Purim, Prosemitism and Elevating our Jewish Identity

It is Purim season, and it is high time for us to lift our spirits, to turn from today’s painful challenges to its incredible opportunities and to lose some sleep over the looming issue of prosemitism.

I am not alone in feeling that the focus on the hostility we Jews are experiencing is getting to me. Most Jews seem to be feeling this way, while rabbis and educators feel unhappily compelled to focus on defending the Jewish people instead of elevating them.

It has felt like this for a while. Several months ago, sitting with my friend and colleague Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL awaiting the beginning of an antisemitism-related meeting with Attorney General Garland, I explained to Jonathan that while all of us want antisemitism to go away, the two of us were approaching the meeting at hand quite differently. His core mission is to fight antisemitism, while I am a rabbi whose passion and goal is not to attend meetings in the Department of Justice but to grow and deepen Jewish identity and the connection of Jews to Torah. Jonathan heard me out thoughtfully and sympathetically and we each turned our attention elsewhere, but a few minutes later he leaned over and whispered to me, “I hope you realize, rabbi, that the only way we will ultimately beat back this antisemitism thing is by making sure more Jews learn more Torah.”

Jonathan is correct, both spiritually and strategically. Spiritually, because as noted in the extra selichos prayers of the Fast of Esther, we — as Mordechai and Esther in their day — must activate the voice of Yaakov in the houses of prayer and study for God to then weaken the hands of Eisav (b’kol Yaakov lachalosh yedei az panim; see Bereishit Rabba 65:20). And strategically, as “the best defense is a good offense and Torah is part of our offense as a Jewish people….” Losing sight of our identity and mission weakens us as individuals and as a community.

The story of Purim begins with the Jews participating in a party thrown by Achashverosh for the purpose of celebrating their demise and the dashing of their dream to return to Yerushalayim (see Megillah 11b), and it ends with the recommitment of Klal Yisrael to its mission and destiny (Shabbos 88a). The “light, joy, gladness, and glory” that enveloped the Jews after turning back their threatened genocide describes not only their relief at the elimination of an existential threat but also — as the Talmud (Megillah 16b) explained — their return to Torah and Tefillin. Kiymu v’kiblu; Egyptian, Persian, and every other iteration of antisemitism returns us to the foot of Mount Sinai k’ish echad b’lev echad, united as one person with one heart.

These days we see this everywhere. Jews in Israel, the United States, and throughout the world have realized that as much as we are made to feel utterly alone by the hostility of the world, we must double down on Jewish belonging by being there for each other and elevating our engagement in Torah and Mitzvot, the essence of our identity as the eternal Jewish people. The hatred of others has inspired the love of our own, and for many the smashed idols of failed contemporary ideals have made room for a return to traditional Jewish values. From the Orthodox to the unaffiliated, the incomprehensible horrors of October 7 have ironically awakened the Jewish spirit more than any of our own educational and engagement efforts, gedola hasarat taba’at. We are facing a tidal wave of prosemitism and we need to figure out how to lock it in both for ourselves and for those who have yet to firmly establish themselves within the Jewish communal family.

While writing this, I texted Jonathan to confirm that I was quoting him accurately, which he did and then shared this: “You know, I often reflect on the psalm about losing my hand if I forget thee O Jerusalem. In my opinion, that psalm isn’t just about the peril of forgetting the physical site of Yerushalayim, our eternal capital. It’s also about the danger of forgetting Torah, our covenantal bond with G-d and the text that we were chosen to receive and to share with the world. Failing to honor that covenantal responsibility and losing sight of this commitment diminishes our communal capacity. It weakens our spiritual well-being. Getting back to basics — laying tefillin, davening in shul, studying Torah, leading a Jewish life — is part of how we move through these difficult times and come out stronger and more united on the other side.”

That’s the story of Purim, circa 2024. It is momentous, precious, exciting, and joyous. Now we need to figure out how to bottle it. That is something to lose sleep over.