This has been a busy time at CMJ Israel. The weather is still chilly and damp for the time of year, with scarves and heavy coats still the order of the day. We pray for rain, and when it comes, we mutter that it’s cold and wet! This has been an excellent year though, the first decent rainy season for many years, and the drought has been broken. The Sea of Galilee has risen over two meters, but there is still a long way to go. It needs to rise another four meters before it reaches capacity, so another couple of winters like this one would go down well!
Spring is normally announced by the Feast of Esther, or Purim, and last week we celebrated this festival in traditional style. Israelis are like one big family on these feast days, with all ages dressing up in any number and variety of costumes and outfits. They’re on the buses and trains, and in their cars, and are at work that way too. The Purim spiel is a long-standing tradition in Jewish communities, especially from eastern Europe, and at Christ Church our curate Aaron Eime creates a spiel for us to enjoy each year.
Aaron’s tradition is to mix the story of Esther and the deliverance from Haman’s plot to annihilate all the Jews in Babylon with a well-known more recent story, and this year he treated us to Esther on the Roof, combining the details of the Book of Esther with (you guessed it!) Fiddler on the Roof. The volunteers and staff pitched in as actors and Christ Church was full as Tevye the milkman was transformed into Mordechai the Jew, Esther was one of Tevye’s daughters, the matchmaker was involved somehow, and the King, played by Aaron, managed to be introduced to Tevye/Mordechai because of his love of milk! The crowd got into the swing of it all, shouting boo! whenever the wicked Haman was mentioned, and cheering for Mordechai and Esther.
It doesn’t matter what the intricate details of the Purim spiel’s narrative were. What is important is that we remember in this tale that a disaster of awful proportions was averted by one brave woman’s actions, as she agreed to risk her life to save the lives of her people, the Jews.
It is right that we celebrate Purim. It is right too that we enjoy the festival, for otherwise it is too depressing to deal with. Why is it that throughout history the Jews become a target for those among whom they live? How can disaster be averted? What is the role of individuals, of you and me, in taking responsibility? Famously, Mordechai tells Esther: “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
As anti-Semitism rises all around us, and becomes brazen, aggressive and unwilling to be slapped down, what is the role of the individual? How can we as individuals push back the tide? How can we do more than wring our hands in despair and say how terrible it all is? Each of us has to answer for our deeds. Esther found herself in a position where she could do something, where she could turn back a plot to kill all the Jews in her country. It was costly, oh was it costly! Her position of privilege was put at risk by her actions, even her very life itself was threatened by what she had to do, by speaking out. But she did it. She stood up and said, NO! This will not pass. I will not stand by and let this happen, no matter what the cost is to me.
What will we do when we are in a position to say No? Will we be up to it? Or will we make all the legitimate excuses that invariably come to mind at such times? Will we find a reason to justify doing nothing?
In this age of rising anti-Semitism and the increasing acceptability at all levels of society of Jew hatred, the story of Esther is a sobering reminder of the dangers of this scourge, and of the call on all of us to oppose it in every way we can. What starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has eloquently written on this subject (see here), and even Paul suggests that there is a biblical principle to this effect (Romans 2:10-11).
For all our sakes, and especially for the Jewish people, we dare not stand idly by while Jew hatred is normalised in our societies.