This sermon was originally delivered at our Saturday morning service on March 16th.

For us Jews, the classic holiday formula goes: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. Which is a passable summary of the Purim story – if we ignore the penultimate chapter. Because between our enemies plotting to murder every last Jew in Persia and our mandate to celebrate having made it out alive… is war. The problem is this: the king had already ratified the decree to kill us, and in the Persian legal system of the time once a law was made it could not be unmade; the solution was a second decree – that if anyone attacked us, the Jews could fight back. And not only fight back, but l’hashmid l’harog l’aveid or destroy, massacre, annihilate. They begin with Haman, the mastermind of the plot. His ten sons are executed next. In Shushan, the royal capitol, they kill five hundred people. The following day, three hundred more. Violence spreads across the empire, with a final tally of seventy five thousand people killed in our defense. We are told that the Persians came to dread the Jews (the word used here, pachad, is more than fear – but an existential terror, an activation of our most primitive instinct to survive at all costs). And now… let’s eat! (Anyone still feel like eating after reading that?)

Purim is a rabbinic holiday, which means that rather than being prescribed by the Torah (like Passover or Rosh Ha’Shanah) it was developed by the rabbis sometime between the consecration of the Second Temple (c. 516 BCE) and its destruction (70 CE). Its companion is Hanukkah, which commemorates another martial victory against impossible odds. Rabbinic holidays share a couple features: they are stories of miraculous outcomes, of a small people overcoming some of the greatest empires of antiquity, of finding power where everyone had perceived impotency, of – as stated in the megillah, the Book of Esther – v’nahafoch hu, everything that we thought we knew being turned on its head. There are holidays created by people living under the oppressive regimes of Persia, Macedonia, and Rome, dreamed up by scholars who could not imagine lifting a sword against their military supremacy – especially after two disastrous rebellions that left the Second Temple in ruins and Jerusalem razed to the ground. This is why the rabbis write regarding the civil war that ends the Purim story, “In this world, has there ever been a moment like this: when Jews were not only able to defend ourselves, but do with our enemies as we wished?” (Esther Rabbah 8:11).

It is telling that Haman, the villain of our story, is introduced as an Agagi – a descendent of Agag, king of the Amalekites. In the rabbinic imagination, Amalek is a metonym for every person or group of people who has sought to oppress, displace, or exterminate Jews: Babylonian or Roman, Cossack or Nazi. When we read the megillah, we drown out each mention of Haman by name as an active fulfillment of the biblical command – found in Deuteronomy – to blot out the memory of Amalek (not just because he’s an unpleasant character). Among his many disturbing qualities, Haman operates from a hatred that bears a starting resemblance to contemporary antisemitism. “There is a certain people,” he whispers in King Ahasuerus’ ear, “Scattered and dispersed among the rest of us, who follow laws different from our own and disobey the authority of the king.” Writing in the 16th century, Rabbi Yosef ibn Yahya connects these words to the anti-Jewish sentiment of his time: that Jews are deceptive, insular, more loyal to ourselves than to others, who refuse to assimilate but have also infiltrated society, a dangerous fifth column. We see in Haman an archetypal antisemitism that has found expression in every place and time, including our own. And in King Ahasuerus we see the apathy or inability of those in power to protect us from it.

The Purim story is a fantasy, one in which we not only survive – but we fight back. For millennia, it was a chance for Jews to indulge in the improbable: to not only be the victims of violence, but able to perpetrate it in kind. It is a fairy tale (if a vengeful one) told again and again against the backdrop of statelessness, pogroms, and genocide – forgivable, if not understandable, because it was so far from our reality.

For most of our history, the idea of Jewish power was absurd. Even the Maccabean Revolt (which we celebrate on Hanukkah) ended, according to most records, in a semi-autonomous state embedded within the disintegrating Seleucid Empire – not the triumphalist vision of independence that our tradition envisions. This tenuous status lasted less than a century. Then the Romans stepped in. Our self-conception, informed by this reality, is one of smallness, transience, living alongside and at the behest of other peoples. In a way, it is how we’ve always thought of ourselves: we are the descendants of second sons, the tent-dwellers, the thinkers and dreamers – not the hunters but the hunted, not the warriors but those who fall at their sword.

But enter the Golden Age of American Jews (and to a degree, Global Jewry), a period spanning from the close of World War II into the first decades of this century. It is a time, as described by Franklin Foer in a recent edition of the Atlantic, brought about by a liberalism that we as a community have helped champion: a combination of “robust civil liberties, the protection of minority rights, and an ethos of cultural pluralism.” And it complicates our self-image. We were no longer kept out of university classrooms, country clubs, or the halls of government – and in some cases, we have come to be overrepresented in them (Foer points out that between 2010 and 2020, when we accounted for less than 3% of the American population, one-third of the Supreme Court was Jewish). And while we, as the aforementioned article points out, may find ourselves in the closing chapters of this age – it is also our current reality, one markedly different than any other moment in Jewish history.

Of course, it is a more complicated picture than what the term “Golden Age” might convey. Antisemitism has declined, but it has not completely disappeared. Many of us enjoy the privileges of whiteness, but our inclusion in that club has always been precarious and fails to capture the inherent diversity of our people. Canards about duplicity, money, and media control no longer dominate public opinion, but they continue to fester in the recesses of this country’s collective imagination. AND the reality is that we were no longer just victims. We are no longer decentered. We are no longer forced to scrape by at the edges of society. For the first time in millennia, we have power.

One expression of this power has come through the establishment of the State of Israel and its subsequent victory in the many wars against its neighbors, a modernized (and ultimately more successful) retelling of the Maccabean Revolt. I want to be careful here, because I recognize that this picture is also complicated – and it would be impossible to adequately summarize the gordian knot of hope and loss, homecoming and displacement, peace and violence that has entangled the peoples of that land, especially Jews and Arabs. But I am also not going to shy away from the fact that the military capabilities of the State of Israel give us the terrible possibility of playing out the fantasy at the end of the Purim story: l’hashmid l’harog l’aveid, to destroy, massacre, and annihilate, when threatened by our enemies – the modern-day Hamans who wish us harm.

And I want to be clear: when I say “us” I mean the global Jewish community. By birth or by choice, secular or religious, Zionist or anti-Zionist – we are intertwined. The rabbis write: kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh, all of the people Israel are responsible for one another (TB Shevuot 39a). Whether we like it or not, the actions of one Jew have consequences for us all.

“In this world, has there ever been a moment like this,” the rabbis wonder. “When Jews were not only able to defend ourselves, but do with our enemies as we wished?” It is an amazing thing that we can protect our most vulnerable. For too long we have had to watch our loved ones murdered, wondering in the tragically prophetic words of the High Holidays: who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by the inhumanity bred by hatred? For most of our history, we have been unable to effectively intercede on behalf of our fellow Jews – instead we waited for the fulfillment of this awful litany, praying that on the other side of “they tried to kill us” we would survive.

I also know that the idea of “safety” is complicated. The armed police officer at the door of the synagogue helps some feel safe while potentially endangering others, given the dark history of race, power, and policing in this country. The existence of the State of Israel is an incredible lifeline for some Jews, while a locus of anger and grief for others. “Safety” is also limited. Violent extremists are still able to access synagogues, sometimes to deadly effect. 134 hostages remain in Gaza. And there is no way to bring back the over one thousand people murdered on October 7.

But it is in the name of our safety, and in the pursuit of our enemies, that our Israeli siblings have gone to war – forcing us to ask difficult questions that strain and threaten to break the moral compass of our tradition. How do we define who is our enemy? Is animus toward Jews enough or do they need to act on the feelings? What is our responsibility toward the innocent who are near them, especially children? Do we exercise the power to destroy those who wish us harm – and to what end? These questions can and should animate us right now: it is a statement of fact, and a heartrending one, that the destruction of Hamas has been accompanied by the death of tens of thousands of Palestinians through gunfire, through bombing, and through starvation. Many of us who support the existence of the State of Israel still look on with horror and shame at the images coming out of Gaza.

This is a year when the closing salvo of the Purim story might hit too close to the heart, already raw from the impossible task of holding so much fear, anger, and sadness. We see ourselves in this story, desperately seeking the safety of our people in a world that seems to require violence as a response. There has been an emerging tradition to read the verses describing the killing of 75,000 Persians using a mournful tune, even sitting on the floor, a temporary cessation of joy that asks us to bear witness to the terrible consequences of war – however necessary some of us may consider that war to be (which is itself a conversation for another time). I want us to consider the question of how you might address this passage, when we read the megillah aloud next weekend. But right now, I want us to sit with how we might respond to the uncomfortable resonance between these verses and this moment in history.

One of the lessons of Purim, not unique to this holiday but brought explicitly to the fore in its retelling, is the recognition of how little we can control. Our heroes, Mordechai and Esther, are courageous in their course of action – but in the end, rely on chance and the largesse of others (King Ahasuerus, in particular) to secure the safety of our people. The Book of Esther begins its penultimate chapter with the statement: v’nahafoch hu, and the opposite happened. Everything we understand about ourselves, each other, and the world can change in an instant. In this case, when our enemies thought they would slaughter us – we killed them. Our history is replete with unpredictability, a succession of events unfolding beyond our control: sometimes for the good and sometimes with terrible consequences. How can we respond?

I believe the end of the megillah is meant to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. It is a sympathetic fantasy (who hasn’t wished ill on their enemies?), rather than a recommended course of action. Our answer to the brokenness and unpredictability of the world is found in a different formula: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. Truly. Let me explain.

For Purim, the “let’s eat” part of this equation is shorthand for giving and receiving life-affirming nourishment – and is broken into four distinct mitzvot.

First, we read the megillah. We acknowledge that we do not know what lies ahead (and never have). We remind ourselves that because we are human we have the ability to be both victim and perpetrator, depending on context and choice. And this year, more than ever, we must bear witness to that reality. But this humbling admonition should not lead to nihilism, throwing our hands up in the air and saying what can I do. This is a moment of unprecedented power for us, Jews, and with it the responsibility to do something. And that “something,” that’s what we must figure out. Rabbi Lizzi and I have both signed clergy letters advocating for a bilateral ceasefire, the return of hostages still being held in Gaza, and a commitment to finding a diplomatic solution for a lasting peace. For the two of us, each in our own way, reading the megillah this year leads to that conclusion. We know that you may find yourself in a different place – and that’s okay. Our tradition has always asked us to wrestle with the hard stuff, but not alone; we do this as a community, in conversations grounded in curiosity and compassion. Using the roadmap of our stories, we find a way forward together.

Second, we give mishloach manot: gifts of food to our neighbors. But this is more than just a goody bag. It is food shared between friends and acquaintances, gathering around a table to create community – even with those who may challenge us or not think like us or have responded to this moment in a different way. It is the refusal to let our fear, anger, or pain drive disconnection, or to allow disagreement to become the means for dehumanization.

Third, we give matanot la’evyonim: gifts of time or resources to those in need. We recognize that even if we do not have the power to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be, we are able to help one another. This can be local, giving money to the individuals and families standing on our street corners or volunteering at a food pantry. And this can extend beyond our communities, as we take the lessons of Purim and apply them to this moment through our advocacy, our activism, and our votes.

And finally, we host a seudah: a party (I hope I’ll see you there next Saturday night). We create space for joy. There are those who say that because it is not normal over there, it cannot be normal here. And I agree. This is why the seudah is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation – because joy is not an act of willful ignorance. It is a reminder of the future we are trying to create. It is the preservation of this precious, life-giving, and deeply human resource in a moment that would destroy it. It is what gives us the courage and resolve to continue the hard work of repairing the brokenness we find around us. It is – in the life-and-death calculus of our tradition – l’chayim, to live, fully and unapologetically, with whatever time we have.

We must be keepers of joy, so that when we achieve the future we have worked so hard for (and I sincerely believe we will get there, even if we may not see it) there will be someone who remembers how to sing, someone who remembers how to dance, someone who remembers how to laugh. 

Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.

Shabbat shalom.