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What's a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

03/10/2022 08:00:00 AM


Rabbi Scott Hausman -Weiss

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In the face of Queen Esther’s fearful reluctance to act at the behest of her Uncle Mordechai to break protocol and approach the King (even though she had not been summoned) to seek his help in saving her people, Mordechai retorted with these words:

כִּ֣י אִם־הַחֲרֵ֣שׁ תַּחֲרִ֘ישִׁי֮ בָּעֵ֣ת הַזֹּאת֒ רֶ֣וַח וְהַצָּלָ֞ה יַעֲמ֤וֹד לַיְּהוּדִים֙ מִמָּק֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר וְאַ֥תְּ וּבֵית־אָבִ֖יךְ תֹּאבֵ֑דוּ וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת׃

“On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

While these are tough words coming from one’s uncle, do we perhaps detect a note of sarcasm?  Annoyance?  Faith, perhaps?  Mordechai doesn’t tell Esther that she is the only one who could possibly save them.  He affirms that relief and deliverance will come eventually – maybe not now, but most certainly at some point in the future– and that this might be the moment for which she was born.  Who truly could have risen to the exigencies of this moment as a successful agent of Jewish salvation?  Not a pious one.  Think about it…Mordechai and Esther (whose names stem from the Persian gods, Marduk and Ishtar) arose from the community of Jews living in, versed, and immersed in the secular/national religious world of ancient Persia.  Esther enters the palace, fully at home in its culture and idioms, able to navigate a world in which someone might have said, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a place like this?” But all that only delivered Esther into the moment; it doesn’t have anything to do with catalyzing her willingness to step up and step in. Moments are delivered to us throughout our lives, some far grander than others, but all the serendipity of the cosmos doesn’t open our mouths or remove our armor.  No, only we can do that for ourselves in the moment of arrival. And yet, arrival doesn't necessarily mean we open the door, but Esther did, and thus the book we read on Purim is so named.

Today there is a modern-day Esther in a t-shirt and blue jeans residing in the Presidential Palace in Kyiv who was delivered into THIS moment, and with nothing but sheer grit and tenacity, he opened his mouth, removed his armor, and stood up to say, “No!” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is much like Esther and Mordechai: A Jew, fully steeped and conversant in the secular Russian-Ukrainian world, an expert in entertainment and politics, he has stepped up and declared to Vladimir Putin, J’accuse! 

 I found myself quite perturbed earlier this week reading an opinion piece claiming that because Ukraine hadn’t fully exorcised its Nazi demons over the last 70 years, and because Zelenskyy didn’t meet this author’s standard of appropriate religiosity [to be considered a Jew], that seemingly neither Ukraine nor Zelenskyy was worthy of the aggrandizement being heaped upon them. (And then I thought about Charlottesville…perhaps a topic for another time.) 

The Book of Esther recounts the age-old story of Jewish fatalism and redemption.  But like pretty much every other tale we tell and retell, they’re never, ever really just about us.  Someone recently shared with me that as soon as she hears that her local school board is banning books, she’s outta here. “Because right after books come the Jews!”  As morbid as that sounds, it’s not untrue.  Because the one thing we Jews really cannot tolerate is the notion that absolute Truth can be Owned and Packaged and Known by any entity in the universe but God.  By force of weapon, wit and whim, countless marauders against freedom of mind, body, and spirit have waged war for the sake of control and manipulation.  And it is indeed what we Jews have fought against and died for more than anything else. Not THE TRUTH, but that every human being has the God-given right to their own search for it.  That THIS is what our lives are about - personal and communal efforts to make meaning of the short time we are given to live our lives.  

This is why Putin will fail, even if God forbid, he subdues Ukraine, he cannot subdue the light of creation that flickers in each of us unless and until we put it out.  Mordechai wasn’t speaking just to Esther when he suggested that this might be the very moment for which she was born, because in fact we all exist for a reason, each and every one of us has a moment (often more than one) for which we were born.  What are yours?  

Sat, January 28 2023 6 Shevat 5783