Purim, Power and Presidents

Power is an illusion.

Last week several Israeli tourists were targeted in Istanbul. Three Israelis were among the four murdered. Eleven were among the thirty six injured. We pray for their souls. We pray for their speedy recovery. (We also pray for the thirty four killed and two hundred injured in today’s attack in Brussels.) And so we have come to realize. Despite the fact that we live in an age with unprecedented Jewish power, the security and safety of our people is still not guaranteed. Theordor Herzl’s dream that the creation of a Jewish state would end antisemitism appears a fantasy. Persecution remains a continuing nightmare.

Power is a blessing.

Last week as well most of the remaining Jews living in Yemen, suffering under constant threat of attack, were rescued in a covert operation and brought to Israel. Among these nineteen Jews was their rabbi who carried the community’s 500 year old Torah scroll. The dream is revived. We awake from the nightmares of previous centuries. Out of the grasp of antisemities the State of Israel rescues our brothers and sisters.

In the United States as well the Jewish community has achieved much power. And yet this too could prove to be an illusory blessing.

This week 18,000 supporters gathered at AIPAC’s annual policy conference. All the presidential candidates but one spoke to the group. I suspect that Bernie Sanders did not attend because many of his supporters lean left and align themselves closer to the views of JStreet. I also suspect that if he gave the speech he offered in Utah, he would have been booed. If he said such words of rebuke about Israel’s response to Hamas’ rockets in 2014 we would have heard jeers. This realization saddens me. While I do not share Sanders’ analysis of the conflict our increasing inability to tolerate critique is a symptom not of strength but weakness. It may very well herald powerlessness.

Donald Trump did speak to the conference. He prepared for this occasion and offered unequivocal support for the State of Israel and in particular much of Bibi Netanyahu’s policies. In fact I agreed with some of his sentiments. I share the worry and dismay that Palestinian leaders continue to glorify the murder of Jews.

And yet I found one of the saddest moments of this gathering to be when Trump offered disparaging asides about President Obama. I have my differences with Obama’s policies, but I hold the office of the president in high esteem. I had my differences as well with President Bush but again I never once counseled that the president does not deserve respect. We can, and even should, disagree about our president’s policies, but when we disrespect the office we demean ourselves and this great nation. Those who have known me for many years can attest to my consistency on this issue. Kavod, respect, is attached to the office of the president. The growing inability to disagree without disparaging the other illustrates how we fear losing the argument and our power more than we fear unraveling the threads that bind us together.

Yesterday I was embarrassed by my community. Shame on us for cheering when the office of the President of the United States was maligned. Today AIPAC issued a statement echoing these sentiments.

This is my greatest worry about Trump and his apparent tendencies. He leads us down, not up. He appeals to our worst instincts rather than our best impulses. We applaud his crudeness. We cheer on his disrespect. Leadership is supposed to elevate. It is meant to make us better. It is not the same as power. Too often power becomes about self-aggrandizement rather than the needs of the community and the dreams of our nation.

I long for true leadership.

This is one of the enduring lessons of the Purim story. (For a moment perhaps you thought I forgot about the holiday.) The megillah is a farcical commentary on the questions of power. There the world is likewise turned upside down. Power is shown to be an illusion. We continue to grasp at its fleeting coattails.

Immediately, in chapter one we discover that those in power are fools. One day King Achashverosh gets hammered and asks Queen Vashti to dance in front of him and his drunken friends. She says “No way.” He and his male advisors (yes, there is a feminist twist as well), decide to kick her out of the palace. So now the king has to find a new queen. “Why didn’t you think of that when you kicked her out?” This is of course how Esther finds her way into the palace and becomes queen. Again the king gets bad advice, this time from Haman, who wants to kill all the Jews. And who saves the day? Queen Esther fasts and prays. She appeals to the king in behalf of her people. The Jews are saved. The murdering antisemites get their just punishment.

As we discover too often, during this present age of terror, history is never so neat. Injustices are not always rectified. The just are not always saved.

Those in power are not always the wisest or the best equipped to rescue us. The king is a fool. Esther is the savior.

True leadership can come from unexpected places. It does not always come from the person standing at the podium, and perhaps, I must admit, the pulpit.

I am, however, certain that leadership should always appeal to the best in us. I am convinced that leadership rather than power can save.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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