Monday, March 25, 2024

Politics Without Problems


The Golden Calf, Old Testament series, gouache on board,, circa 1896–1902 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French 1836-1902)

Interpretations of the golden calf have always been fraught with controversy. Christian polemics, beginning in the 2nd century Epistle of Barnabas, argued that the Jews annulled their covenant with God when they created the Golden Calf; worshiping an idol right at the foot of Mount Sinai was an irreversible declaration of disloyalty. Jewish commentaries struggled to fend off this attack, but at the same time, struggled with the narrative itself. How was it possible that the Jews turned their backs on God so quickly?

As a result of these questions, two interpretive strategies arise. One point of view says yes, the Golden Calf was an idol; and even if betraying God under the Midrash’s metaphorical “marriage canopy” seems surprising, well, surprises happen. People can be very fickle in their commitments. Others mitigate the issue of betrayal by casting the “mixed multitude,” who accompanied the Jews from Egypt, as the villains of the story. They argue it was these outsiders who made the Golden Calf, not the former Jewish slaves. The mixed multitude were simply reverting to their previous idolatrous ways.


Another school of interpretation argues that the Golden Calf wasn't an idol at all. Yehuda Halevi says the Golden Calf was just a physical representation of the one, invisible God, a tangible object to help bring a greater sense of connection to the divine. Or, perhaps the Jews were simply looking for a new leader; as the Ramban puts it, They wanted another Moses.” The Golden Calf would be an oracle to guide them, and it would step into the newly opened leadership position.


The textual evidence on this is ambiguous. On the one hand, the Jews asked for the Golden Calf in order to replace Moses. Later, after creating the Golden Calf, they call to have a holiday for God, which seems to indicate that they remained loyal to God. But there is compelling evidence for the other view; the Jews refer to the Golden Calf as “your gods, that brought you up out of Egypt.” And they stood at the ready to worship it.


It seems like the Golden Calf was supposed to be both a god and a leader.


But perhaps that's precisely it; the Golden Calf is a hybrid. If we take a step back and reconsider the purpose of the Golden Calf, we can reach an unusual conclusion. The Golden Calf wasn't meant to replace Moses; they could have picked another person for that. And it wasn’t meant as a replacement for God; they didn’t have to wait for a forty-day delay in Moses’ return to switch to idol worship. Instead, the Golden Calf was meant to be a Jewish Pharaoh. The Pharaohs were demigods, political leaders who at the same time were divine figures, monarchs who were at the same time the close family of the gods.


Having a demigod as your leader changes the political order. As Joshua Berman explains in his book Created Equal, in the pagan culture of the ancient world, the common man was ignored by God; he was created to serve the gods, nothing more. A demigod as king meant that the entire population was subservient, and there at the beck and call of the king. Once we recognize this, it becomes clear that slavery was not just a feature of ancient Egypt, it was its organizing principle. Everyone could potentially be a slave.


The covenantal order in Judaism is dramatically different. God raises man up to be His partner, accepting human beings as worthy associates who are created in the image of God. This view offers human beings greater dignity, but at the same, is far more demanding.


One must recognize the transaction between the Pharaoh and his constituents is not one-sided. Some people prefer autocracy. Yes, in Pharaoh’s Egypt, being a mere human meant you must endure a lack of rights; but at the same time, one has far fewer worries. After all, you have a god in charge, what could go wrong? A demigod is by definition a perfect leader.


And that is what the Jews are choosing with the Golden Calf.


One of the fascinating details in the text is that the Jews rejected Moses because he was late. It should be mentioned that Ibn Ezra takes a more plausible approach to this lateness; he writes that the Jews had no idea when Moses was supposed to return, and on day forty, finally lost their patience. Rashi, however, takes an approach based on the Talmud, and says that Moses was just an hour late when the Jews decided to turn to the Golden Calf.


This behavior seems strange: Had the Jews never seen anyone be late before? More importantly, why didn't the Jews send out a search party to look for Moses?


Clearly, the Jews weren’t just rejecting Moses, they were rejecting human leadership. Human beings are flawed, fragile, and eventually die. Demigods are flawless; and the Pharaohs conveyed the image of being invulnerable. (This had to have been a lot of work. The Midrash mockingly says that Pharaoh would go for a regular swim, and only then would he take care of his bodily needs, hidden away from the prying eyes of others. Such is the task of a fake demigod.) For a people used to the image of an invulnerable demigod, a leader who shows up even a few minutes late is frightening. Moses simply is all too human, all too vulnerable. And all too disposable.


A Pharaoh offers the allure of a political order without problems. A demigod runs everything, and no one else must worry, content that they are in good hands. All they need to do is live a servile life.


The covenantal order is quite different. Humans are full partners with God, and bring to the relationship all the messiness of being a human. Tablets can be broken. Leaders might be late, or even disappear. Problems are everywhere, and you always have to worry about them.


But the power of a covenantal order is that with patience all can be restored. It is about a great partnership, one that goes from person to person and generation to generation. Occasionally partners will fall short of their obligations; but every covenant carries with it the possibility of forgiveness and the optimism of renewal.


This is why the worthless broken tablets will eventually have more power than a grandiose Pharaoh. Covenants can always be reborn and rebuilt.


Israel is at a moment when covenantal patience is needed more than ever. Some commentators have even asked whether this war proves that the Zionist dream is futile; wasn't the entire point of the State of Israel the ensure a safe haven for the Jews? They argue if Israel is no longer safe, it no longer has a purpose.


This a significant challenge, and needs to be taken seriously. After October 7th, everyone is unsure about what will happen to the Israeli dream; and we recognize that this horrible conflict may last a long time. A heartbroken nation is searching again for a missing Moses.


The unwillingness to accept problems patiently is no different today than in the times of the Golden Calf. Some still hope for quick and easy solutions. We think if we get a few experts to write position papers, all problems will be solved; this is what one former Israeli chief of staff called “solutionism.” This attitude makes sense to us, because we live at a time of powerful demigods as well; most of our problems are solved with technology and wealth. But not all of them. And we are confounded when some problems don’t seem to go away.


It takes courage to hold on to the covenant when you have to wait, uncertain of what will follow. That is why we should be particularly proud of those who move forward despite this uncertainty.


In the past few weeks, Israeli media has reported on communities that are slowly returning to the Gaza envelope; one such report was headlined “between joy and fear.” These returning residents are coming back to an uncertain reality, with the sounds of a war that is still going on in the not-too-distant background. They explained to reporters that yes, the nightmares of October 7th play over and over again in their heads. They can point to neighboring houses, and say who is returning, and who is not. They completely understand why some of their friends will never come back. But they are choosing to come home anyway.


They know there are no easy solutions; but they are not going to give up. They are patient with the present, and have hope for a better future.


It is about them that Yehuda Halevi wrote in his Kinnah, Tzion Haloh Tishali. He describes those Jews who were steadfast in their love for Zion and declares:


Blessed is he who waits, and arrives to see the rising sun of your dawn, and is there for daybreak…and rejoices in happiness of your return to the days of your youth.


May God bless these returning residents, and protect them. May they, too, see their communities return to the days of their youth, and the glory of their past.

Too Soon for Humor?


Purim parade ("Adloyada") in Tel Aviv

in the 50's.

Since October 7th, the Jewish community has been in mourning. Grief is a narrow-minded emotion, with little room for much else; and certainly no room for humor. And yet, even in the worst of times, people have to laugh; it's more or less instinctive.

Daniel Gordis wrote about a conversation he had:

We were coming out of Minchah yesterday afternoon, and the sky had darkened considerably in the very short time we’d been inside... I said to a friend who was standing next to me, "What’s with the clouds? Is it going to rain? I thought it was supposed to be clear this week.”


“No,” he said, “Cloudy with a chance of war.”


I burst out laughing, as did he. It was hilarious. But also not.


This sort of laughter feels transgressive. We are torn, wondering if it is insensitive to make jokes, both in general, and about this horrible war. In November, an article in Yediot Achronot asked: Are we allowed to laugh yet?


A quick glance at Jewish sources yields an unequivocal no. Halakhah employs a rigid etiquette that separates joy and grief. It is unseemly if mourners are jovial during shiva; the Talmud writes: Rav Pappa said…A mourner should not place a young child in their lap because the child will bring them to laughter, and they will be disgraced in the eyes of other people, because they laughed while in mourning. (Moed Katan 26a) In another passage, the Talmud goes further, requiring everyone to practice self-denial to connect to the communal pain, and says: Reish Lakish said: It is prohibited for a person to have conjugal relations in years of famine (Taanit 11a)


Yet these proscriptions don’t always fit ordinary life. (For this reason, later halakhic commentaries often treat these passages as general guidance rather than an absolute religious obligation.) Laughter is found in the darkest moments, and tears at the peak of joy; most people can’t separate their emotions into neat little compartments, to be pulled out at will when needed. As Gordis realized that afternoon, laughter can arrive without an invitation.


"Hogan's Heroes” was a popular television show when I was young. It was a sitcom about the escapades of captured Allied soldiers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp, where the prisoners constantly fooled the hapless Germans. Even as a child, I was bewildered by the show; in reality the Nazis were brutal and efficient, nothing like the characters on Hogan's Heroes. Later I learned that four of the characters on the show, including those of the three senior Nazis, were played by Jewish refugees from Europe; the parents of Leon Askin, who played the German General Albert Hans Burkhalter on the show, were murdered in Treblinka. This was even more confounding; how could Jewish refugees play Nazis on TV, just 20 years after the war?


While the line between bad taste and good comedy is elusive, Hogan's Heroes may have landed on the wrong side of what is appropriate. But perhaps a partial defense of this bizarre show can be offered by Robert Clary, who played Corporal LeBeau, a French P.O.W. Clary was a survivor of Buchenwald, who lost his parents and 10 of his siblings during the Holocaust. When he reflected on his experiences later in life, he said his ability to sing, to laugh, and to entertain enabled him to survive. Yes, a good joke can sometimes be the difference between life and death; and during the Holocaust, many used jokes as a tool of survival.


Several books and articles have been written about Holocaust humor, and a number of the jokes have been preserved. (One example: “Every day in the ghetto is like a holiday. We sleep in a Sukkah, dress up like it’s Purim, and eat like it’s Yom Kippur.”) The most thorough academic study of this phenomenon is Itamar Levin’s Hebrew work “Through the Tears.” In his introduction, Levin writes about the different purposes of humor. Sometimes it is the “weapon of the weak,” who get a measure of retribution by mocking their Nazi tormentors. But the larger purpose was to preserve people’s sanity when insanity was the natural reaction, and to give people hope when everything looked hopeless.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once offered a comment critical of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” a film about how a father saved his son’s life during the Holocaust by making jokes. Rabbi Sacks wrote that he disagreed with the film's thesis that humor can keep you alive. After a speech, a Holocaust survivor approached Sacks to correct him on this point. Rabbi Sacks writes:


“You are wrong,” …(he) said to me, and then, he told me his story. He and another prisoner in Auschwitz had become friends. They reached the conclusion that unless they were able to laugh, they would eventually lose the will to live. So they made an agreement. Each of them would look out, every day, for something about which they could laugh. Each night they would share their findings and laugh together. “A sense of humor,” said the survivor, looking me in the eyes, “kept me alive.”


Sacks then realized that these Holocaust jokes could be heroic and life-sustaining. Reflecting on this later, he wrote: “I cannot say I understand such courage, but I found it awe-inspiring.”


The Halakhic proscriptions against joy in times of grief are quite meaningful; they emphasize the moral obligation to mourn the death of a beloved relative. These rules are necessary because sometimes a Shiva house can feel like a party, with copious food and chatter about golf games and vacations.


However, even at the worst of times, joy must never disappear; Hasidic thinkers have stressed how central joy is to one’s religious identity. This emphasis is not just because of joy’s spiritual importance; recognizing the enormous pain Jews carried from years of exile, the Hasidic masters saw happiness and laughter as the way to heal long-standing psychic wounds.


Even Tisha B’Av, the most tragic day on the Jewish calendar, is recast as a time of joy. First, there is the extraordinary explanation of the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin to the Talmudic phrase “when the month of Av enters, one reduces joy.” This is ordinarily understood as meaning that one must already diminish joy nine days before Tisha B’av. The Chozeh had a dramatic rereading of this text; he read it as meaning that when the dark month of Av arrives, one diminishes the pain of the month by adding joy! This idea was reflected in practice as well. Some Chasidic Jews had the custom to play pranks on each other on Tisha B'Av; oftentimes it was the children throwing berelach, little brambles during Kinot to lighten up the mood. Chasidic leaders felt that the Jews in Eastern Europe had lived with too much distress, and that a painful Tisha B'Av would do more harm than good.


A similar insight is offered regarding the corresponding phrase “when the month of Adar arrives, we increase joy.” The Sefat Emet notes that Adar is the month that is repeated in a leap year (such as this year), when there is a doubling of the month of joy. This, he explains, underlines the centrality of joy; and Jews need as much joy as they get.


Purim this year will be different. A tragic war is still ongoing; much like Av, it will be difficult to laugh. Yet at the same time we need to find a way to lift our spirits, to find that double portion of joy that two Adars bring.


I am a big fan of the Israel sketch comedy show “Eretz Nehederet.” One of the recurring sketches is of Asher Ben Chorin (Yuval Semo), who is a parody of the average Israeli taxi driver who says outlandish things to his passengers. (The passengers are all in on the joke before they enter the car.) One of the segments in November was exceptional. Semo was driving evacuees from the communities near Gaza in his taxi. He started with his ordinary jokes, talking about how being an evacuee is now a “status,” and remarking to one couple, who were being housed in the Royal Beach Hotel, “that when I was on my honeymoon I didn’t go to such a good hotel.” To Tomer and Guy, two young men from Kfar Aza, he says, “You should consider moving to somewhere calmer - maybe Dagestan” before declaring that what was really needed “is to rebrand Kfar Aza, and give it a different name - like Neveh Steinman.”


But then the conversations changed in tone. He takes Noa, a young mother of three from Sufa, who explains that her husband went out that morning to defend their Kibbutz and never returned. Yes, there are jokes in their conversation; when he asks Noa how her kids are, she says “annoying - as always.” She explains that her will return to Sufa because it was her husband’s birthplace and home, and that is where they belong. The conversation ends in tears and a hug.


In his conversation with Tomer and Guy, Tomer tells Semo that both his parents, Ram and Lily, were murdered. Semo says that for the first time in 30 years, he is at a loss for words. Tomer continues, and says that his sister said it is almost a month since their parents’ deaths, and Tomer needed to smile; that is why he signed up to be on the show. And then he adds that it had been his father’s dream to be in Semo’s taxi sketch. The conversation continues on about Tomer’s parents, before ending with Semo wisecracking “Don’t think I’m not going to charge you for this ride.”

From beyond the tears, these gentle jokes honor Ram and Lily; and Tomer’s and Guy’s smiles carry their legacy. Sometimes, laughter is the right way to grieve; and their tears and smiles combine to leave them stronger.


This Purim we too will laugh and cry; and both the smiles and the tears will honor the legacy of the fallen. Laughter has helped the Jewish people survive. Joy sits at the center of the Jewish soul.


And that is why it is never too soon for Purim, never too soon for a joke.

  The Day After


Every ending is a new beginning.

When we conclude each of the five books of the Torah (as we will this week,) the reader leads the congregation in the refrain “chazak chazak v’nitchazek,” “be strong, be strong, and be strengthened.” 

This custom began in the 1100s, and is one of a group of customs related to finishing a Torah reading. Sephardic custom after one receives an Aliyah is that other people greet them with chazak u’baruch,“may you be strong and blessed”; Ashkenazic Jews say instead yiyasher kochacha, “may your strength be renewed.” After finishing an entire book of the Talmud, we read the siyum declaration which begins with the words Hadran Alach, “I will return to you,” expressing a commitment to review what was just studied. These customs declare that one can never retire from responsibility, even after extraordinary success. Endings are never the end.

For the same reason, on Simchat Torah, when we read the final Torah reading of the year, we go a step further and start reading the Torah again from the beginning. We want to make it clear we are not going to abandon the Torah, once completed. (Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik suggests that this may be why we say Adon Olam at the end of the Musaf prayer on Shabbat morning; even after lengthy service, we go right back to the very first prayer, indicating we are ready to start all over again!)

Every victory brings with it the possibility of a letdown. Overconfidence can turn strong armies into weak ones. It is precisely after achieving success, after concluding the task, that we have to remember to “be strong, be strong, and be strengthened.” 

One of the major British victories in World War II was the second Battle of El-Alamein, which ended on November 11, 1942. That day, Winston Churchill spoke to the Parliament to report on the victory. Then he added the following:

We are entitled to rejoice only upon the condition that we do not relax. I always liked those lines by the American poet, Walt Whitman. I have several times repeated them. They apply to-day most aptly. He said: “…Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.” The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult. …We shall need to use the stimulus of victory to increase our exertions, to perfect our systems, and to refine our processes.

This is an eloquent restatement of chazak chazak v’nitchazek. Unlike the tagline of the beer ads, after a task is complete, it is not “Miller Time.” Victory brings with it a multitude of problems; and the greatest of them all is being spoiled by success.

Every new chapter requires an even greater struggle.

The catastrophe of October 7th occurred due to the sins of overconfidence. Multiple warnings were ignored, while the political and military leadership clung to the assumption that enemy simply would not attack despite clear evidence otherwise. No one remembered the lesson of chazak chazak v’nitchazek.

In retrospect, this war will probably be seen as a defeat and victory mashed up together, much like the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago. What happens the “day after” has been discussed, almost from the very beginning. Pundits, politicians, and polemicists all offer their visions. They are planning for a very different political and social landscape.

While a new blueprint is probably necessary, even more important than that is a new mindset. 

History is considered by Judaism as a form of revelation. In a recent seminar, I made mention of Emil Fackenheim’s “614th commandment.” Fackenheim was a prolific writer on the theology of the Holocaust, and believed that history is a form of revelation. The Holocaust, he argued, despite its horrors, carries the commanding voice of history. To Fackenheim, this voice declared: "Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories.” That is a new commandment, the 614th commandment. One of his students paraphrased Fackenhiem’s four-fold view of this commandment as meaning: “Jews must remain Jews, they must remember the Shoah victims, they must not despair of man, and they must not despair of God.”

History as revelation is the very lesson of Purim. Megilat Esther meticulously excludes mentioning God’s name. Instead, it urges us to hear God through the commanding voice of history. Much like Fackenheim’s understanding, the practical commandments in Megilat Esther offer a series of lessons as well, which I would summarize this way:

Evil exists. Celebrate salvation, and celebrate with friends. Care for the vulnerable. Connect to your community. Read aloud these lessons every year so you don’t forget them.

Actually, the lessons of history cannot offer a simple blueprint for the future; circumstances change all the time. Instead, they are meant to transform our perspective.  

After October 7th, a commanding voice calls out to us again, asking us to see the world differently. Bret Stephens, in a brilliant column, wrote:

There used to be a sign somewhere in the C.I.A.’s headquarters that read, “Every day is Sept. 12.” It was placed there to remind the agency’s staffers that what they felt right after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — the sense of outrage and purpose, of favoring initiative over caution, of taking nothing for granted — had to be the mind-set with which they arrived to work every day.

There ought to be a similar sign in every Jewish organization, synagogue and day school, and on the desks of anyone — Jewish or not — for whom the security and well-being of the Jews is a sacred calling: “Every day is Oct. 8.”

This is a powerful point. Jews must nevermore be naive. Our destiny can no longer depend on here today, gone tomorrow “allies,” and our security must depend on something more than a high-tech fence.

But the voice of history has much more to say about October 7th. One day a megillah of October 7th will be composed, with all the stories of unity, heroism, and optimism inside. And through these stories, we will hear God’s commanding voice, and learn lessons about the mindset we need in order to move forward into the future. 

Allow me to share one such story. This past week I met a young woman from Kfar Aza, Or Tzuk, who spoke at an AIPAC conference.

On October 7th, Hamas terrorists murdered her parents. Her 25-year-old brother was able to survive by hiding under a bed; he stayed there for seven hours just inches from his own mother's body, soaked in her blood. (As luck would have it, Or and her husband had been on vacation that fateful day.)

Or recounted how she promised her brother that whatever happens in the future, she will always care for him; he can come any day and move right into her house. And she told everyone that she is three months pregnant, and had thrown up just before she got on stage.

When I spoke to her afterward, I asked Or why she decided to get pregnant just two months after her parents were brutally murdered. Her response was simple; Jews know they must choose life. Jews must always be optimistic, even in the worst of times.

Or said she drew inspiration from the Jewish holidays. Unlike many other cultures and religions, Jewish holidays are not unvarnished stories of joy; rather, they tell stories about how resilient heroes like Esther, Moses, and the Maccabees overcame extreme challenges. 

When speaking to Or, I realized that I was talking to a modern-day Esther. She has heard a voice calling out, telling her to choose life, to choose family, to choose community.

And that voice speaks to us too. This is the only way forward for the day after.

Ordinary Superheroes


Purim, Woodcut from Sefer Minhagim (Book of Customs) Venice, Italy 1741

Wearing masks and costumes is a Purim tradition that seemingly arrived from nowhere. First mentioned in the early 1300s in Southern France, the custom quickly became well accepted; so much so, that several halakhic rulings allow costumes that violate halakhic prohibitions to be worn on Purim. This custom is now universally accepted, and the yearly pre-Purim question is: What are you dressing up as?

One contemporary Sephardic rabbiRabbi Meir Mazuz, wrote that wearing costumes on Purim is a purely Ashkenazic custom, which European Jews adopted from their Christian neighbors; he advised Sephardic Jews not to dress up for Purim. Yet even Rabbi Mazuz had to reverse course. When a young father who had read his book decided to forbid his children from wearing costumes, the mother sent an anguished note to Rabbi Mazuz about her children being the oddballs of their class. In response, Rabbi Mazuz wrote back that “there is no prohibition to dress up, especially after it has now become the general custom of all Jews.”

There are many theories about the reason for wearing costumes on Purim. The Eliyahu Rabbah relates this custom to the turning point of the Book of Esther, when Mordechai puts on the king’s clothing. Another explanation is that the masks in particular reflect the theme of hiding: both Esther hiding her nationality, and God hiding his face from the Jewish people.

Others see this custom as an expression of the general ambiance of Purim. Jeffrey Rubenstein, based on Victor Turner’s analysis of medieval carnivals, sees Purim as a holiday in which social status and structure are reversed. He notes multiple customs that reinforce this idea. Communities had fake Purim rabbis who parodied the rabbi, and held Purim shpiels in which the leadership of the community was lampooned.

The wearing of costumes by children is very much a part of this. As Rubenstein notes, children are relatively powerless every other day; but on Purim, they wear costumes that exude power and authority. They have changed their social position by putting on a new set of clothes.

Rubenstein’s description of Purim is correct, but how did it arise? According to Yonatan Grossman, the rowdy atmosphere of Purim is an outgrowth of the Book of Esther itself. He references Mikhail Bakhtin’s studies of literary “carnivals”, books in which hierarchy, status, and refinement are wordlessly tossed aside, much like a carnival. Esther is very much a book of carnivalesque reversals, in which the lowly become great, the hidden is revealed, and the weak become strong. In addition, eating, drinking, and lovemaking are on center stage in the Book of Esther, much like a carnival, where the sensual gets top billing. Our exuberant Purim celebrations are rooted in the text of the Book of Esther.

With this being the case, I would add that there is one further reversal in the Book of Esther that must be mentioned: previously marginal Jews take on leading roles. Both Esther and Mordechai don’t seem to be profoundly attached to the Jewish community at the beginning of the book. Mordechai (or his family) left Israel during the exile of Yehoyachin, an early Babylonian exile of the elite. The Babylonians brought these Jewish leaders back with them, with the intent of assimilating them into local culture and religious practice (as the Book of Daniel makes clear). Mordechai’s name is a foreign one, named after Marduk, the local Babylonian God. (The Tanakh mentions a Babylonian King with a similar name, Evil-Merodach, which means “the servant of Marduk.”) Esther also has both a Jewish name and a Persian one; her Persian name comes from the Goddess of love and war, Ishtar.

Mordechai and Esther seem to be content to assimilate ever so gently into Persian society. What is particularly telling about their attitude is their joint decision that Esther should hide her Jewish identity in Ahasuerus’ palace. Why did they do that? Perhaps the best theory is offered by the 12th-century commentaries of Rashbam and Rabbi Yoseph Kara, who say that Esther hid her Jewish identity so it wouldn’t undermine her chances to become queen. Rabbi Yoseph Kara writes that Mordechai told Esther the following:

But you, even if you succeed in the eyes of the king, and are considered to be deserving, (your appointment will be opposed because being Jewish) will be considered dishonorable in the eyes of the ministers, because Jews are despised in the eyes of all the peoples and hated in the eyes of the nations. Therefore, if the king asks you what nation you are from, do not say what is your nation and your homeland. And then, perhaps you will find favor in the King’s eyes, and he will choose you to rule in the place of Vashti.

Esther hides her Jewish identity in order to be chosen as the Persian queen.

Once Esther is chosen, she seems to have no concern about what she eats. This stands in stark contrast with Daniel, who after moving into the royal palace refuses to eat the meals, and eventually is given a vegetarian diet (Daniel 1:8ff). In the Talmud, the sage Samuel concludes that Esther ate pork, that most un-Jewish of foods, in the King’s palace.

Esther and Mordechai are not stereotypical Jewish leaders; no one would have expected them to risk their lives to save the Jewish people.

But they did.

Purim is a story of marginal Jews who take center stage, of an awakening of Jewish pride in the face of an implacable foe; much like Jews today.

I go to a lot of Jewish community events; and in attendance are the usual suspects, the dedicated stalwarts of the community. But not this year. There are new faces everywhere, at every event; there are people who didn’t go to synagogue who are coming now, and there are people who never went to Israel who are making their first trips after October 7th. It is remarkable to see the overwhelming outpouring of support for Israel in the Jewish community, oftentimes from Jews who had not engaged before. Once again, an army of Mordechais and Esthers have come to save the day. No one expects a Purim hero to be a hero; not then, and not now.

It is here where we need to reflect again on costumes. As Rubenstein noted, from an anthropological perspective costumes tell us about breaking social barriers. But costumes also tell us a story about ourselves; children very often play dress-up with their parents’ clothes and mimic their actions. From a psychological perspective, costumes are about potential, possibility, and imagination.

Children love to dress up as superheroes. Every Purim, a parade of Marvel and DC comics’ best and biggest show up in the synagogue, ready to sound their graggers. The costumes may seem cute to us, kids offering an homage to their favorite TV characters. But actually, by wearing costumes, they are preparing themselves for a true Jewish future; one day, they too might have to step up and be superheroes. And that is exactly what Purim is about.

Those children who once dressed up as Batman and Superman are now superheroes, just without the cape.

Endless stories tell of the heroism of everyday people. Two brothers, Noam and Yishai Slotki of Beersheva, both young fathers, rushed to Kibbutz Alumim on the morning of October 7th to fight Hamas; both ended up falling in battle. Rami Davidian, an oil and gas salesman, saved hundreds of people from the Nova festival; at one point, he impersonated being a member of Hamas and got a group of terrorists to turn over to him a young woman they had captured. After an army unit finally arrived at her home in Kfar Aza, Gali Ayalon, a 15-year-old, became a virtual scout for them, guiding them by text message to the homes where people were hiding.

The exceptional bravery of the ordinary Israeli inspired the group Hatikvah 6 to compose the song “Superheroes,” which was just released a few weeks ago. The lyrics are about how ordinary people, teachers, lawyers, electricians, and bus drivers, are taking on remarkable tasks in this war against Hamas.

The song goes on to explain:

It’s true that everyone here looks normal,

But we are a nation of superheroes

There is always a soldier hidden within

Ready to save the world…

And it doesn’t matter if in the middle of life,

or in the middle of a soccer game

Everyone will drop everything in a second if our country calls them

This is not a parallel universe or a Marvel comics reality

This is our story - the people of Israel

Yes, they are ordinary superheroes. And they’ve been training for that role every Purim since the days of Esther and Mordechai.