The holiday of Purim is almost upon us. Already, we have entered into the month of Adar, in which we are commanded to increase joy. And while our gladness may heighten to the point of ecstatic on the 14th of Adar, Purim is also a holiday of deep contrasts. On our happiest day, Jewish communities gather together to read a political satire about our near-extermination in ancient Persia, in the form of Megillat Esther. We dress in costumes, hiding our face to ostensibly reveal a hidden piece of our true selves. Alcohol flows freely, halva and hamantaschen deck every table, and nothing and no one is safe from parody. This humor is essential, a key to Jewish survival and healing. Wrapping ourselves in laughter, celebratory food and layers of strange clothing serves as a protective layer for our communities to often reach out and touch the darkness that often lies just beneath our joy. The terrors that we are too afraid to touch are often given a playful outlet on Purim, allowing us to make peace with our most painful pieces, and integrate them more healthily into the rest of the year.
This year, Purim falls on March 1st. A month later, on April 1st, Israel’s deportation of asylum seekers will be officially begin- and some individuals have already received warrants from the state.
There are an estimated 30,000 asylum seekers in Israel who stand to be deported. Many of them have been held in a detention center called Holot in the Israeli desert, while others have migrated through Israel, concentrating in south Tel Aviv. The majority of these individuals and families come from Eritrea and Sudan, where they are fleeing decades-long compulsory military service, and the violence of Darfur and the violent clashes between Sudan and South Sudan, respectively.
The language that has been used by the Israeli government in the face of this crisis has at times turned deeply disturbing. Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev has gone so far as to belittle the conditions these asylum seekers have fled, and quipped that Israelis living in south Tel Aviv have become the “refugees in their own homes,” (1) the “real victims” of the situation. It is especially disconcerting to examine this behavior from the perspective of Jewish history, and there is a will to demand that the leaders of a Jewish state operate with a greater sense of mercy, in direct opposition to the treatment Jewish people have received from other nations and empires.
It is important to recognize that for a Jewish audience, this assertion of the “you should know better” narrative is challenging, and is neither effective nor appropriate. It should not upon us, as Jewish people, to abandon particularism, not to fear loss of identity or even annihilation. Recent scholarship on multigenerational trauma has further revealed that events in Jewish history make it even more difficult for us to engender empathy and to let go of animosity towards those perceived as other. (2). We come by our existential fear honestly.
Yet, Jewish tradition demands of us that we push past this anxiety into a place of transcendent compassion, seeking to be a light for world. Jewish culture and identity has been built inextricably in conversation with halacha, the Jewish law system that encourages us to act not according to our first instincts, but by transcending them to enact a more sacred way of walking in the world.
While Jewish history, and Jewish trauma, teaches us to fear those who do not fit into a particularist model, it is in fact exceedingly Jewish— and mandated by our tradition— to push ourselves into a realm of deeper empathy for the “others” in our life, and to take on a greater responsibility for those living amongst us, even as we read texts that force us to come to terms with the fragility of our existence as a people.
This empathy is highlighted particularly through the Purim mitzvah of matanot l’eyvionim, or the giving of tzedakah to the poor. The Hebrew word eyvion is used in discussion of this mitzvah, but the more common word used for a person in poverty is A’ni, one who is poor or in deep suffering. Every Jewish person is obligated to give these gifts, and they may even (according to custom) be given to non-Jews, for the sake of darchei shalom, ways of peace and wholeness. (Mishna Berurah on Shulchan Aruch 649:3) The idea of Darchei Shalom originatea from a rabbinic saying found in the Talmud, in Gittin 61a. In the Talmud’s imagining, non-Jews living amongst a Jewish majority are not begrudged for taking advantage of social security and poverty relief mechanisms within a Jewish community. While originally enacted in fear of provoking conflict with non-Jewish neighbors, the late-18th century German Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, argued that these derechim could be used not only merely to avoid conflict, but to promote peace in the world as an expression of Jewish ideals. In fact, the text continues to suggest that these non-Jewish co-residents can and should be visited when sick, and laid to rest amongst Jews. Those who have come to live in a Jewish space, among Jewish people, especially those who are needy and seek safety, must be cared for. This practice of matanot l’evyonim does not only give us an opportunity to pursue justice through monetary giving, but also gives us an opportunity to create additional blessing and connection within our communities and amongst our neighbors. Instead of retreating from the needy among us in fear, Jewish tradition mandates that we instead stretch out our hands and create connection.
The story of Purim is one of discomfort, displacement, and the real fear of death. It is a story about people who refuse to cower before political intimidation, who deny themselves and fast while they lay out a feast for others, of staring into the face of destruction and not always finding the name of G-d, but at least finding the strength to perform joy under a shadow of existential terror. It is the holiday of hafuch-le-hafuch, of the inside-out and topsy-turvy. May we carry a prayer this Purim to hold our own history and trauma in mercy, and turn ourselves hafuch to open our arms to those fleeing oppression, and seeking asylum and shalom within our own borders.
(Times of Israel, 2/2/2018)
“You Should Know Better”: Expressions of Empathy and Disregard Among Victims of Massive Social Trauma
Julia Chaitin & Shoshana Steinberg
Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2008