Daniel Friedman
Daniel Friedman

Purim Anglia (Shabbos 88)

The Fourteenth of Kislev. A day of “light, joy, jubilation, and honour” for the Jewish people for evermore. Not since the day that Oliver Cromwell revoked the Edict of Expulsion had the Jews found such cause for celebration. Their faith in their beloved Land of Hope and Glory had been restored.

The year was 5780. Over a period of months, years, and decades, the Jewish community of the UK had watched in fear as Jeremy Corbyn’s influence and power grew. What began as a voice on the margins of British society culminated in a successful bid for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. By 2019, he had become a serious contender for prime minister.

Anglo-Jewry was in a state of turmoil. Jewish party members were subjected to antisemitic abuse that went unchecked and was, more often than not, swept under the rug. Jewish MPs and their fairminded colleagues stood up for what was right and left the party they had previously held so dear. The heroine of the day was Luciana Berger, who became the symbol of the struggle against antisemitic abuse in the Labour Party.

Meanwhile, many Jews were already making plans to emigrate, not knowing what the future held under a Corbyn government. In an unprecedented move, Chief Rabbi Mirvis penned an opinion piece in a major national newspaper, warning the people of Great Britain of the impending disaster. The potential personal and professional ramifications of the Chief Rabbi’s statement were serious, and had Corbyn succeeded in his bid for the premiership, the negative consequences would have been far-reaching. It was truly courageous of the Chief Rabbi to take a strong political stance in the darkest hour. But for Anglo-Jewry, this time, it was not mere politics. We were facing an existential crisis.

On 12th December, 2019, everything changed. Jeremy Corbyn suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the British public. And his antisemitic fellow travellers were silenced by the good people of the United Kingdom. That day, corresponding to the 14th Kislev, was etched into the psyche and historical memory of Anglo-Jewry, and will forever be remembered and celebrated as a day of great salvation. A day that could have been the beginning of the end of UK Jewish life was transformed into a Yom Tov for generations. As the 14th Adar was to the Jews of Persia, so was the 14th Kislev to the Jews of Great Britain.

״וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר״, אָמַר רַב אַבְדִּימִי בַּר חָמָא בַּר חַסָּא: מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּפָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הָהָר כְּגִיגִית, וְאָמַר לָהֶם: אִם אַתֶּם מְקַבְּלִים הַתּוֹרָה מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — שָׁם תְּהֵא קְבוּרַתְכֶם. אָמַר רַב אַחָא בַּר יַעֲקֹב: מִכָּאן מוֹדָעָא רַבָּה לְאוֹרָיְיתָא. אָמַר רָבָא: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הֲדוּר קַבְּלוּהָ בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, דִּכְתִיב: ״קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים״ — קִיְּימוּ מַה שֶּׁקִּיבְּלוּ כְּבָר.

“And they stood below the mountain”. Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above them like a barrel and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here stems a substantial defence (against liability for punishment for transgression) of the Torah. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews fulfilled, and accepted”- they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.

God did not literally hold Mt. Sinai over the heads of the people. This Gemara would appear to be the source for the phrase ‘holding it over your head,’ meaning that He presented them with no choice but to comply with His wishes.  Why would Hashem have denied our people the ability to choose freely regarding the acceptance of the Torah?  We know that free choice is a fundamental tenet of our belief!

While the Gemara presents vivid imagery to demonstrate our lack of choice in the matter, the actual turn of events was more subtle.  After 210 years of slavery, “He saved us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  He smote the Egyptians with ten plagues.  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men, women, children, and livestock then marched forth out of bondage.  We arrived at the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit.  Miraculously, the sea split, we traversed the raging waters on dry land, and the Egyptians drowned.

After witnessing such open miracles, was there any question that we would accept the Torah upon being offered it?  It was clear that God was Almighty and in control of the universe.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that whatever He was offering was worth accepting.  We’d have been irrational fools to walk away from His deal.  When the proverbial knight in shining army saves the princess from the dragon, she always accepts his hand in marriage.

It would take a millennium until the Jews would have the opportunity to prove their fealty to Heaven.  When we were saved from near annihilation in the time of Achashverosh, our response to the story could have gone either of two ways.  Any observer of the events could have reasonably attributed the unfolding of the salvation to mere coincidence.  Esther happened to be in the right place at the right time.  She won a beauty pageant and was crowned Queen of Persia.  When the decree against her people arose, she was there to overturn it, and the Jews were saved on account of her valiant efforts.  Reading the story at face value, there’s no compelling reason to suggest that it was anything but a natural sequence of events.  In fact, the Megillah itself does not mention God’s name once!

But that was not the Jews’ response to the events of the day.  We saw the hand of God in the story.  As a nation, we decided that the salvation was not by chance.  It was a miracle.  And we rededicated ourselves to the Divine covenant we had made with Hashem at Mt. Sinai.  The first time around, it was not a choice.  When the sea parts, the “choice” is obvious.  When Esther saves the day, however, the choice is not so obvious.  Only at that point in history did we truly have the opportunity to exercise free choice.  And we chose God over nature.

While Purim was the only time in history that we made a national choice to acknowledge Heaven’s role in nature, there were other moments that many Jews chose God over nature.  Following the Six Day War, significant numbers of young Jews chose to rededicate themselves to Heaven.  On the face of things, one might have attributed the victory to Israel’s military and intelligence advantages.

But these young people chose to acknowledge the fact that the “evidence” of the intervention of the hand of Heaven was far too overwhelming to dismiss.  Having witnessed their brothers and sisters fight for six days and then rest on the seventh, they decided that it was hubris to attribute the events of the day to the power of mortal man.

Nevertheless, many other Jews did just that.  They dismissed any miraculous explanation for Israel’s victory.  And they were entitled to do so.  Because that’s the gift of free choice.

People often ask for evidence of God.  If the evidence was readily demonstrable, it would be ‘game over’ as far as free choice is concerned.  Once we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is present and active and instructing us to follow His ways, then we are left with no choice but to accept His dominion over our lives.  It is only the unclear, hazy view of the world that affords us the opportunity to choose the path of God.  In order to provide us with the gift of free choice, He must hide His face and avoid the limelight.

But we’ve all experienced His hand at work, small miracles, in our own lives.  Little things that fall into place that are too strangely precise to be mere coincidence.  You could put it down to coincidence.  That’s your choice.  But when you sanctify the moment by recognizing the hand of God, you strengthen yourself for those moments when God appears to be absent.

Of course He is never absent.  But if things always went well, then once again, our free choice would be compromised.  It is hardly laudable to love God when life is good – although even then, many lack the appreciation one would expect – the challenge is to love God and maintain your relationship, even when life is tough.  How do you do accomplish that?  By recognizing His active involvement in your life during the good times and recalling His providence during the dark times, so that those memories can carry you through.

While personal miracles are quite common, it is considerably rarer to witness national miracles.  Such occurrences happen only once or twice in a lifetime.  1967 was before my time.  But 2019 was a miracle I will never forget. UK Jewish life could have changed – for the worse – forever (or, at least, for the foreseeable future).  The antisemites had taken control of the narrative and their venom was spreading rapidly, particularly amongst the youth.

However, God intervened.  And He sent us a Mordechai, in the form of Chief Rabbi Mirvis.  And He sent us an Esther, in the form of Luciana.  And He sent us many other heroes, Jewish and non-Jewish, who did their part to avert the evil decree.  And the Jews of Britain were saved.  These individuals will be remembered forever in the annals of Anglo-Jewish history as heroes of our people.  And 14th Kislev will forever be commemorated as Purim Anglia, occupying a proud place alongside the various Purims of our people throughout the ages from Persia to Cairo (1323) to Tripoli (1705) to Tiberius (1743), and so many more (see http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12450-purims-special).

There are certain people who have already forgotten the miracle of Purim Anglia.  These people feared for the future of Jewish England on 11th December.  They then breathed a sigh of relief on 12th December, and relegated the events to overreaction by the community, when we should have simply trusted that the common sense of our fellow Brits would prevail.  They’re entitled to view the events of 2019 as they wish.  That’s their choice.

And that’s the gift each and every one of us is presented with by Heaven: the freedom to choose how we will remember – indeed, whether we will remember – the events of 2019, the year that God intervened in the lives of Anglo-Jewry.  Let us not be quick to forget.  Let us tell the story to our children and our children’s children.

May you always recognize the hand of Hashem throughout your life and may He shower you – and all of us – with never-ceasing miracles!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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