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A Purim lesson for our time

As we celebrate Purim, a new Amalek in Iran, the land of Haman, threatens the future of Israel, the Jewish people, and the civilized world. At the same time, war between two countries with long histories of anti-Semitism, Russia and Ukraine, carries the risk of drawing much of the world into a much larger conflagration. What can Megilat Esther, which tells us how our ancestors successfully defeated a plot to annihilate us in ancient Persia, teach us about how to deal with the challenges confronting us in today’s world.

The decisions of three US Presidents, in attempting to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon have backfired. President Bush involved the United States in protracted and ultimately unsuccessful land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which soured the American public on military intervention in the Middle East. No President can win the support of Congress or the American public to go to war with Iran. The United States will not take military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and the Iranians know it. President Obama’s JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with Iran, rolled back and delayed Iran’s nuclear program but did not eliminate it. The billions of dollars in sanctions relief that were meant to raise the standard of living of the Iranian people were instead used for Iran to develop enhanced missile technology and to wreak havoc in the region.

While the United States was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian sponsored Shiite militias have taken power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, believing that enhanced sanctions would force Iran to come to the table to negotiate a stronger deal. Iran stepped up its efforts to undermine Israel and other United States allies in the region and resumed it enrichment of uranium. Hezbollah, the Iranian backed Shiite militia, effectively controls Lebanon. It is poised on Israel’s northern border armed with more than 100,000 rockets capable of striking throughout Israel, causing casualties, and threatening key facilities. The Houthis, another Iran backed militia, control most of Yemen and have successfully launched strikes against two key US allies, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Before 2018, Iran’s uranium was enriched at a low grade of 3.67%. It was estimated that even if the Iranian’s violated the deal, it would take a year for them to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Since then, Iran has enriched uranium up to 60% and can probably reach the 90% required for weaponization within a matter of weeks.

When President Biden took office, he and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke of a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal with Iran, that would also address Iran’s missile program and its support for terrorism. The deal that was close to being signed, until Russia raised the issue of sanctions related to the war in Ukraine, is shorter and weaker. It would place Iran’s existing stockpiles of enriched uranium under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin. Key restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity will be set to expire within a very short time. It would leave Iran six months away from developing a nuclear weapon. Worst of all, it would provide Iran with billions of dollars in sanction relief that will go towards training the militias and developing the weapons meant to destroy Israel and undermine other US allies.

The confrontation between NATO and Russia over Ukraine is also fraught with danger for Israel. The United States has been Israel’s most important ally, providing $3.3 million in annual assistance. The recent omnibus spending bill passed by Congress also included $ 1 billion in supplemental funding for the Iron Dome and other provisions bringing the total for aid to Israel to $5.5 billion. There is strong cooperation between the Israeli and US armed forces and intelligence. The shared values of the United States and Israel cry out for Israel to stand by Ukraine, a democracy with a Jewish President that is fighting for its very survival. Yet Russia controls most of Syria. Israel has acted against Iranian targets in Syria with tacit Russian approval. If Russia were to deny that approval, Israel would be forced to choose between refraining from action against Iranian targets in Iran or risk confrontation with Russia. There is also a danger that Russia will seek to regain the Golan Heights for Syria.

In ancient Persia Jews faced an existential threat, when King Ahasuerus, persuaded by Haman, issued a decree for all Jews in the 127 lands of his empire to be annihilated on a single day, the 13th of Adar. Megilat Esther, tells how the Jews were saved from destruction, a triumph which we will recall by celebrating Purim. Like every sefer in Tanach, Megilat Esther is not simply a story book. It contains great lessons that are as relevant today as they were in the days of Mordechai and Esther. What are the lessons that Megilat Esther can teach us about how to deal with the challenges of today?

When Mordechai, learned of the decree to annihilate the Jews, he put on sackcloth and ashes crying out to Hashem. Yet he realized that prayer was not enough. He called upon Queen Esther to intercede with King Ahasuerus and to plead for her people. Esther realized that taking action was highly risky and would not be enough. She instructed Mordechai to have all the Jews fast for three days before she would go to the King. It was a strengthened faith in Hashem and a renewed commitment to Torah and mitzvot going hand in hand with the political machinations of Mordechai and Esther that saved the Jewish people.

There is a part of the megillah that is rarely discussed but which is crucial. Even after Haman was hung and Mordechai rose to power there were still those who sought to destroy us. When the 13th of Adar came along our ancestors were forced “to rise and fight for their lives.”  There are times when we must resort to violence and military action in self-defense.

The overall theme of Megilat Esther is that when Jews are threatened, we need to follow a three-pronged approach of teshuva, political action, and self-defense.

Along the way, Megilat Esther gives us helpful pointers on how we can act effectively.

Build alliances – the friendships we make can prove valuable down the road. Shortly after Esther became Queen, Mordechai uncovered the plot of Bigtan and Teresh to assassinate the King. Mordechai informed Esther who passed the information on to the King in Mordechai’s name. This act of loyalty would be pay enormous dividends two years later. Reading of Mordechai’s loyalty in the Royal Book of Records was a major turning point. It was Charvonah’s revealing Haman’s plan to hang Mordechai, the King’s loyal subject, which led to Ahasuerus ordering that Haman be hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordechai.

Do your part – Esther was reluctant to go to Ahasuerus, noting “anyone who enters the King’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him – that he be put to death.”  She had a reasonable fear that her mission would not succeed. Mordechai replied, “on the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

None of us will ever be a King or a Queen. But all of us have been blessed by Hashem with unique talents and assigned with a mission. “All Jews are responsible for one another” means you. In a time of crisis do not criticize what others are or are not doing. Use your unique talents to do what you can do.

Persuade, do not antagonize – The decree to annihilate the Jews was issued in the name of Ahasuerus.  He was responsible.  Yet Esther did not denounce him as an anti-Semite.  She appealed to his ego, emotions, moral sensibility, and enlightened self-interest in pleading with him to spare the Jewish people.  If Esther had denounced Ahasuerus as an anti-Semite, she would have probably met the same fate as Vashti.

One of the essentials of successfully advocating for the Jewish people is to understand the difference between Ahasuerus and Haman.  The Hamans of the world are implacable foes of the Jewish people.  They must be confronted and defeated.

But most people in power are Ahasuerus.  They may be friendly towards Israel while criticizing certain aspects of Israeli policy.  They may see events from a different perspective and have different ideas about what is in the best interest of America, Israel, and the free world. The need to appeal to and address the needs of a diverse constituency means they may not always agree with us.  These are people whose support we need, and we must seek it effectively, using the persuasiveness of our arguments and the power of our votes.

Calling them names and vilifying them may make us feel like we are standing up for what we believe in but what we are really doing is turning potential friends into enemies.  Politicians who know we will never support them will never support us.  Lines of communication and cooperation should be kept open even when there are disagreements so that we can gain their support the next time the chips are down.

What Queens Esther knew 2,500 years ago and what Dale Carnegie wrote in 1936 are still true today.  To criticize and condemn “will never result in the behavior we desire.”  Treating others with respect and appealing to their “nobler motives” is the best way to “win friends and influence people.”

We need friends across the political spectrum.  Power in American politics is often divided and frequently changes hands.  Aligning ourselves exclusively with one party will limit our ability to be effective advocates.  We should support our friends and oppose our enemies in both parties.  We may be Democrats, we may be Republicans, but above all we are Jews.

Jews are successful when Jews have power – When Mordechai rose to power many of the royal officials aligned themselves with the Jewish community.  They did not act out of love for Jews but from a desire to ingratiate themselves with those in power.  When Jews are victims, we gain sympathy and pity.  When Jews have power, we gain respect and cooperation.

For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews as a people have power.

Israel is a regional power with one of the world’s most successful military forces.  Israeli startups are a playing a significant role in developing high technology throughout the world. Israel has a higher per capita GDP than the European Union.

The current confrontation between Ukraine and Russia points up how much things have changed.  The Khmelnitsky massacres of 1648-49 were among the worst disasters in Jewish history. Entire Jewish communities were destroyed, and more than 100,000 Jews were murdered.  They are remembered in the kinot of Tisha B’Av. Before the Holocaust Bohdan Khmelnitsky was often cited as the arch villain of Jewish history.  But in Ukraine, Bohdan Khmelnitsky was hailed as a liberator and hero.  Today, Ukrainians have a new hero.  A man who has won the admiration of much of the world as he leads his peoples heroic struggle for freedom against a far more powerful enemy.  A proud Jew named Volodymyr Zalinski.

With the fate of the world perhaps in the balance, it is the kipah wearing Prime Minister of Israel, who may yet play a leading role in ending the fighting.

After 2,000 years of exile and persecution, Jews as a people have become players on the stage of world power politics.  This creates challenges but even more opportunity.  We need no longer be cowering supplicants.  We can play a role in determining our own destiny subject only to G-d.

Another lesson from Megillat Esther is how quickly things can turn around.  The decree to annihilate the Jews was issued on the 13th of Nissan.  Haman was hung less than a week later.  By the time news of the decree came to the far reaches of the Persian Empire, Haman was long dead, and Mordechai had already risen to power.  Over the past few weeks, we have once again seen how quickly things can change.  Last week’s thriving city can be today’s scene of chaos and carnage.  An invincible superpower may find its economy in shambles and its troops humbled.

As we once again face the threat of annihilation from the heirs of Haman, the same approach that worked for Mordechai and Esther can work for us. Through the combination of commitment to our Torah ideals and values, effective political activism, and the readiness to act in self-defense, when necessary, we can once again “transform grief into joy and mourning into celebration.”

About the Author
Manny Behar is the Former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several public officials. He currently lives in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem
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