On Monday evening, Jews will gather together to laugh and have fun together for the holiday of Purim, but there’s another reason to rejoice because the long-awaited sequel to the History of the World by Mel Brooks will be released on Erev Purim.
I imagine it is a coincidence, but it seems like it’s coming at the right time because there’s not a lot to laugh at in the Jewish world, from antisemitism in American rising to levels we’ve never experienced with a National Day of Hate and Jewish politicians being targeted for assassination by White Supremacist groups, to the murder of three Jewish-Israeli young men by Palestinian terrorists to the burning of the Palestinian city Huwara by Israeli-Jewish settlers, and the brutal crackdown on protestors by the Israeli government. I’m sure I’m missing some other depressing news stories.
So we all need a laugh, and that’s Purim and the History of the World comes in. Brooks is a comedic genius, but at the root of his genius is not joy, but heartbreak.
Mel Brooks once said, “Feeling different, feeling alienated, feeling persecuted, feeling that the only way to deal with the world is to laugh - because if you don’t laugh you’re going to cry and never stop crying - that’s probably what’s responsible for the Jews having developed such a great sense of humor. The people who had the greatest reason to weep, learned more than anyone else how to laugh.”
We are just days away from the Jewish holiday equivalent of the History of the World - Purim. The holiday of Purim was so important that the rabbis said it, along with Yom Kippur, will be the only two holidays we celebrate after the Messiah comes. Yom Kippur was said to be the happiest day of the year by the rabbis, but we know, at its essence, it isn’t happy or joyful in the typical ways. Yom Kippur and Purim are similar in that way: Purim is so supposed to be a day of unadulterated joy, but within that joy is a bit of angst and sadness.
The book of Esther is our book of comedy. It is not meant to be read as history, but just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean the story isn't 'true'.
I want to talk about three aspects of this week’s parashah and Purim that deal with these core issues of power and responsibility:
First, let’s talk about satire, power and the book of Esther. I want to read a part of chapter 9 for you. To put it into context, this is after Haman is exposed, and King Ahasuerus issues a decree that the Jews can fight back against the gentiles who are going to attack them:
“And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.
Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples…So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.”
To the modern Jewish ear, this doesn’t sound far-fetched at all - Jews taking up arms, fighting back, and striking fear in the hearts of their enemies. But for thousands of years, especially the Diaspora experience of Jews, this chapter was a revenge fantasy that could never happen.
The Jews are faced with annihilation, and then, miraculously emerge unscathed and with more power than they’ve ever experienced as Mordechai and Esther become the defacto leaders of the largest empire in the world at the time.
I imagine that the conclusion was laughable to our great-great-grandparents.
But that changed for us as a people, mainly after 1967 and the Six-Day War. As one of our congregants spoke about during our Friday morning class, after that war, Jews around the world held their heads up high, they wore their kippot like a crown. We finally had power, real hard power, and it changed the way we looked at ourselves from Jerusalem to Johannesburg to Jersey City.
For the first time in post-second Temple Judaism, chapter nine of Megillat Esther became feasible. But hard power has its limits.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman gave a talk this summer about Zionism and Power. He told us that the hard power we embraced began to intoxicate us.
He said the following about Jewish power in 2017, “Power can make you put your civility on hold and it begins to undermine the civility of the State of Israel itself. One of the great challenges we face — more Jews are divided between Democrats and Republicans, pro-Trump, no-Trump, Likud, Labor — is to what extent you believe power is a blessing or a curse.”
It’s 2023, and the civil unrest has gotten much more extreme.
When every tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, BUT, you can shoot your way out of every conflict, especially when you have the power. That’s hard power.
There’s also soft power - the power of influence and morality. Hard power gives us the responsibility to shape our own destiny and identity.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman sent a statement about his institute's role as a bridge between North American Jewry and Israeli Jewry:
“We see the State of Israel as one of the greatest tests the Jewish people have ever faced – a crucible of our values systems and essentially a public referendum on the quality of our commitments. The experience of power and sovereignty can be miraculous, but it is also a test. For Judaism and Jewish tradition to be worth continuing, they must address the central moral questions of the day and speak a coherent moral language in response. Put simply, the State of Israel is the largest platform the Jewish people has ever had to test the integrity of our commitments.”
This is the test - are we going to be the mob of chapter 9 of Esther, are we going to embrace Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich who said that the mob shouldn’t have burned Huwara, rather, it should have been the IDF who should have burned the city to the ground? Or, are we going to embrace the idea that power can also mean aspirational influence, bringing light to the world.
In Tetzaveh, we read about the Menorah of the Mishkan. The Midrash says that the Menorah was unlike any light in the world because rather than light up a room, it was meant to light up the world. The windows of the Beit HaMikdash weren’t built to let light in, but to let light out. The midrash goes on to say, “in the future, Jerusalem will be as a torch for the nations of the world and they will be led by her light.” (Pesikta D’Rav Kahanah 21)
There’s a well-known story about David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of the state of Israel. He was asked a question: when would Israel truly become a country? He answered: "We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.”
Ben Gurion, like other founders of the state of Israel, were not necessarily trying to create a country that would be unlike any country in the history of the world. More than anything, they wanted Israel to be a country amongst other countries; for Jews to be a part of the world community, to have a seat at the table.
If the goal of Israel was to be ‘normal’, I think we can say that Israel has fulfilled its destiny. We’re normal - like every other nation, we’ve achieved that. Now, we have to figure out what’s next - what do we want do we want to be in the future.
Our Maftir today was a reminder to both remember Amalek, and also to blot out Amalek. Amalek, the tribe that preyed on the most vulnerable in the camp, was a people, but it’s also an idea. Amalek the people, are gone, but what Amalek stood for still exists. If we look at the ancestors of Amalek, we see that he is a descendent of Esau, who is a descendent of Isaac, and therefore of Abraham.
To quote Rabbi Ethan Tucker from Machon Hadar, “Amalek is closer to us than we like to think. Amalek is the path not taken, Israel’s doppelganger in history, reflecting what might have been and what is still always possible if we lose our way. The holy war against Amalek is thus always also one against our own failings, the recognition that our own missteps can ultimately come back to haunt and debilitate us. Amalek is thus not only significant as a historical people, but perhaps even more prominently as a specter of what Jews and Judaism can become if they stray from the correct path.”
We think there’s a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim, but the Talmud warns against it as it led to one rabbi, Rabbah, killing another rabbi, Rabbi Zera at his Purim Seudah. Rabbi Zera miraculously came back to life, and the next year, Rabbah invited him over for his Purim feast. Rabbi Zera politely declined:
“Miracles don’t occur every time.”
Israel is arguably the greatest miracle that our people have experienced; but we can’t rely on miracles alone. That’s the message of Purim - curses and miracles are in our hands.