Children and adults in fancy-dress costumes, exchanging of gifts, lots of good food and wine, laughter and the retelling of a classic tale: we all love Purim. However, this year my mood was dampened a few days beforehand, when I was exposed to another side of the Purim story.
I learnt that Purim has a vastly different meaning to some of my fellow Israelis and certainly to Palestinians – and it is not because they identify with Haman!
The Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian dialogue has been in existence for fifty-one years. It is a group of religious leaders and academics who meet monthly to discuss theological and scriptural matters and to advance understanding between each other. Rainbow was founded in 1966, when Nostra Aetate was released by the Vatican, heralding a new attitude towards the Jews from the Roman Catholic Church. The Jewish world was still too traumatized by the Shoa to issue a response at that time but a small number of people here, in Israel, wanted to begin the process of a new dialogue based on the realization that for the first time in the history of Jewish-Christian relations, there were now Christians living as a minority in a Jewish state.
What is remarkable about this group, besides its longevity, is that it is fiercely non-political and finds rich sources for dialogue from within the fields of theology, philosophy and religious history. There is a great diversity of views within the group, religiously and politically, yet discussion is always respectful and profound. Participants feel that this is a safe space to share ideas, principles of faith and even concerns. This year, the theme for discussion is “Shir HaShirim – The Song of Songs.”
Our topic for last week was “The Hasidic Internalizing of Song of Songs – A Case in Point.” After describing the historical context of the development of the Hassidic movement and some of its main principles and beliefs, Professor Yehuda Gellman, Professor Emeritus of Ben Gurion University and a former Chair of Rainbow, shared some Hassidic interpretations on verses from Shir HaShirim, which illustrate how the text is understood in radically different ways from earlier readings. One of the key differences is that in the Hassidic reading, the lover (God) does not actually turn away. He is always turning his head back towards the maiden (the Jewish people). His face is not hidden; if we look, we can see it.
Of course, being the week before Purim, when we read the Megillah of Esther, which is distinguished by being the only book in the Tanakh in which the name of God is not mentioned, the point had to be made: this is how we have traditionally understood the Megillah. God is present in the story even though it SEEMS that His face is hidden. However, it is not hidden if we look for it – God is the “manager” of all the events in human history, even though or especially when there is no “miracle” that defies the normal laws of nature.
In addition to highlighting the presence of God even when it might seem that He is hiding, reading the Purim story is a ritual connected to the commandment to remember Amalek – the evil enemy who attacked the weakest of our people as we were leaving Egypt. Haman is seen as an Amalekite and for that reason we must both “blot out his name” and remember what he tried to do. We cannot and must not forget Haman, even though he lived 2,500 years ago.
Once the subject of Purim was raised, a member of the Rainbow group who is a Roman Catholic Priest, originally from the United States, felt compelled to speak out. He said that, as a Christian, he venerated the Book of Esther as a Biblical text and in the past he had enjoyed Purim along with Jewish colleagues and friends. However, he wanted us to know that he can no longer do that. He works in Bethlehem and his students and congregants are Christian Palestinians. For them, Purim is an anniversary of another massacre – one perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein (in 1994.)
For many Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, Goldstein can be seen as an Amalekite. He massacred people engaged in prayer – those without any defense. It was an ambush. (The attack left 29 people dead, some as young as twelve, and 125 wounded.) It is not easily forgotten.
These two conflicting responses to the mention of “Purim,” the diametrically opposed emotions that the festival evokes, encapsulate the huge obstacles to overcome if we are to live peacefully alongside each other.
We cannot nor should not suggest to our fellow citizens and neighbours that they should forget violence against them. Similarly, it is not reasonable that we should forget any of the hundreds of attacks perpetrated against us, as Jewish Israelis. And herein lies the challenge: if we do not forget, can we forgive? How do we remember in such a way that we can move forward in peace with those who have caused us pain and misery?
As Jews, we take remembering very seriously. Last Shabbat, the Shabbat preceding Purim, was called “Shabbat Zachor,” with respect to the commandment to remember Amalek. Pesach is just a month away. This month of remembering provides us with a model for today. From Amalek to Sinai, we move through a process of refining memory.
At Purim, our memorializing is crude. We gloat over our victory – admittedly over a sinister enemy. There is no room for concern for the people of Shushan, who were ready to support the Amalekite. There is no self-reflection or self-criticism about the fact that we took revenge on our enemies. But on Pesach it is different. Then, we will not only remember the Exodus from Egypt but also re-enact it, so that the memory is properly transmitted from generation to generation. And on Pesach, we spill some wine for the Egyptians. Our joy at our liberation is tempered by our empathy for the enemy who suffered as part of our liberation process.
The mitvot (commandments) associated with Purim help us build our community and sense of responsibility to one another. We turn inwards, with kindness. The memory of Egypt is supposed to teach us about the proper way to transform a negative experience into values for moving forward. Because we were slaves in Egypt, we must behave with compassion towards orphans, widows and strangers. In addition to turning inwards, we turn outwards
Transforming painful memories into opportunities for hope is the only way for us to move forward when our lives are still intertwined with those who were the source of our pain, (as we may be the source of theirs). Perhaps understanding the move from Purim to Pesach can help us do that. Let us all do what is necessary to heal our own communities and then, on a higher and deeper level, show compassion to the other. On Purim, we are saved but we remain in exile. On Pesach, our redemption takes us to Sinai and them onwards to the Promised Land. If we stay only on the level of caring for ourselves, we have not truly been liberated. Being able to care for the stranger is a privilege. Once we care for the stranger, then we are free.