the Jewish people as given to us by G-d in the Torah.
They designated actions – the mitzvot of Purim – to give added practical expression to this moral vision. To strengthen Jewish unity in the aftermath of the ordeal, they enacted the mitzva of mishloach manot – giving gifts to one another.
In order to emphasize the importance of compassion and charity as quintessential Torah value, they decreed that extra matanot le’evyonim – charity to the poor – be given in honor of Purim, so that poverty not be a barrier to participation in the festival.
They also instituted a celebratory meal dedicated to thanksgiving to G-d and a celebration of what it means to be a Jew.
The reading of the megila is there to train us how to see G-d’s hidden hand in history as the events that we read about unfold without mention of G-d’s name, and yet His presence is felt throughout the megila.
One of our great philosophers, the Maharal of Prague, wrote a commentary on the Book of Esther, and he gave his book a seemingly unlikely title: Ohr Chadash – New Light. In so doing, he conveyed that the message of the time was to bring out the light of the positive actions of the Jews of the time and of the profundity of their vision in response to the hatred and the anti-Semitism of others.
Herein lie very important lessons for us today.
We cannot allow the hatred of others to define our identity as Jews. Jewish communities throughout the world are on the front lines and are the targets of radical Islamic forces that seek our destruction.
Israel is surrounded by similar forces pursuing the obliteration of the Jewish state. We risk absorbing the atmosphere of hatred and danger into our very sense of who we are.
What does it mean to be a Jew? We cannot allow our enemies to define our sense of identity. “Je suis Juif” is a noble declaration from those who are not Jewish but we cannot afford to bind our Jewish identity so completely to anti-Semitic violence.
There is, of course, a time for the remembrance of hatred toward us. There is a time to “Remember what Amalek did to you,” to remember the hatred and the persecution that we have endured throughout the ages as well as that which we face today.
But if that call to memory and awareness of hatred of others dominates our consciousness of who we are, we risk creating a peoplehood whose only view of life is that of subjugation and persecution.
That is profoundly depressing and may well alienate new generations of Jews who may choose to opt out of the Jewish people rather than embrace an identity of pain and victimhood.
The attack of Amalek as described in the Torah is a prototype of any terrorist attack. Amalek ambushed the “stragglers,” the weak and the vulnerable, who could not defend themselves, like modern-day terrorists who murder children, people in prayer, and shoppers buying their Shabbat provisions.
There is a very significant word used by the Torah to describe the attack of Amalek: the Hebrew word “korcha,” literally translated as “chanced on you,” which according to Rashi comes from the Hebrew word “cold.” Amalek created a chilling effect on the Jewish people through fear and alienation.
We cannot allow their modern-day ideological heirs to impose a chilling effect on what it means to be a Jew. Jewish identity must not be allowed to become one of coldness, of pain and fear – rather, it must be one of passionate warmth and excitement.
If we are Jews because of terrorists’ attacks we have allowed our enemies’ hatred to define who we are. Instead, what has to be clear is that we need to define Jewish identity not by the hatred of others, but by our eternal values and clear vision of the Divine mission we have received, and how we are positively to implement and express those values today and in the future.
The Book of Esther has indeed eternal relevance for Jews because it gives us the framework of our response to danger and hatred, and it guides us on our path into the future, as we read about the aftermath of the historic events of Purim: “For the Jews, there was light, happiness, joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) Only such a vision of optimism and purpose can inspire us and our children for the future.
The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa.