Purim, Sacrifices and Jewish Power

This week we read more laws about sacrifices in Parshat Tzav. For the ancients the sacrificing of animals and the offering of grains was how they prayed. They brought to God physical gifts.  While we find these details foreign, and even disgusting, they did provide what today’s services lack. You could literally hold your prayer in your hands.  Sacrifice was as well an attempt to reorder the chaos of the world. Life’s vicissitudes can often be frightening.  Offer a sacrifice. And some counsel, Say a prayer. Gain power over your life. And thus sacrifices, and prayers, can be seen as an attempt to address these feelings of powerlessness.

So too is the story of Purim, the holiday which begins on Saturday evening.  In the beginning the Jews, and women, are powerless. Queen Vashti is kicked out of the palace by the drunken king. Our heroine Esther gains entry to the palace by hiding her Jewish identity and then winning a beauty pageant. She gains power by concealing her Jewishness. She saves the Jewish people from the wicked Haman (make some noise to drown out his name!) by revealing her identity.

This story raises many questions about power and powerlessness. It is the story of our history, of Jews living in the diaspora. It is about finding someone close to the seat of power who will at a critical moment save the Jewish people. It is a story that has been told in thousands of communities over thousands of years. Only reveal your Jewish identity when it is a life or death matter. Such is the modus operandi of diaspora Jewry. Gain access to the levers of power and then advocate for the Jewish people when absolutely necessary.

This helps to explain why immediately following Scarlett Johansson’s defense of the Israeli company, SodaStream, the blogosphere was abuzz with discussions about her Jewishness. Her father is Danish but her mother Jewish. She has said, although only on occasion, that she identifies as a Jew. It is just like Purim. She wears a mask (one of the most beautiful I must say) but in her heart she is a Jew. Jewish writers kvelled, including me. She removed her mask to defend our people!

This is exactly what Zionism sought to upend. It was a reversal of this thinking. Our fate is no longer tied to who we know, and God’s providential care, but it rests instead solely in our own hands. We have unmasked ourselves. We proudly assert our Jewish identities. We are no longer powerless. We have great power, a power that no other generation has witnessed. With power of course comes responsibility.   And with power comes the occasional feelings of guilt and embarrassment. Some say, Jews are not supposed to have an army.  The Magen David (Star of David) is a necklace to be worn around the neck not a shield on an airplane’s wing. But I do not hide. I belong to this new age. I refuse to be embarrassed.

This is why I find the call for Palestinians to affirm that Israel is a Jewish state misguided. I do not require anyone’s affirmation but my own. I wonder if such calls represent diaspora thinking. We do not need to convince others of the rightness of our cause. Zionism is about not hiding behind masks. It is about proudly declaring our Jewish identities and forever holding fast to our Jewish connection to the land of Israel. It is about not being embarrassed by our new found power and also working to ensure that it is only used to defend our lives.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will end when secure borders are agreed upon. Peace must conclude Palestinian claims to return to the land of Israel. It must include a mutually agreed upon arrangement about Jerusalem, although I am sure such a compromise will cause me distress. It must end the current situation of one law for Israelis living in the West Bank and another for Palestinians living there. It is our task to work to guarantee that Israel remains both Jewish and democratic. A peace agreement does not require others to affirm the legitimacy of what I hold precious. That remains in our hands.

While I press the State I love to wield its power justly I am not embarrassed by its might. This is a new era. The age of Esther is no more. The days of sacrifices are long gone.

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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