When we read the megillah every year, we listen hard and try to imagine ourselves there, to think what it could have felt like. I mean, of course, Megillat Esther, which we just read twice this week. I also mean Eichah, but that is another story, and it is much harder to place ourselves at that terrible time. This year was different for me, and, I believe, for at least 15 families and many others in Gush Etzion and in the country. It was easier to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Persia, who had a literal axe hanging over their heads. We had tractors lying in wait.
Back to Eichah for a minute. There is a saying that those who truly mourn for the Beit Hamikdash will merit to see its final redemption. I think that is because those who truly mourn, who feel the loss acutely, are the ones who will feel the heights of joy when it is returned to us. Only people who invest themselves in the feeling, understanding the depths of loss which we are experiencing, can really feel the total joy of having that loss replaced. Coldplay has said “Tears stream down your face/ when you lose something you can’t replace.” I do know this feeling, and it is heartbreaking. But if you could get it back, if you have a reprieve, that is a joy unmatched.
In Megillat Esther, we are told how Haman, whose name we have to both remember and erase along with the tribe and ‘ideals’ of Amalek, wanted to kill the Jews. Unfortunately, Amalek still exits, as my friend Rivkah could tell you, having recently had to commemorate ten years without the son she lost to a terror attack on a high school.
For what did Haman want to kill the Jews? Only destruction. As Esther later points out to Achashverosh, there is no gain from this killing. Had Haman only asked that the Jews be sold into slavery, Esther says, she would have remained quiet. We know that, at the time of Haman’s request, Achashverosh was only too happy to go along with Haman’s deadly plan. However, when Esther tells the king that she is part of the people that he has so blithely said “Do what you will with them,” he suddenly changes his mind. He has seen the face of the people, has fallen in love with Esther, and suddenly they are no longer ‘those pesky Jews,’ but real people to him.
When Esther first finds out, it is Nissan, close to Pesach time; almost a year before the day. There is a feeling of dread, of uncertainty hanging over the heads of all the Jews. It is unclear as to exactly how long it is before the fast, the party, and the agreement of Achashverosh that the Jews could fight back against their death decree, but certainly it did not happen all in one day. Even after Haman is hanged on his own gallows, Mordechai and Esther still have to get the king’s agreement to save their people. And even then, it is not a simple annulment of his decree. They have to send out the allowance to fight back, and then wait nearly a year to see how it all plays out. They still don’t know that in their future, the Jews will win. Yes, some people decide not to be involved, once they hear that the Jews will not go, as it has been said of some in the Shoah (Holocaust), like lambs to slaughter, meekly and quietly accepting their capital punishment for no crime they committed. Some of the would-be murderers decide it’s no longer worth the effort if the Jews will be able to fight back. Yet clearly the Jews still have those who would rather see them dead at any cost, and these are the ones mentioned in the death tolls at the end of the megillah. It does not say how many Jews also died in the fighting; perhaps a miraculous none? But it does say that the Jews did not take any spoils, that this fight was about saving their own lives, meaning that if the attackers had only stopped, they would have as well.
This is still our story today, despite what the world thinks, despite untrue allegations that we purposely kill their children. When they send their children against us (and what kind of parents are they, who would do that??) we protect ourselves. We do our best not to hurt, but this is not always possible. Just two years ago I wrote about how, while they were killing us, stabbing, ramming cars, anything they could, even we (innocent Jewish bystanders) got hurt in the crossfire.
And now to the Purim story of today. Since November, when I became aware of what was happening with Netiv Avot, I have been spending time and effort raising awareness; I became emotionally invested in the events going on just kilometers away, in a place I could see from the front of my building. What was happening, as I have said, was that people who were told they could build by the government, who were encouraged to build their houses and raise their families on the upper hill of the neighborhood of Elazar, have been living under a similar threat as the Jews of Shushan. No, their actual lives were not threatened. But their homes, the lives they built for themselves at the government’s request, were going to be destroyed. This, despite no substantiated claims from the other side. This, despite some houses having minuscule amounts of the house (40 centimeters!!) on “questionable” land. Did they build without the final permits? Yes, they did. Were they told that this (permits) would happen, just like so many other whole yishuvim? Yes, they were. So they built. And for some time now, they have been living under the threat of losing all they own, without even a place to go. Even when one building, a workshop of a carpenter who was away at the time serving and protecting his country, was taken down, I continued to hope. But I also worried. I was not worried about where I would be sleeping on March 6th, just a few days from now. But I was concerned that a friend and colleague with a baby less than a year old, that many of my students, 15 families, did not know where they would be.
Noam Shapiro, a friend and former colleague, wrote an intriguing piece on the lack of God in Megillat Esther. He pointed out that even during the dialog between Esther and Mordechai, God is not mentioned. Mordechai and Esther have that fateful conversation about how Esther should go to Achashverosh to plead for the Jews, but she tells Mordechai that she could be killed just for going without permission, so he tells her that maybe she was put in the palace for just that reason. Finally Esther agrees to go, but asks that Mordechai and the people fast for her, as she will also do. But if you look again, you see she does not say fast and pray, and he does not say God was the reason she was chosen to be queen. Noam says that maybe this points to the fact that we sometimes need to help ourselves, to help each other. This holiday we have to listen to the megillah, but we also have to bring gifts of food to each other and take care of the poor. This idea highlighted why, since I have understood what is going on, I have done whatever I have been able to do in the past few months to help the families of Netiv Avot. Even last week, when the group set up a tent near the Supreme Court to protest the wanton destruction, I was there and I was saddened and disappointed to see how few people there were. Unlike other places like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or anywhere in the world, if you built on others’ property by mistake, you could pay, the government who encouraged this could give land compensation. But though there wasn’t even anyone *to* compensate, the groups behind this only wanted what Haman wanted; nothing more or less than the destruction of these peoples’ homes. I did not, could not understand this, and felt I had to be part of the fight against injustice.
At last, some good news started to trickle in. First, we heard that the government would be giving the families some form of compensation. I do not yet know what that means, but that was one positive piece of news. Then we heard that other units were approved for building, including a place for these families to go. But, the planned destruction was imminent, while the building would take time. So, still, we waited. It hurt to wait, it hurt when a student asked if I would be at the destruction and when I said I hoped it wouldn’t happen, this young boy whose trust in the government had been damaged, just shrugged and said he didn’t believe it wouldn’t. Yet finally, on the day of Esther’s Fast, where we fast to commemorate those who fasted in hopes that Esther wouldn’t be killed when she went to ask Achashverosh to spare our lives, that instead he would hear her petition to spare the lives of her people, we heard; there will be no destruction on March 6th! Yes, it was only postponed, not eliminated, but in the meantime, new homes are being built for the families, and they will have a place to live if they finally have to leave. They can move, they will be treated like people instead of their shirt slogan, second class citizens. In addition, with the extra time, at least some of the houses may get they approval they have been waiting for and not have to be destroyed after all.
I have been writing how upside-down this is, that it is so messed up (like how terrorists have only a part of their houses destroyed while here, even when it was only a small part of the house on questionable land, the whole house was ordered to be destroyed) that it’s appropriate that the date for destruction was around Purim time, when everything is upside-down. But now that we have been given a stay of execution, time and place for the families to move instead of being thrown out to be wherever (like some families from Gaza are to this day, 12 years later), it is like a weight has been lifted. Will the houses still be destroyed, yet for no reason? It may happen. But will the families be taken care of by their government? It now seems they will, so this is why I was able to celebrate Purim with a full heart.
If we did what the world told us, we would all give up our whole country and walk into the sea right now. Nations did not want us after we were expelled from our land, now they don’t want us back on our land. Well, we are not those lambs who burned and perished by the millions in the Holocaust. We are not the frightened people who died painfully in countless pogroms and Inquisitions of the past. We are the Jewish people, on our land, in our country. We will speak out, we will fight, we will protect ourselves. And now, it is Purim, and it is Time to Dance.