In just over a week, we will celebrate the holiday of Purim. Our young children and grandchildren know this holiday as a celebration of indulgence, where wacky costumes and even noise-making are encouraged during prayers, while treats flow steadily like a river of sweet caramel among friends and families.
We – the parents and grandparents – happily join the younger ones in celebrating. We delight in a festive meal, enjoy a drink or two and are perhaps a bit more generous than usual when dropping coins into the tzedakah box. And of course, we listen to the reading of the megillah, the Scroll of Esther.
But, in a way that the children are still too young to grasp, we understand that the story of the megillah is more than a sunny invitation to frolic in the synagogue. Indeed, it is a dark tale of a genocide averted.
The many lessons imparted to us by our sages about the harrowing Purim experience of our forebears are, typically, inspiring. One in particular, however, calls to us today with special force and relevance.
In the climactic aftermath of Haman’s unmasking, we read a variation of the Hebrew word lekahel five times within 25 verses. It describes the behaviour of the Jews who were dispersed throughout the 127 provinces of the Persian kingdom. Loosely translated, it means “to come together.” It shares the same root from which the word kehillah (community) is derived.
At the critical moment, when their survival hung in the balance, the Jews behaved as a community. The Jews triumphed only after they deployed and demonstrated aspects of community in the ways that they related to each other and to their common enemy. Coming together as a community averted the deadly peril.
To be sure, such behaviour does not, cannot, nor ever was intended to mean conformity or uniformity of thought. This is clearly implied in the text when Mordechai is described as having been admired by most (but not all) of his brethren.
This description rings true. Can it be realistic or reasonable to expect all individuals – even those within the same community – to have held identical views about Mordechai, despite the benefit of his actions and intervention on behalf of the Jews?
The importance of community-mindedness is not merely a quaint historical relic from our Jewish past. Rather, it has profound relevance today. It provides a guidepost for our own behaviour at a time when deep divisions rend political and civic life in the United States and spill over, alas, into intra-communal Jewish relations.
U.S. President Donald Trump is a polarizing figure. This is hardly a controversial observation. His unique form of polarity rebuffs and repels people of differing politics and beliefs. Republicans and Democrats seem unable to collaborate and co-operate even for the general good of their country. Indeed, they often seem unable or unwilling to engage in mutually respectful discussion.
Trump has succeeded in promoting the notion that political allegiance to him and his party is a sort of litmus test of allegiance to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Unfortunately, Jews have become caught in these unsettling tectonic political shifts within American public life, pointing fingers, casting aspersions or simply turning away from each other for deigning to hold opposing views.
If Purim teaches us anything, it teaches us not to lose the essence of being a kehillah – more specifically, a kehillah kedoshah (holy community), as we have always called ourselves throughout history – and that, however much individual opinions may differ, we must recall the importance and the strength that follows when we, as Jews, behave as part of a cohesive, interconnected, bonded community.