Identity, Israel, Justice, Politics, Religion

Purim, Passover and the Middle East Conflict: What's the connection?

Margie Klein is coordinator of Moishe House Boston: Kavod Jewish Social Justice House and a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew College. She recently co-edited Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights).
On the Bronfman Youth Fellowships alumni forum, there has recently been an active and sometimes virulent debate around Israel Palestine issues, emerging from the Times article last week about Israeli soldiers’ testimony around the Gaza war and (alleged) disregard for Palestinian casualties.  The conversation started with a young man saying he was questioning whether he should remain identified with Judaism and the Jewish community given Israel’s actions and the Jewish community’s widespread support of them. 
In response to the discussion, I wrote the following dvar torah back to the list:
As a rabbinical student, I thought I would add some Torah to this discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  As I will share, whether or not we agree with Israel’s policies, I think our tradition and our power as North American (or Israeli) Jews invites us not to throw our hands up, but to take responsibility for making this situation better.  So, I conclude with a list of organizations that can help you take action, depending on your perspective.
In the Jewish calendar, we are halfway between Purim and Passover.  In the Talmud, when deciding whether, during a leap year, Purim should happen in Adar I or Adar II, the rabbis rule that it needs to be in Adar II, right before Nissan, the month of Passover, l’smoach giula l’giula, in order to connect one redemption to the other. 
What might the connection between Purim and Passover – how are these redemptions related and what do they teach us?  I believe Passover teaches us empathy, and Purim teaches us empowerment.
On Passover, God takes us forth from Egypt, eventually towards Mt. Sinai and the promised land.  We are taught to remember our own experience of oppression, and then instead of only focusing on our own pain, use that pain to have compassion for the pain of others.  In the Mishnah’s discussion of the seder, the first laws focus on our obligations to the poor.  And in the Hagadah, we proclaim, “let all who are hungry come and eat.”  We have the sense that celebrating our freedom must be connected to caring for those who don’t experience freedom as fully as we do, if at all, in our day.  We have the sense that with freedom comes the responsibility for compassion and even solidarity.
Purim is another story of the Israelites’ liberation, this time at the hand of evil Haman, with the complicity of King Ahashverosh and the people of Shushan.  Purim’s national redemption story never once mentions God.  The Talmud explicitly relates Purim to the silence, or hiddenness of God.
“Where is Esther in the Torah? (Devarim 31) ‘I will hide in hiding (hasteir astir) My Face’.” (Chullin 139b).
Esther’s name means hiddenness, and highlights the key implication of the Purim story. The miracle of the Purim story is that the Jewish people fulfilled the will of God despite God’s hiddenness.   So, unlike Passover, where God’s hand is so present, Purim is a story about the potential of the Jewish people to act out God’s will on our own.  Nevertheless, for me, despite Purim’s empowering message, the Megilla contains a dark ending. Though we often don’t focus on that part of the story when retelling it to our children, the Jews of Shushan kill hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of children.
So, lest we get the message that Purim comes to teach us that empowerment entitles us to realize our fantasies of killing off everyone who has mistreated us or with whom we are uncomfortable, Passover comes to teach us “to love the stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  Passover teaches us that the better response to a miracle is compassion. 
And, lest we get the sense from Passover that redemption is something we should be waiting for passively, Purim comes to teach us that – especially in a world where God is more hidden – we have to act in ways that manifest holiness in the world through our own actions.  Purim gives us a means, invites us to be activists.  Passover gives us an ends, that in every generation we should feel that we go forth from Egypt, by standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed and holding their hands as we walk to together to freedom.
If we are called to be empowered and empathetic, we are called to be responsible for our future and to care for the futures of those around us.  Though Judaism and Israel are certainly not the same, as Jews in North America and Israel we have more power around Israeli policy than we have on most other issues, or than other groups have on Israeli policy.  Just look at AIPAC’s record to see the U.S. Jewish community’s profound influence on U.S. Israel policy, for better or worse. 
It might be easier to throw our hands up when we disagree with Israel’s policies or are turned off by the anger surrounding any moral challenges to Israel’s actions.  But our power gives us still more responsibilty to work to influence Israel’s policies towards peace, justice, and security for the region, as best as we know how. 
Of course, the people on this list have extremely different views on the best course of action.  As one who was in Israel for the Gaza war and spent a bunch of time working with both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, I would argue that we refocus some of our energy from criticism of war tactics to criticism of settler policy, and ask ourselves some hard questions about what factors, beyond Palestinian/Arab Israel hatred, might have contributed to the Gaza conflict.  Beyond looking back, what can we do now to cultivate partners for peace on both sides for the future?   
Whatever you think, this is a question of organizing.  You are not free to throw your hands up until you try to figure out what we should do, and then try and convince other people of your perspective in a way that they can hear, and give them a chance to do the same for you.  That may start on this list, but I encourage you to bring these questions into your communities as well. 
Here are some organizations that might be helpful with that work.  My list has more center and left leaning groups, so if someone else wants to chime in with right wing groups, feel free:

  • Jewish Dialogue Group – helps facilitate community conversations around difficult issues, including the Middle East conflict
  • Brit Tzedek V’shalom – center-left, pro-israel, pro-peace, starting more community organizing around the country
  • J-Street – center-left, also pro-israel, pro-peace, an activisty political action committee, does lobbying, electoral campaigning, and online organizing
  • AIPAC – center/right pro-israel group, hugely powerful
  • Jewish Voice for Peace – Far-left, pro-peace, anti-occupation group
  • Encounter – gives North American Israel leaders from across the religious and political spectrum exposure to Palestinian life, highly recommend for everyone
  • Shovrim Shtika/Breaking the Silence – Israel soldier testimonials on the real experiences of young veterans, takes people on tours of the West Bank

This year, a we move toward Passover, may we feel inspired toward the holy goal of leaving our mitzrayims and helping others do the same, and may we be empowered to do the holy work of making it so. 

2 thoughts on “Purim, Passover and the Middle East Conflict: What's the connection?

  1. great post.
    if only more attention were paid to the ways in which seemingly contradictory lessons inform and deepen understanding. may god give us all the serenity to accept that which we cannot change, the the will to change that which we cannot accept, and the wisdom to understand the difference.

  2. Thoughtful and thought provoking dvar torah. This should get some interesting discussion going at the seder table.

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