February 24, 2023
Earlier this week, we welcomed in Rosh Chodesh Adar, the opening days of the month in which we celebrate the holiday of Purim. The sages famously tell us miShenichnas adar marbim simcha – “when Adar comes in, joy increases!” With the first of the month, we anticipate the taste of hamantaschen, children are preparing their costumes, and we all await a night and day of revelry and celebration.
One of the central themes of Purim is VeNahafoch hu. This phrase is taken from the first verse of chapter nine of the Megillah:
And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, VeNahafoch hu – the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.
VeNahafoch hu – the opposite happened. It was turned to the contrary.
It makes sense that this is a central theme. After all, the story of Purim, told in the Megillat Esther, is a story of opposites, of turn-arounds. Women prevail in a patriarchal society; the wicked Prime Minister Haman is undone by his intended victim, the righteous Mordechai; the town of Shushan, bewildered and dumbfounded at the beginning of the story (3:15), ends up tzohalah v’sameicha, “exulting and rejoicing” at the end (8:15); the Jews, slated for destruction, reverse their fate and end up triumphantly destroying their enemies. There are many more examples.
I see reversals all around me right now, but they are hardly increasing my joy. Today (Thursday), Jewish communities across the country received notification that neo-Nazi and White supremacist groups are planning a “national day of hate” for this Shabbat. Law enforcement agencies are on high alert, and institutions (including ours) will be taking extra measures to protect our community members. I’m not particularly concerned about anything happening in our community – attention-seeking, and not violence, seems to be the theme of the day: my concern is a larger one. The greatly increasing threat of antisemitism in our country is only growing worse. The statistics are overwhelming. The American Jewish Committee released statistics today that are alarming, but they only confirm a trend that we know exists:
- 26% (one in four) of American Jews reported being personally targeted by antisemitism in the past year and 38% (four in ten) reported changing their behavior at least once out of fear of antisemitism;
- 27% of American Jews avoided posting content online that would identify them as a Jew or reveal their views on Jewish issues;
- In total, 69% of American Jewish adults were the target of antisemitism online or have seen it online at least once in the past 12 months; this number rises to 85% for American Jews under the age of 30.
And these are only the headline stats. So the question stands: how do we cool the fever that seems to be sweeping the nation and the world?
VeNahafoch hu – the opposite happened. It was turned to the contrary.
Perhaps we start by taking a look at ourselves.
If you’ve been following the news from Israel, you know that the situation there is grim. Netanyahu’s assault on the Judiciary (and hence the democratic structure of the state) continues apace, with some essential votes having passed this week. The opportunity for any kind of negotiation seems to have passed the point of no-return. The violent and emboldened settlers, feeling they have more cover than ever from the new nationalist power-factions in the government, have notched up their abuse of and antagonism toward their Palestinian neighbors who in turn, feeling increasingly helpless, are themselves turning once again to violence. The specter of another Intifada looms, particularly with the start of Ramadan only a month away (Ramadan has historically been a time of increased tensions in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) and an Israeli government that seems to be provoking it. And the world watches in horror as the nationalist Jewish supremacist movement in Israel takes the reins of crucial parts of the government. There is little distinction between these characters and the neo-Nazis who are threatening our Shabbat this week. The VeNahafoch hu ironies abound here, but they have none of the humor, wit, or grace of the Scroll of Esther.
Likewise, the Orthodox have gained significant political power in Netanyahu’s coalition, and their wielding of power is alienating secular Israelis. All of these factors are spooking the business sector. The finance minister, Nir Barkat, reported yesterday in a cabinet meeting to discuss the coming year’s budget, that in response to the judicial reforms, many high-tech leaders told him “that we could forget the state budget, as there would be no money to fund it anyway.” The list goes on and on. Many high-profile commentators are seeing the end of a viable state. If the Arab world wants to destroy Israel, it seems, all they need to do is wait.
I refuse to believe that all hope is lost. Last week, we read the oft-quoted verse, You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt(23:9). It’s hard to know what aspect of the Israel situation is the worst, but we can start right there with a little veNahafoch hu; that Jews would harbor such supremacist hatred of the other is impossible for me to digest and seems to utterly contradict one of the central and most empathic tenets of Torah – support of the “stranger who resides among you.” It’s time to exert pressure on this faction of Israeli society that is daily committing chilul haShem – a profanation of the name of God – in the name of God. They must be cut off, censured, made to feel shame. Their actions reflect on us, and while there is no excuse for the correlation, their actions reverberate here and give the “national day of hatred” crowd cover. We must make our voices heard.
I have been invited to participate in yet another trip to Israel in the middle of March. This one, sponsored by UJA-Federation, is being billed as an “emergency” trip. I believe that the leaders of the American (and diaspora) Jewish community are deeply concerned that the situation in Israel will irreparably fray the already-weakened relations between Israel and American Jewry. So they are sending rabbis and community leaders in order that we can bring back some message of positivity. I hope I can find some. Prior to the last trip, I said that I wanted to listen, to learn. That is still the case, but even since then, a great deal has changed and become, frankly, much clearer. Israel, at the beginning of Adar 5783, is upside down. But as Megillat Esther demonstrates, reversals are always possible, and hope springs eternal. I pray that I will return with some cause for hope, having seen glimmers of possibility.
In the meantime, let’s hang on to what joy we can – miShenichnas adar marbim simcha – “when Adar comes in, joy increases!” And let’s carry that message with us as we enter what will be, God willing, a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.
Rabbi Sam Levine