PURIM JEWS, PASSOVER JEWS
So what’s your favorite Jewish holiday? I’m guessing it’s probably not Yom Kippur. Most kids would probably cast their vote for Hanukah. But writer Yossi Klein Ha-Levi says that when it comes down to it, we are either Purim Jews or Passover Jews. But not for the reasons you’d think. It’s not about Groggers, Costumes & Hamantashen vs. Afikomen, Ma Nishtana & Matza Brie.
Klein Ha-Levi reminds us that both holidays are about remembering – but remembering very different things! On the Shabbes before Purim we read from the Torah: “Remember what Amalek did to you!” The Amalekites were a desert tribe who viciously attacked the Israelites after they had just crossed the Red Sea. Though the Jews were no threat to anyone, the Amalekites targeted the old and infirm, and like modern-day terrorists they tried to kill as many innocent people as possible. Haman is considered a descendant of Amalek, and like his ancestors, he too tried to exterminate the Jewish people. Though we celebrate Purim today in happiness and joy, the celebration comes only because Mordecai and Esther led the Jews back then in a battle of self-defense. Victory was ours, and Haman, his sons and all those who rose up against us, were defeated. Purim is about remembering that there are those out there who still want to destroy us.
Passover also comes with a command to remember. Several times in the Torah we are told: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” Then each time, the verse goes on to mention: Therefore, be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Or: Take care of the widow and the orphan. Or: Be generous to the poor because you were slaves in Egypt. We as a people know what it’s like to be oppressed, or depressed, or distressed. We are told to remember our experience, and to feel empathy for others who are in similar circumstances. We are commanded to be compassionate. Passover is about remembering that we suffered and were freed, and should therefore extend an open hand to those in trouble.
So there are two types of Jews: Purim Jews, and Passover Jews. Purim Jews say: Don’t be naïve! There are people out there trying to kill us. Don’t let down your guard. Be Strong. Never again! Passover Jews say: Don’t be brutal. There are people out there in need.
Let all who are hungry come in and eat.” The essence of Judaism is caring for others. It is a mitzvah to be kind to those who need our help.
So which are you? A Purim Jew, or a Passover Jew? Do you see the Jewish people constantly under threat, and if we aren’t careful, another Holocaust looms in our future? Build a wall, circle the wagons, stand guard. Or do you see the Jews as a people blessed with privilege, who are expected to show gratitude for all that we have by paying it forward, to others much less fortunate? Tear down the walls, open our doors, repair the world.
To get a sense of what kind of Jew you are – a Purim Jew or a Passover Jew - let’s look at an actual event that took place, by coincidence last Purim, and see where we stand.
It happened in Hebron. A city which has a population of over 200,000 Palestinians, and about 800 Israeli settlers. The Arabs there have intense hatred for the Jews – all the way back to 1929, when they massacred 69 Jews in a vicious pogrom . And the Palestinians remember when a Jew massacred 29 Arabs at prayer – which took place, by coincidence on Purim in 1994, at the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Last March, two Palestinians attacked an Israeli soldier with knives. This came in the wake of hundreds of attacks by Palestinians against Jews over this past year. More than 30 Jews have been killed, almost 500 injured. And more than 200 Arabs have been killed in the commission of these attacks by the Israeli military or police.
On that day in Hebron, Israeli soldiers opened fire at the attackers, killing one, and severely injuring the other – Abel al Fatah al-Sharif. As the two attackers lay immobilized on the ground, an Israeli sergeant, Elor Azariah, 19, approached the wounded Arab and shot him fatally in the head. Bystanders recorded the incident, and then posted it on the internet, causing a world-wide uproar.
Sergeant Azariah was arrested by the Israeli Army, and put on trial for manslaughter. His attorney said that his client feared the injured Palestinian might have had explosives under his shirt, or might have reached for the knife which had fallen to the ground and do more harm. The prosecution charged that the terrorist had already been checked and that the knife was not within reach. A witness testified that the sergeant said “He needs to die, since he is a terrorist.”
Public opinion in Israel was divided. The Minister of Defense condemned the sergeant’s actions. “Our power does not only stem from our military capability, but first of all from our moral strength. This is our duty – to win and remain human.” Professor Asa Kasher who taught ethics and philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and helped write the Israeli Defense Forces Code of Ethics, commented that while an individual, and a nation, has a right of self-defense, killing is wrong if it is not done in self-defense. A terrorist wielding a knife is a criminal – not an enemy on the battlefield. Just as the Army cannot kill an enemy soldier who is a P.O.W., it was wrong for the sergeant to kill a wounded terrorist lying on the ground.
On the other hand, many Israelis defended Sergeant Azariah. Anyone who intends to kill a Jew as an act of Jihad should know he won’t come out alive, some said. One former soldier, himself injured in a terror attack said: “This soldier made sure that a terrorist with the means and intent to murder Israeli soldiers was dead. This soldier was a hero, and I salute him!” One columnist wrote: “I don’t know if I’d let him go out with my daughter, which doesn’t change the fact that I’m on his side. He’s a soldier, and we’re at war.”
If you were on the jury, how would you cast your vote? Is Elor Azariah guilty, or not-guilty of manslaughter?
Are you a Purim Jew, or a Passover Jew? Do you believe in ‘Security First.’ Do you agree with the Rabbis in the Talmud who said: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first”? Do you believe that we cannot afford the luxury of philosopher’s debate in the ivory tower? Our enemies aren’t restrained by any ethical considerations – so why should we be? How can we fight a vicious foe with two hands tied behind our backs?
Or do we believe that all human beings were created in the image of God, and must be accorded certain basic rights. We need to have respect, if not compassion, even for those who hate us, and we must understand where their hate comes from, and ask if we, in some way, have contributed to their hate for us. We must treat them according to the rule of the law. If we don’t, then we are no different than they are. We embrace the sentiments of Golda Meir, who said: “We could forgive the Arabs for killing our children; we can never forgive them, for making us kill theirs.” What’s at stake here is the soul of our nation; what’s on the line is the neshama of the Jewish people.
Israel faced the same dilemmas in the three wars in Gaza – Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Protective Edge in 2014. What do you do when the enemy launches missiles from hospitals, schools and mosques, and when it takes refuge in residential neighborhoods? If you bomb the source of the firing, you will kill innocent civilians. That’s more than just a public relations nightmare. It weighs heavily on the soul of the Jewish people. But if you hold your fire, the terrorists are emboldened, and at the least they can disrupt normal living in Israel, and at worst, they can murder Israeli civilians and traumatize Israeli children who are forced to hide in underground shelters.
A Purim Jew says: The war will end as soon as Hamas stops launching missiles into Israel. If innocent Arab children in Gaza die, it’s because their leaders care more about killing Jews than they do about protecting their own children. In the meantime, we will not sit back and allow our enemies to threaten or harm our children. We remember what Amalek did to us.
A Passover Jews say: It is inconceivable that Jews should be involved in actions that will bring about the death of hundreds of innocent children in Gaza. We must find another way – be it by political compromise, or other military tactics. We remember when we were slaves in Egypt; we won’t become a Pharaoh to another people.
So which is it? A Purim Jew, or a Passover Jew? Which holiday, and its values, do you embrace? Do we worry only about ourselves, or do we have to look after others?
Yossi Klein Ha-Levy gives us his answer: “Passover Jews are motivated by empathy with the oppressed. Purim Jews are motivated by alertness to threat. BOTH ARE ESSENTIAL; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.”
He imagines an Orthodox Rabbi, a supporter of the settlers in Hebron, getting up on Shabbes in Shul and saying to his congregation: “For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its survival, we have failed to acknowledge the consequences to Israel’s soul of occupying another people against its will.” Until that happens, something critical is missing.
And he also imagines a liberal rabbi, who supports J-Street, saying to his congregation: “For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its democratic values, we have failed to acknowledge the urgency of existential threat once again facing our people.” Unitl that happens, something critical is missing.
You can’t be a complete Jew if you only drown out the name of Haman with your grogger, but don’t also open the door for Elijah – and the hungry – at a Seder. You can’t just take 10 drops of wine from your cup to feel the pain of the Egyptians during the plagues but then not feel the fear and anxiety of Esther as she risked her life to save her own people. Traditionally, Jews observe BOTH Purim and Passover. You can’t pick one and forget the other. They’re both on the Jewish calendar, and they both teach us very important values, and lessons.
A Jewish soldier must protect himself, and his country, but there is a Jewish way of doing it. Back in the 1940’s, the Hagana called it “Tohar HaNeshek” – Purity of the Weapon. A soldier may not be Judge, Jury and Executioner. Individual soldiers have risked – and lost – their lives to maintain this high standard. And by doing so, they have maintained our people’s soul.
The Israeli Army dropped leaflets into populated neighborhoods in Gaza warning of an impending attack. They even had robo-calls made to Palestinian cell phones, and they dropped dummy bombs onto rooftops – to tell the residents: “Get out, now.” The terrorists got the same leaflets and phone calls, and so they knew to escape. But that’s what a Jewish army has to do. We don’t measure ourselves by what our enemies do. We observe both Purim and Passover. We won’t be naïve. But we won’t be brutal. It may not be easy to be both. We’ll figure it out. It may be difficult, but that’s what we have to do.
There’s a lot that Judaism – in general – and Israel in particular – can learn from America. (I’m thinking first and foremost about the Separation of Church and State, as the most important example). But there’s also much that America and Americans can learn from Judaism, and the Jewish people. Right now, in American history, perhaps no lesson is as critical as the one about Purim and Passover.
The American equivalent of Purim vs Passover might be July 4th and Thanksgiving. And again, not in the simplistic ways we’ve come to see these days. July 4th is not just about barbecues and fireworks. Thanksgiving is not merely about Turkey and the Macy’s parade.
July 4th is when America was willing to go to war with England over freedom. “Give me liberty or death!” “Don’t tread on me!” The Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill. “I regret that I only have one life to give for my country.” We will send our soldiers to the Beaches of Normandy, or our Marines to the island of Iwo Jima – or Seal Team 6 to get Osama bin Laden - to preserve our freedom, and our security.
Thanksgiving is when Americans were willing to sit down and break bread with the Native American tribes, and to trade what we had, and to share what we knew, for the mutual benefit of all peoples. Instead of trying to kill each other, we reached out to others and made peace, and together gave thanks for all the blessings we had been given in this magnificent country.
Today, America is a divided nation. Red States, Blue States. Republicans, Democrats. Conservatives, Liberals. Congress is deadlocked and each side seems dedicated to preventing the other side from achieving what it wants. Each side tries to win at all costs – and in the end, we all lose.
But what if we understood that politics doesn’t have to be “Either/Or.” It’s not Independence Day or Thanksgiving; it’s Both.
Take the issue of “Police-Involved shootings.” It’s either “Black Live Matter” (which for some means the Police – All Police – are the problem) or it’s “Blue Lives Matter” (which means that cops can do no wrong – no matter what).
The cold-blooded assassination of police – the two here in NYC a year ago, five in Dallas this summer are just two examples – are among the most horrible things we have seen – Targeting random people because of the uniform they wear. And at the same time, some of the videos we have seen of black men shot by police are simply inexplicable. We’re not talking about someone going for a cop’s gun, or someone resisting arrest, but someone with their hands up, or complying with a policeman’s instructions, who are shot anyway.
July 4th reminds us: Don’t be naïve. The Sergeant used to say on Hill Street Blues, “Hey, be careful out there” – because in some places, on some days, it’s a jungle and without the “thin blue line”, civilization as we know it would come to an end. But Thanksgiving reminds us: Don’t be brutal. There are some bad cops out there – who are either filled with prejudice, or who are poorly trained and who are not properly doing their jobs of “to serve and to protect.” We have to accept and embrace both truths. All lives matter – Black, and blue.
Or take the issue of immigration. Some people want to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, and change quotas to keep out all Muslims. “These people are committing crimes and taking our jobs, and those people are terrorists or trying to impose Sharia Law here in America.” Some people say it’s July 4th.” Don’t be naïve. We have to root out the enemy in our midst and we have to prevent any more of them from coming in. On the other side are people who say: It’s Thankgving. America is built on the principle of immigration. All of us are descended from those who came from someplace else. The Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants to our shores with the immortal words of a Jewish poet – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest – tossed to me; I left my lamp beside the golden door!” Don’t be brutal – take in those who are fleeing for their lives. We Jews, of all people, should remember what happened in 1939 when the United States wouldn’t allow Jewish refugees on the S.S. St. Louis to come in, and were sent back to Germany.
But the truth is that it’s not either/or. Thanksgiving teaches us to remember what America is all about. July 4th reminds us that we need to be careful to preserve America. It’s not only possible – it’s necessary to do both.
As we gather on this Jewish holiday, we are reminded that the holidays themselves teach us very important lessons. Some Jews think that all we need is Purim: Remember what Amalek did to us. Some think that all that’s necessary is Passover: Remember that we were once slaves in Egypt.
And there are Americans who only think in terms of July 4th – we are at war. And “the British are coming, the British are coming!” While others want to only celebrate Thanksgiving, and pretend that everyone is our friend.
Here’s the thing: There are 12 months on the calendar – both Jewish and American, and each calendar has at least a dozen holidays. Each holiday celebrates a different event and every event brings one more piece of the puzzle of what it means to be Jewish, or American.
As we begin the new Jewish year, and as we prepare to choose a new American president, let us remember it’s never one thing, or the other. It’s got to be both.