Purim and Zionism

A Time for 20/20 Vision

It has been just over 120 years since Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization and a little over 70 since the establishment of the State of Israel. This year 2020 in the Gregorian calendar affords us an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the last 120 years, especially since Jews the world over can vote once again in the WZO election this year, culminating in the US on Shushan Purim. 

As we come together to shape our future, let us look back on Purim through the prism of the past. Perhaps this will give us a crucial historical perspective. 

A Purim Primer 

Is it so simple for a young Jewish girl, a pure and pious bat Yisrael, to enter a beauty pageant to marry a gentile king? Once she wins the contest, is she then halachically permitted to live with this king and not give up her life? The Sages[1] were troubled by the fact that Esther seems to have transgressed one of the three cardinal sins – sexual immorality – for which the Jewish people are called upon to give up their lives rather than transgress. Furthermore, the fact that Esther’s marriage to the king was known to all, added an additional halachic complexity of committing a sin in public. While the Talmud finds justifications for her actions, there is no doubt that this was an area of great controversy with tragic personal ramifications for Esther.[2] What is even more remarkable is that once the danger had been totally averted, she continued to live an assimilated life with the Persian king. 

Mordechai’s actions are not only complex in terms of how he directed Esther’s behavior, but also in terms of his own independent actions. What is most perplexing is the uncompromising stance he took in not bowing down  to Haman under any circumstances. By doing so he endangered the lives of all of the Jewish people. Could Mordechai not have found a less confrontational way to deal with this quagmire? The constant refusal to kneel before Haman was the catalyst of Haman’s plan to eradicate all the Jews.[3] According to our Sages,[4] this act was contrary to the view of the dayanim, the rabbinic judges of the time, who accused Mordechai of unnecessarily and irresponsibly endangering Klal Yisrael. While there are many Midrashim and Rishonim who justify Mordechai’s behaviour, we once again encounter the great halachic complexity of the decisions taken at the time.

So complex were Mordechai’s actions that the final verse of the Megillah concludes that he was “liked by most of his brethren” but not all, despite the great salvation he brought. This implies that a significant minority of Jews did not approve of Mordechai and his actions. The Talmud notes[5] that this verse refers to members of the Sanhedrin, who distanced themselves from him as an act of protest and disapproval. The “reward” he received for saving the Jewish people was, incredibly, a demotion in his standing in the Sanhedrin. 

All of the above point to the fact that the times of Esther and Mordechai and the events of the Purim story were highly complex, at times divisive and greatly contentious from a halachic and Torah point of view.

Remembering things the way they were not

It seems perplexing to me how all the controversies and complexities of Purim have not found their way into the consciousness of later generations. We celebrate Purim today without any trace of the contentious, divisive and controversial elements described above. We dress up our young daughters as Queen Esther oblivious to the terrible and immodest circumstances she had to face in the inner chambers of a non-Jewish king. We laud Mordechai as the fearless hero of the Purim saga, once again oblivious to his major disputes with the Sages of that generation. We wear costumes in a lighthearted vein and sound our gragger totally out of tune with the raging controversy with which their actions were met in real time. 

Why is this the case?

“Hindsight is 20/20.” This sharp aphorism expresses a salient truism of life – when we look back at events with the benefit of hindsight, we tend to see things with a clarity that cannot be seen during the course of the experience itself. This allows us to view past events through a totally different prism than those who lived through them. Their reality was fraught with complexity and controversy, as real life always is, while ours is filled with clarity and precision. The passage of time allows us to distinguish between the eternal core of these events and their external wrapping. We are able to wholeheartedly embrace  and unequivocally celebrate the role these events played and continue to play in our ongoing survival and destiny.

Zionism and Israel

With that hindsight, let us look back for a moment at the monumental achievements of the Zionist Movement and modern Israel – miracles of Biblical proportions which cannot be overstated. The establishment of an independent State only three years after the ovens of Auschwitz; the creation of a place of refuge to gather millions of Jewish exiles from over 100 countries speaking more than 80 languages after 2,000 years of wandering; transforming the Land from an arid terrain and barren backwater into a flourishing agricultural oasis and ecological marvel; reviving Hebrew from an ancient and static language of textual study into the living lingua franca of Jewish society; building a thriving and sustainable economy from the poverty stricken old Yishuv; a handful of young pioneers and Holocaust survivors overcoming political and military odds to defeat much larger and better trained national armies; the rebuilding of the Torah world with arguably more Torah learners than any time in history – all come together to create modern-day Israel at the epicenter of Jewish religious, cultural and political life today. More than anything, Israel has revived the spirit of a broken people so soon after the devastation of the Holocaust, reinvented hope in place of despair, faith in place of tragedy, life in the face of death and the belief in a bright future over the reality of a devastating past.

Despite this remarkable reality, its miraculous nature is not always easy for all to discern. The birth of Zionism and the State of Israel were fraught with spiritual and halachic complexities not dissimilar to the Purim epoch. Significant numbers of both the original and current protagonists in the Zionism and Israel story were and are distant from traditional Torah values, and some were and are even antagonistic at times. In many ways, Zionism was one of the ideological “isms” of the late 19th century, growing out of western romantic nationalism and the era of emancipation and haskalah. Much of the cultural milieu both then and now is at times challenging to reconcile with Torah values. One example of many is the judicial system in Israel, established on tenets of Ottoman civil law and British common law rather than on traditional Torah law. These dichotomies and complexities cause confusion and create doubt as to the appropriate spiritual context within which to place these events. 

Back to the future

However, the critical difference between the Purim saga then and Israel today is not necessarily in the degree of complexity of the circumstances in which they transpired, but rather in the timing. We view Purim with absolute clarity because we look back. Our current reality can be clouded and confusing because we are still living through it. The distance of time has allowed us to see Purim for what it truly was in the Divine order –  a period in history, with ongoing and everlasting impact, that ensured the survival of the Jewish people and the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny. 

The perspective of hindsight allows us to discern between the crucial and the circumstantial, thereby stripping the husk from the kernel, the essential from the external, and providing an opportunity to appreciate and celebrate Purim’s eternal lessons.

May this Purim perspective of 2020 give us an even greater appreciation of the enormity of our generation and the crucial role Israel plays in the drama of Jewish survival and destiny.

By this Purim, may we all have voted in the WZO elections, becoming proactive participants in shaping the future of the Zionist Movement, the State of Israel and our collective Jewish future.

[1] Sanhedrin 74b.
[2] The Talmud (ibid.) offers two explanations for Esther’s behavior. Abaye mentions her role in the sexual act was a passive one, exempting her from these transgressions. Rava says that the reason for the exemption was that Achashverosh’s motivation was to fulfill his own personal desires rather than deliberately cause her to transgress the Torah. Tosafot (D.H. Ve’ah Esther Farhesya Havai), quoting the Talmud (Megillah 13a), deduces that Esther was not Mordechai’s cousin as the verse implies (Esther 2:7) but his wife, whom he did not divorce. Hence at the time she was taken to Achashverosh, he was still married to her, further complicating the matter. The above answers are based on the assumption that Esther was coerced to be with Achashverosh. This is most certainly implied in Esther 2:16. Her status as ‘coerced’ changes though, according to the Talmud (Megillah 15a), when Mordechai commands her to initiate contact with Achashverosh when she has had no contact with him for 30 days (Esther 4:11). By heeding Mordechai’s command to enter the king’s inner chamber and re-establish the relationship with him, she was no longer ‘coerced’  – but now acting out of her own free will. The Noda BeYehuda (Responsa, second edition, Y.D. 161) notes that by doing so, she was no longer halachically protected by the justifications mentioned by Abaye and Rava above and ostensibly should have given up her life. He continues to state that the reason she did not do so was that she had the potential to bring salvation to all of Klal Yisrael. In such a case, she was permitted to initiate the relationship in order to save the Jewish people and was not required to give up her life.
[3] Esther 3:6.
[4] Yalkut Shimoni 1054.
[5] Megillah 15a.

This article appears in the Purim edition of HaMizrachi, published by World Mizrachi in Jerusalem and distributed around the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Chief Executive of the Mizrachi World Movement, a global Religious Zionist movement based in Jerusalem with many active branches around the world. He is an organizational leader, sought after international speaker and author.
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