How far you would go to save yourself? Your child? Your spouse? A family member? A friend? A community member? A stranger? What would it take for you to make a decision to protect someone that could result in your life being irrevocably changed or may even result in your death? When not actually faced with having to make such a decision, most of us would say we would make the sacrifice at least for some of the individuals and groups on that list. We claim we would not let our neighbors be ridiculed, threatened or taken away. But how far are we really willing to go? And what would it take to actually take that stand? Fortitude? Naivety? A sincere belief in something higher and greater than yourself? Love? Courage?
Those questions and more are found in the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim. The story takes place around the 4th Century BCE. A date in time filled with intrigue, deception, murder; opulence for some and extreme poverty for others; unscrupulous advisors, narcissistic leaders, and hidden identities and alliances. Purim tells the story of Esther, a young woman who hid her Jewish identity from the powers that be and, almost unbelievably, finds herself married to the King. At the same time, an unscrupulous advisor to the King wants to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther is faced with a decision. Should she try everything in her power to save her people and possibly lose her life in the process? Or, say nothing and lose everyone she loves and cares about and live with that knowledge?
Over the years each aspect of the story has been read and reread, dissected and discussed. Without question however, Esther was a heroine. She saw people suffering, and branded with lies and falsehoods about their very being. She witnessed extreme prejudice against the Jewish population from the people in power. Learning of a plot to kill all the Jewish inhabitants of the land, Esther faced a difficult and life-threatening decision. Would she stay quiet and do nothing, or would she stand up, speak out and take a stand? Without asking permission (something that was required even of the Queen), she made her way to the King. She spoke out against the plot led by the powerful advisor to the King to annihilate the Jewish population. In her own way and with her own words she confessed her Jewish faith and her familial association with members of the Jewish community who were out of favor with the dreaded advisor. She took the ultimate risk for her faith, her community, her family and herself. In this instance it paid off. The Jewish population was spared.
But how did the situation become so bad that actual threats to life were reality? Was it simply a condition of the times that certain people were considered less than other people? Was it so ingrained in the population that the ruling class could make up the rules as they went along and that sacrifice was something only “the others” had to do? What makes an entire population of people accept such inhumane treatment of their fellow human beings? Ignorance? Fear? An inability to view different people as we view ourselves? The willingness to follow? Some underlying defect that causes us to always blame the “others” and to never take personal responsibility? Or is it our inability to learn the harsh lesson of history and our apparent willingness to repeat those offenses?
These are questions that each of us must answer for ourselves. As bomb threats and acts of violence against Jewish communities, institutions and individuals across the United States intensify, we will be asking ourselves and our neighbors these very questions. We hope the answer will be that we stand against prejudice in all of its ugly forms. We pray for everyone who is suffering from acts of violence, ignorance and intolerance. And we all strive to have the courage of Esther.
• Chava Lee is the Board President of the Congregation Sukkat Shalom.