They Tried to Kill Us, They Couldn’t, Let’s Eat

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, February 28, 2024

They tried to kill us, they couldn’t, let’s eat.

It’s funny, isn’t it, that so many of the holidays in the Jewish calendar can be summed up with this tripartite phrase. And it is also a bit unnerving to realize how much of our Jewish story recalls our survival in difficult times. Despite it all “We are still here”. The holiday of Purim is no exception. We rarely consider how perilous the story of Purim is, instead focusing on the joy of children in costume, the treats, and our laughter at the retelling of the story in a silly Purim play.

This is what we are supposed to do. The four mitzvot of Purim are all actions that help to increase joy in the world: Hearing the reading of the Megilah – the Book of Esther, Shalach Manot – sending gifts, Matanot La’evyonim – Gifts to the Poor, and enjoying a Purim Seudah – Festive Meal. We read in Talmud Taanit 29a:18 Mi shenichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha. “As soon as Adar has entered, we increase in happiness.” These mitzvot are designed to cause us and those around us feel full of joy, because we are obligated to rejoice on Purim. And in this year 5784, which happens to be a leap year in the Jewish calendar, we are fortunate to have two months of Adar. This year especially, we can use all the happiness that we can get.

Alongside the rejoicing, tradition also prescribes a recognition of the terrible catastrophe that almost befell us. The Purim celebrations are preceded on the day before the holiday by a minor fast (“minor” fast days are only sunrise to sunset.) to commemorate what almost happened: In Esther 9:29-31, we read about how after the Jews have been saved from their enemies and Mordechai has been appointed to replace Haman, Esther and Mordechai issue a decree that the Jews should celebrate Purim each year. They also issued a second decree that the day of fasting and lamentation be observed on the 13th of Adar, when the Jews were expecting to be murdered.

Why isn’t it enough for us to rejoice? Why must we remember the day on which the Jews were almost killed? Why is there a minor fast remembering Esther’s (and the rest of the community’s) fast?

Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, the Rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland, shared this commentary on Purim, 1940: “We read in the Tikkunei Zohar that Purim is like Yom Kippur. This is hinted-at in the way that on Yom Kippur, one must fast and do teshuvah (repentance / return) not only if one feels like it, but whether or not one wants to do it. This is an enduring decree from the Holy One of Blessing. Rejoicing on Purim is similar. One is obligated to rejoice on Purim, not only if one is happy in oneself, or is in a situation where it’s easy to feel joy. On the contrary: even if one is in a low place and completely broken-hearted, body and spirit laid low, it’s still an obligation to seek out whatever tiny spark of joy is possible, and welcome that spark into the heart.

On both of these holy days, there’s a flow from on high to us here below. Just as Yom Kippur itself atones for us, even if our teshuvah feels inadequate (according to Talmud in tractate Yoma), just so on Purim. Even if a person isn’t feeling joyful the way one’s supposed to, and therefore one’s service of God doesn’t feel whole, even in that case the salvation and joy of Purim will flow — and that potential is open to us even now.” (as translated by Nehemia Polen in The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, p. 53ff)

Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira’s teachings are about resilience, even when we find ourselves in challenging times. Our spiritual practices remind us that finding the sparks of joy allows blessings to flow into our hearts every year, no matter what our circumstances are. His teaching also illuminates another verse in Megillat Esther: “If you stay silent now, you and your father’s house will disappear. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:14) Rabbi Shapira was the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1940 when he wrote these words he was living in very challenging times, but he did not stay silent. He spoke out and wrote and taught. In the Warsaw Ghetto, he continued to run a secret synagogue, leading services and delivering teachings. Every week, he wrote down his weekly thoughts on that week’s Torah portion, assuring that his voice and by extension, the voices of his community did not perish.

Despite the challenging circumstances in our world today, 2024 is not 1944. We now we have a Jewish country, where half of the Jewish population lives, have sovereignty, and have a defense force, and the other half of us live in relative safety and security in the rest of the world. We have continued to contribute to the world, and we reach across geographic distances, and transcend religion and politics. When we see suffering, we are called to do something about it. We celebrate our history by hearing our story, rejoicing in the good parts and deliberately remembering the painful parts. We tell our story of what we went through, and we are commanded to listen to every single word. We do this to remember that Am Yisrael Chai – we are alive, we are still here.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

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