Daniel Raphael Silverstein
Rabbi, educator, meditation teacher and MC/poet.

A Purim Prayer for Ukraine

Maybe my brain has been bizarrely rewired by years of rabbinical training and work, but I am struck by the significant resonance between the tragic events currently unfolding in the Ukraine and the upcoming festival of Purim. For those who think of Purim simply as a time of costumes and parties, this may seem strange, but our tradition has long understood Purim as containing profound lessons about free choice, good and evil and human destiny.

Here are four ways that this resonance struck me, and four prayers that emerged in their light.

1. Surprising Inversions

One of the key phrases and themes of Purim is Venahafoch hu meaning: “It was turned upside down.” In the Megillah of Esther, which we read of Purim, we see the powerful Vizier of a vast and mighty empire, Haman, issue a irrevocable decree for the annihilation of every single Jew. Yet the Megillah relates that Haman’s plan was not only stopped, but actually turned on its head. He himself was hanged on the very gallows he built for Mordechai the Jew.

As I write this, a week into the war, the Ukrainians have surprised many of us with their tremendous resolve, public relations savvy and relative success in resisting the Russian onslaught. This has galvanized global populations, institutions and leaders into strongly supporting their cause. Mighty Russia, despite having the second most powerful military in the world, looks increasingly incompetent, isolated and embarrassed. And perhaps most unexpectedly, Russian aggression is strengthening and unifying forces that seek to better our world – forces which previously seemed hopelessly divided and dormant. Not incidentally, that is precisely how Haman describes the Jews to King Achashverosh (more on this later).

However, it is too early to know whether any of these inversions will run the course. The war will likely take many unpredictable twists and turns. Hence the title of this piece: a prayer. May the forces of tyranny be surprised by the groundswell of courage, decency and good will that they have awakened. May those who wish the best for all human beings and all of creation overturn the plans of the wicked.

2. The Heroism of Presence

Like many people, I continue to be deeply moved by this video of the Ukrainian leadership standing in unity and determination to defend their people and their land.

As President Zelensky says calmly and understatedly here, “We are all here…We defend our independence. That is how it is going to go.”

Zelensky is Russia’s number one target, and his family are number two. He knows this, and yet he has refused multiple opportunities to flee the war. In doing so, he is making an existential commitment to his values, his people and his homeland. He is pledging his life to resist despotism and oppression.

In the Megillah, Esther faces a similar choice. When Mordechai informs her that the Jews are all condemned to be killed, she still has the option to continue to hide her Jewishness, and thereby save herself. But she doesn’t. She unmasks herself, showing up as who she really is, even though in doing so she risks her life (see Esther 4:11).

May the profound heroism of the Ukrainian people and their leaders triumph over their enemies’ cruelty, callousness and greed. May all of us find the courage of Esther to show up as our fullest selves, for the benefit of all beings.

3. From Chaos, Choice May Emerge

The Rabbis of the Talmud offer a lesson about Purim that might seem strange at first, but is actually very powerful. They teach that when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, amidst the Divine’s overwhelming sound-and-light show, the Jewish People had no choice but to accept it. The question then arises: Surely, we are not obligated by the Torah if we never freely accepted it?! To which the sage Rava responds: The Jews fully accepted the Torah at the time of Esther (see Shabbat 88a on Esther 9:27).

Rava is saying that the Jewish People chose our mission in this world during the events described in the Megillah. This is all the more surprising given that these events happens during a time of exile, a time which our Sages describe as a time of Divine hiddenness (see Chullin 139b on Devarim 31:18). Similarly, the Megillah famously does not contain the name of G!d, and almost nothing overtly “religious” happens in this story. It is a tale of parties and plots, of sexual and political intrigue. And we mark Purim by feasting, dressing up, giving gifts and reading this seemingly unholy text – activities which might seem devoid of religious meaning.

And yet, this superficially secular festival, with its G!d-less Megillah, is viewed by the Rabbis as not only holy, but actually the essential lynchpin of our entire spiritual path. Why? The Talmud is teaching us that the Jewish People could not truly receive the Torah until we were in a world where the Divine was hidden, and we therefore possessed a profound freedom to choose our identity, narrative, and values.

Many human beings today are apparently more free than ever to make such choices about who we are and what we stand for, yet our very freedom brings its own challenges.When every imaginable perspective is presented as feasible, and we are bombarded by misinformation borne from both ignorance and malice, we inhabit a world that appears to be post-truth.

In such a situation, how can we navigate the choices necessary to defend our own best interests, and those of humanity? How can we discern the propaganda of tyrants, intended to divide and weaken us, from the multi-faceted complexity of the truth, if such a thing still exists? Do we dare to assert that history and life mean something, and that we are called to live by our higher values rather than our most base desires and fears? Do we have what it takes to retake control of our own story?

May we be inspired by the stand that Ukraine is making for the truth of its story, to reclaim our own. May it be us, and only us, that decides who we are and what we stand for.

4. Interdependence is Redemptive

Haman told the king that the Jews were too divided and apathetic to resist destruction, but he was proven wrong (see Esther 3:8 and Megillah 13b). The Jews overcame their would-be murderers by gathering together (see Esther 4:16 and Esther 9:2) to pray, and later to defend themselves, in accordance with the usual rules of conflict at that time. The Jews, having been saved from annihilation and defeated their enemies, celebrated in ways that demonstrated and enhanced their unity (see Esther 9:17-18).

Most democratic societies have endured generations of declining social cohesion and increasing discord, often caused by insufficient checks and balances on the greed of free-market capitalism. Not so long ago, people usually knew their neighbors and frequently gathered with them in houses of worship, pubs or markets. Now, thanks to rampant market forces, we are increasingly atomized, isolated and addicted to devices which reinforce the consumerist illusion of hyper-individualism.

Even before foreign tyrants began manipulating us with their polarizing propaganda, we were losing touch with something incredibly basic that no human society has ever survived without: a sense of collective identity and destiny. Just like the Jews in Achashverosh’s empire, it is no surprise that our enemies view us as paralyzed by our disunity and our corresponding lack of hope or motivation to impact the world.

May this change. May the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine awaken our biological and intuitive awareness that no person can exist or survive as an island. May we recognize that we all depend upon one another for our survival. May we learn to cooperate for the sake of ourselves, each other, our planet, and all life.

About the Author
Daniel Raphael Silverstein is a rabbi, educator, meditation teacher and MC/poet. He lives in Israel with his family, where he directs Applied Jewish Spirituality, an online portal which makes the transformative spiritual wisdom of our tradition accessible to all who seek it.
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