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Purim Power (Part I)

כִּֽי־גָד֤וֹל מׇרְדֳּכַי֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְשׇׁמְע֖וֹ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ בְּכׇל־הַמְּדִינ֑וֹת כִּֽי־הָאִ֥ישׁ מׇרְדֳּכַ֖י הוֹלֵ֥ךְ וְגָדֽוֹל׃ (אסתר ט:ד)

“For Mordecai was now powerful in the royal palace, and his fame was spreading through all the provinces; the man Mordecai was growing ever more powerful.” (Esther 9:4)

A child sits down for a holiday meal and asks what this holiday is all about. “I’ll tell you,” said his grandfather in a gruff voice.

“They tried to kill us. We were saved. Now let’s eat.”

…Exactly one month later, the same child sat down at a festive holiday table with a variety of symbols and a book telling a story, and asked, “Now, what is this holiday all about?”

“I’ll tell you,” said his grandfather in the same gruff voice:

“They tried to kill us. We were saved. Now let’s eat.”

Huh?

Is this suddenly the ‘Groundhog Day’ version of the Jewish calendar?

Well, yes, and no. Let’s unpack.

Purim can be summed up perfectly with the concept “נַהֲפֹךְ הוּא” (we will overturn). It is the story of overturning the balance of power. The evil advisor and descendant of Amalek, Haman, goes from being second in command to being hung from the gallows. While Mordecai HaYehudi (the Jew) overturns his fate of perilous victim to powerful ruler. Mordecai’s power goes so unchecked and unbalanced that the one who felt defenseless and vulnerable now “struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.” (Esther 9:6)[1]

Mordecai’s power (9:4 and above) did not come from independent sovereignty. Rather, it came from the ability persuasively to whisper truth in the ear of power and influence the King.

The direct parallels from Mordecai to Moshe are almost eerie. In the story that we recount just four weeks after the great overturning of power, an almost identical path was taken. Moshe, having grown up in the palace, tried to use his power of reason and even the persuasive tactic of perceived supernatural occurrences to free his people from slavery to freedom. He attempted to lobby and advocate for their freedom, only to use subterfuge and guerilla theatrics to influence public opinion and pressure the Supreme leader to change his policy.

This is Purim power. Purim power is about our ability as Jews to get close to the seat of power and to have influence. We have many episodes throughout our history when this worked well for us, and times when it just wasn’t enough. In a simplified story of the Golden Age of Spain, we saw Jews like Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915-970) who was interlocutor to the Caliph on diplomatic matters and was able to use his seat of power to help his people.

Recall the famous story of Eddie Jacobson, a business associate and long-time friend of President Harry Truman who was called upon several times to use his influence to secure recognition for the State of Israel. Jacobson continued to use his connection to the President to come to the aid of the Jewish people and the State of Israel by securing critical financial assistance and lifting arms embargoes soon after the state was declared.

However, just a few years earlier, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of American Judaism’s greatest rabbinic icons, who was born on this day exactly 148 years ago, attempted to be the symbol of a modern-day Mordecai, but sadly fell short. He had power, for sure. But, as Rafael Medoff depicts in his 2019 book The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, Wise was supportive of the efforts lobbying FDR’s government to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz and to bomb the camp itself, “but did not want to draw attention in public to the fact that Americans were urging the Roosevelt administration to take action that the administration was refusing to take.”

Despite clear evidence of the Nazi death factory secured from an Auschwitz escapee named Rudolph Vrba and public knowledge of the 1944 campaign to annihilate Hungarian Jewry, Roosevelt refused to divert his fighter planes to drop even a single bomb on the train tracks leading to the death camps or even to take out the gas chambers and crematoria. According to Medoff, Rabbi Wise was careful to shield the American administration from overt Jewish criticism and did not want publicly to call out President Roosevelt for action that he was refusing to take. Historians reckon with the rationale for not publicly pressing FDR et al. Some discuss the military tactic of bombing the train tracks vs the camp itself, and some cite the basic hesitancy, emblematic of Galut (exilic) existence, in which Jews are hesitant to jeopardize their good standing and risk access to the seat of power, even at the expense of other Jews’ lives.

Purim power has its limits. Mordecai and Esther got their wish and soon became drunk with power to the extreme, abusing their position with the sole intent of reigning terror down upon anyone who opposed them.

In hindsight, some might ask why didn’t Mordecai and Esther just ‘make Aliyah’[2], or at least flee? In some other telling of the story, as soon as the Jews got word of a serious threat against them they would have recognized the writing on the wall and just left.

In contemporary North America, and specifically in the US we have seen more and more Jews surround the POTUS as advisors, members of the bureaucracy, diplomats, and fundraisers. From Clinton to W., we saw key Jewish advisors play critical roles. Obama appointed the first Jewish Chief of Staff. President Trump brought his Jewish daughter and son-in-law into the sancta sanctorum of power, and surrounded himself with Jewish business associates, while simultaneously unleashing a torrent of antisemitic groups, rhetoric, and vitriol. The Biden administration has more Jewish people in positions of power than ever before, and the question is if that translates to power for the Jews or in any meaningful expression of what we might identify as Jewish values.

For instance, does our proximity to the proverbial throne at this moment give us the power of persuasion to welcome Ukrainian refugees, when we remember all too well the closed gates of Ellis Island to Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany? Should it?

Moving forward, if we were to apply the Purim power theory to Pesach, we might see Moshe use his influence with Pharoah not for liberation or for Exodus, but like a labor union organizer lobbying for better conditions for his people who were being treated like slaves. Only with the story of Pesach and the Exodus from Egypt, Moshe was not trying to ‘overturn’ the power and replace Pharoah with a more sensitive ruler, nor did he aspire to a position of leadership. Rather, Moshe understood that real freedom and having real power necessitated a mass exodus in favor of our becoming a free people in our own Land.

As we make the transition from Purim to Pesach, from Adar to Nisan, and from winter to spring, the question of ‘Purim Power’ vs. ‘Pesach Power’ continues to be a source of great debate amongst the world’s Jews.

More to come next week.

Shabbat Shalom and Shushan Purim Sameach!

[1] We should be aware that the Purim story and Megilat Esther ends with the King unable to annul a formal royal decree, he instead adds to it, permitting the Jews to join together and destroy any and all of those seeking to kill them (8:1–14). On 13 Adar, Haman’s ten sons and 500 other men are killed in Shushan (9:1–12). Upon hearing of this, Esther requests it be repeated the next day, whereupon 300 more men are killed (9:13–15). Over 75,000 people are slaughtered by the Jews, who are careful to take no plunder (9:16–17). Mordecai and Esther send letters throughout the provinces instituting an annual commemoration of the Jewish people’s redemption, in a holiday called Purim (lots) (9:20–28). Ahasuerus remains very powerful and continues his reign, with Mordecai assuming a prominent position in his court (10:1–3).

[2] In the year 536 BCE – two centuries prior to King Ahasuerus, King Cyrus of Persia had previously decreed that the Jews were allowed to return to the Land of Israel/Judea after their forced exile to Babylon.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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