Sitting in my apartment in Modi’in, listening to the jets on their victorious way to Gaza and Iron Dome blasting Hamas’ futile rockets out of the sky, my thoughts turn to the approaching holiday. November 14 was the first day of Kislev, and Chanukah follows but 25 days thereafter. Modi’in is the birthplace of the Maccabees and it is comforting to contemplate their military accomplishments, which occurred right here.
Inexorably, however, my wandering mind takes me directly past Chanukah, to Purim, perhaps because of the Persian dimension to the current situation (no, Ayatollah, we don’t believe that Iran was not involved, though your claim to that effect suggests all sorts of strategic responses to your trepidation at being associated with the barbaric assault–a muscular retaliation would go a long way toward giving you second thoughts about financing proxy attacks). Antiochus, the villain of the Chanukah story, sought to obliterate the Jewish faith and substitute his own; Haman was less metaphysical. He, like Hamas, sought to annihilate the Jews, young and old, children and women.
We are in a Purim epoch. (Haman/Hamas–80% identical, with only the last letter different, and those two letters are adjacent in the Hebrew alphabet.) Hamas and its fellow travelers did not care whether its targets were at religious services on Simchat Torah, or at a rave. They were Jews and they needed to die, in the most brutal and savage way. So it was with Haman.
You know the story: Haman hates Jews viscerally and seeks to destroy them. He obtains the requisite approval of the King, and a date for the implementation of the final solution is selected. Queen Esther, who has kept her Jewish faith a secret, intervenes at the behest of her Uncle Mordechai, and prevails upon the King to save the Jews and allow them, in an ironic reversal, to make war upon and destroy their enemies.
Megilat Esther, traditionally ascribed to Mordechai and Esther, documents the events and, in a memorable phrase, says, “ve’na’hafoch hu.” Everything was reversed, turned upside down. What was to have been a date dedicated to the Jews’ annihilation turned into a day of victory, salvation, and rejoicing.
So why is this front of mind now? Because the parallels are fascinating.
Before Esther takes her life in her hands and approaches the King, she asks Mordechai to gather the Jews to pray for her success. These Jews had been described to King Ahasueros by Haman as “mefuzar umeforad,” scattered and separate, and thus, unable to resist or attract sympathy. Esther says, “lech knos et kol hayehudim,” gather all the Jews together to pray for the success of her mission.
“Mefuzar umeforad” describes to a tee the situation of the Jewish community in Israel prior to October 7. We were separated, alienated, angry, and fearful. However, the unity of all the Jews in Israel as soon as we needed to coalesce in the face of a common enemy, has been nothing short of remarkable. We have replaced fierce factionalism and antagonism with a common purpose and we have been reminded, in the most tragic way, that to our enemies, we are all just Jews. “Lech knos et kol hayehudim.” We need to remember that, afterwards.
And another parallel–the ability to win the war and defeat the enemy does not depend solely on the fighting ability of the Jews in Persia. Their military prowess counts for nothing until they obtain the imprimatur of the King. Once they have that, nothing can stand in their way. But the King is inconstant, perhaps befuddled. Who knows? Maybe he has the diminished capacity of a regrettably addled 80-year-old. So the support of Ahasueros, even if granted freely and without limits, is fraught with risk of change. So the task must be accomplished quickly, and blandishments must be constantly applied so that he does not change his mind. We must worry that other, more malign, influences will affect his judgment and dilute his support. I don’t need to belabor the point. A word to the wise is sufficient.
Still more–“Ve’na’hafoch hu.” Everything is reversed. In Europe, Great Britain and Germany provide the most consistent support for Israel, the former a great antagonist of Zionism before WWII and the latter the ultimate antagonist of the Jewish people before and during WWII. Everything is reversed, upside down. Even more distressing, what we had thought were the best and the brightest minds, and the most enlightened intellectual movements, turned out to be our most implacable enemies. Our allies in every liberal cause, many of which we were instrumental in championing, reveal themselves as hateful opponents and antagonists. They applaud our devastation. Evil is justified. Terror is rationalized. “Ve’na’hafoch hu.” Purim, 2023.
And finally–what strikes me as the most meaningful parallel for our instruction, because those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. In the Megillah, the account of the Purim story, as summarized above, events unfold, justice prevails, and the Jews are saved. Haman and his sons are hanged. But then, what seems to be a discordant note, thematically and morally.
Queen Esther appears another time before the King, to express her appreciation and to . . . request one more day to search out and murder the enemies of the Jews. All that killing, all that bloodshed . . . and she wants more. One more day, she pleads. “If it pleaseth the King, may the Jews of Shushan be granted tomorrow also, to do as they did today.” How bloodthirsty it appears.
And, of course, the King accedes to her request. But by this time in the narrative, all but the most ardent have ceased following the text and are looking forward to the refreshments, carnival, and costume party. Perhaps some Jews, observing from a distance, either geographically or emotionally, are put off by the violence, forgetting what occasioned it and justifies it and requires it. “We’ve made our point,” they say. All the important elements of the story have occurred. Why must the Megillah extend beyond what any liberal, enlightened observer would see as the natural end? Why detail the 500 deaths in Shushan and the 75,000 throughout the empire?
Because Esther and Mordechai knew that that was what needed to be done to protect Jewish existence.
Is there a lesson there for us? Oh, yes, and may God please assure that we learn it and act upon it. You do not extirpate evil with halfway measures. World War II was a victory, and Germany and Japan were post-war success stories, because their defeats were total and their surrenders unconditional. When the poison is removed, and only then, may the body begin to thrive. And if the poison is not removed, it festers and remains dangerous.
Don’t stop until the job is finished. Mercy to the wicked is injustice to the righteous. Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.
Happy Chanukah. Happy Purim.