Shabbat Shalom: February 19, 2021
“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.”
(Megillat Esther, The Book of Esther)
The Book of Esther, which we read on Purim, is a far darker story than many realize. For example, Vashti was beheaded because she was unwilling to humiliate herself in front of the king’s guests. The king was the epitome of the failed leader who was given a title and influence but squandered it on meaningless pleasures. Haman was the embodiment of the power-hungry sociopath who consolidated power by scapegoating a vulnerable group within Shushan. And our ancestors were brought to the brink of destruction because Haman held all the cards.
Of course, the Jews of Shushan held a card as well. Her name was Esther. But there was a problem. Once Esther was in the palace she seemed to like it there. When Mordechai sent word that she needed to intervene with the King on the Jews’ behalf, Esther resisted. She was happy in the palace. She felt safe there. And besides, as she told Mordechai, no one was allowed to approach the King unless they were first summoned. And she wasn’t willing to take the personal risk. Sadly, while living in the palace she had become… apathetic.
When Mordechai is told of Esther’s response he is understandably disappointed. That, however, is when he teaches Esther, and us, a powerful lesson. The text tells us,
“When Mordechai was told what Esther had said, he had this message delivered to Esther: ‘[Esther,] do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. 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.'”
Mordechai reminded Esther that, whether she liked it or not, her life was intertwined with the lives of her family and community. If the ugly, xenophobic disease Haman was spreading was not put in check, Mordechai told Esther, her fate would be no different from that of the rest of her people. Fortunately, Mordechai’s rather blunt wakeup call was all it took. Esther went into action. She devised a plan. And she and her entire community pushed back on Haman’s ugliness not by ignoring or accommodating it but by directly confronting it.
In that moment Mordechai taught Esther a lesson that was beautifully articulated by Elie Wiesel in a 1986 interview when he said,
Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.
Like Esther, we cannot be indifferent to the pain in our world.
We cannot be indifferent to the systemic racism that still poisons our nation.
We cannot be indifferent to the disparities that currently have black Americans getting access to COVID vaccinations at a far lower rate than white Americans.
And we cannot be indifferent to the disaster that is currently unfolding in Texas.
One of the traditions connected to Purim is known as “Mishloach manot.” Literally translated as “sending of portions,” the tradition is derived from a line in the Book of Esther which states,
“Therefore the Jews of the villages, that dwelt in the unwalled towns, made the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday, and of sending portions to one another (mishloach manot.)”
There are a variety of explanations for this tradition. Some say it was originally done to reflect the communal unity that allowed our people to survive Haman’s onslaught. Others suggest the tradition began as a way to make sure everyone in the community had food enough for a festive Purim meal.
By doing so, our community ensured that rich and poor alike could celebrate Purim. In addition, however, this tradition is also a powerful reminder that we are all connected and that every member of our community matters.
Which brings me back to the exchange between Esther and Mordechai and the latter reminding the former that we are all connected and we are all responsible for one another. It is for that reason that, this year, I’m not sending baskets to family and friends. Instead, I’m making donations via these websites, to help those suffering in Texas:
So long as she didn’t see them, Esther initially thought she could ignore the pain and suffering of others. Mordechai reminded her, and us, that we are not only all connected but we are all responsible for one another.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen