What Will You Answer About What You Did to Confront Anti-Semitism?
This Sermon was delivered at Boca Raton Synagogue on Shabbos, March 16, 2019
Last time I checked, Tel Aviv is not disputed territory in anyone’s book. It isn’t a “settlement,” “occupied” or an “obstacle to peace.” When rockets are launched at Tel Aviv, whether someone pushed the button on purpose or by accident, they are aimed there and capable of reaching there, for one reason. Evil people seek the annihilation and elimination of the Jewish people. Those rockets are weapons of anti-Semitism, but they are not the only kind.
When anti-Semitic lyrics are shared, when Jews are accused of dual loyalty or of owning the country, controlling the media or using their “Benjamins” to buy elected officials, those are verbal rockets, also weapons capable of great destruction. The rockets from Gaza were met by the Iron Dome high in the sky, exploding them and protecting our brothers and sisters down below.
What were the verbal rockets of Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib met with? The same elected officials who thankfully help supply Iron Dome to Israel, failed to provide it to us, their own fellow citizens. Instead of being met with a dome of protection, blowing up such words and accusations, protecting good people below, the House of Representatives allowed them to fall, exploding and causing us great pain, worry and fear. True, there were exceptions. Our Representative, Congressman Ted Deutch, gave an impassioned, compelling, balanced speech on the House floor and we should be very grateful to him. But his colleagues failed him and failed us, they allowed verbal rockets to be launched and, even worse, to land without protecting us. They couldn’t bring themselves to pass a resolution singularly condemning anti-Semitism. And now we have to ask ourselves, if those whom we rely on to protect us fail us, what will we do about it?
When Haman approached Achashveirosh with his diabolical, genocidal plan to exterminate the Jews, he said, “yeshno am echad mefuzar u’mefurad bein ha’amim…there is a nation scattered abroad and dispersed among the nations.” The Gemara (Megillah 13b) expands on this conversation.
When Haman targeted the Jews for annihilation, the Gemara records, he said to Achashveirosh, “Let’s destroy the Jews.” Achashveirosh replied, “Not so fast. I am afraid of their God, lest He do to me what He did to my predecessors.” Haman relieved the King of that fear when he said, “yeshno am echad,” which translates literally as there is a certain nation. The Gemara quotes Rava, who explains that Haman was telling the King something much more strategic and insightful. Not yeshno am echad, there is a certain nation, but rather yoshnu am echad, there is a sleeping nation. Said Haman, “They have been negligent of mitzvos, they are divided, fighting with one another about brides playing drums at weddings. They are arguing amongst themselves but at the same time they are fast asleep as to what we want to do and how we threaten them.”
We were vulnerable and literally on the brink of elimination and extinction as a people because we were asleep. Our eyes were closed to what was happening around us. We didn’t take the threats seriously, and we didn’t stand up for our right to simply exist. Haman recognized and took advantage of yoshnu am echad, there is a nation that is sleeping. All he had to do was continue to lull the Jewish people into a false sense of security, to breed complacency and apathy, and at that moment he could accomplish his goal of ridding the world of our people.
Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that the true miracle of Purim is that an anti-Semite rose, threatened us, and we believed him. We didn’t excuse him, accept his bogus apologies or say he didn’t really understand what he was saying. We didn’t just reject his tropes, we confronted him, we took him at face value, and we were determined not to let him threaten our people. Identifying an anti-Semite, taking him or her seriously and doing something about it is nothing short of a miracle.
So how did we survive? What spoiled Haman’s plan? Why did we ultimately triumph over Haman such that we are here today and he is a distant memory? The answer is simple: Mordechai and Esther.
We understand Esther’s heroism. She risked everything: her life, her family, her people, to go out on a limb and confront the king without permission. But what made Mordechai a hero? If you think about it, Mordechai may actually be a villain, a perpetrator in the story, responsible for initiating the decree to exterminate the Jews of Shushan and beyond.
Would it have been so terrible for him to just bow down? Just once? Not only does Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman, he insists on antagonizing him by camping out on Haman’s route so that Haman would see him every day and be bothered by the one Jew who refuses to show him honor. Mordechai’s behavior provokes Haman and he responds by declaring his intention to destroy not only Mordechai, but all of Mordechai’s people, the Jews. Even after Haman’s plan has been pronounced, Mordechai continues to snub him. When Achashveirosh remembers what Mordechai had done to save his life and sends Haman to reward him by parading around publicly, Mordechai could have declined the honor. Instead, he accepts, humiliates Haman and infuriates him further.
And this is the person we consider a hero of Purim? Why? A closer look seems to indicate that Mordechai’s ego put the Jewish people at risk. What was the source of Mordechai’s intransigence?
You might think it’s simple – bowing down was avoda zara, one of the three cardinal sins for which we must give up our lives rather than violate. Indeed, the Ibn Ezra suggests that Haman was wearing idolatrous symbols. Rashi comments that Haman had declared himself a deity. Either way, it would seem Mordechai was right not to bow down, he was simply following Halacha and it was his peers who were wrong for bowing, even if not doing so would mean risking their lives.
But that’s not the whole story. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 61b says that the law of sacrificing your life rather than engaging in idolatry applies if in fact one is buying into the divine nature of the idol. If one is bowing simply out of fear, one is not liable. In fact, when the Rambam (Avodas Kochavim 3:6), quotes this Halacha, the Kesef Mishna comments that bowing to Haman is the paradigmatic example of idolatry out of fear for which one is exempt and doesn’t need to give up his or her life.
So the question truly begs itself – why didn’t Mordechai simply bow down in an effort to save the Jewish people? It wasn’t halacha that prevented him, so what was it? His ego? Jealousy? Competitiveness? Why didn’t he bow?
Rav Dessler discusses this question, as do others. Several years ago I suggested an answer in a previous derasha but this morning I want to suggest a different one.
Yes, Mordechai would have been entitled to bow down. To save his life, he could have been apologetic for his Jewishness and submitted to a virulent anti-Semite, bowing down to Haman and his worldview that wants a world without Jews. But Mordechai understood what was at stake.
Mordechai, a humble scholar and righteous sage witnessed the growing anti-Semitism of Haman and his desire to see Jews and Judaism erased and he understood the antidote. If Jews were fast asleep, excusing away even the anti-Semitic “tropes” of their time, the answer was not to bow down, even if it was technically allowed. The answer was exactly the opposite. To stand firm, to stand strong, and to stand as a proud Jew, a Torah Jew.
The answer was to not only not apologize for being a Jew, but to be the proudest and most tenacious Jew, and that is exactly what he did. Indeed, this is how is he is known in the megillah. Ish Yehudi haya b’Shushan ha’bira. What do you mean ish yehudi, there was only one? There was a large Jewish population in Shushan! The Megillah is telling us that true, there were many Jews, but some were abandoning their Judaism and others were failing to stand up for it. The Jewish community was asleep, there was only one Ish Yehudi, an unashamed, unembarrassed, unapologetic yid.
Do you know what happens when Jews stand up for ourselves, when we call out and confront anti-Semitic song lyrics, tropes and yes, call out anti-Semites themselves? By the end of the story, the Megillah tells v’ish lo amad lifneihem ki nafal pachad Mordechai aleihem, fear of the Jew had fallen on them and so no man could stand up against them. Why? “ki Mordechai ha’yehudi mishneh l’melech Achashveirosh v’gadol la’yehudim, v’ratzuy l’rov echav, doreish tov l’amo, v’doveir shalom l’chol zaro – Mordechai, the proud, unashamed, unapologetic and fearless Jew earned the respect of his multitude of brothers, he sought the good of his people and spoke for the welfare of the next generation.”
One of the critical, but too often neglected, lessons of the Megillah and of Purim, is that the answer to our enemies is not to hide, apologize, or erase our Jewishness. To the contrary, it is to swell with and share our Jewish pride. When we act with confidence and pride, we gain respect. It is no coincidence that Mordechai emerges as a leader not only of the Jewish people, but a dignitary in the Persian government.
The mitzvah of Purim is to get to a point that we can’t tell between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. We are very good at the blessed is Mordechai. We look to explain, excuse, justify and see everyone as a blessing. But we need to get to a point of remembering that identifying a Haman and cursing him is as important as blessing a Mordechai. We have to call out an anti-Semite, hold them accountable, hold those whose silence makes them accomplices accountable.
None of us know what the future brings. It could be that we will look back at these few weeks as an aberration, a small moment in time that bigoted voices spoke freely but we will go back to strong support, tolerance and freedom. But it also could be that history will look back at this moment, when members of Congress could espouse anti-Semitic views with impunity, without condemnation or consequence, and identify it as an inflection point, the beginning of defense of Jewish people turned.
If you share that concern, that uncertainty, the question is, what will you do about it? Certainly we have to write letters, make phone calls, hold anti-Semites and those who fail to condemn them accountable. But there is something else we must do.
We must appeal directly to the American people, to carry ourselves with pride, but also with dignity, honesty, integrity and righteousness. If like Mordechai our neighbors come to know and respect us, they will be intolerant of leaders who dare promote anti-Semitic rhetoric or tropes. If we carry ourselves properly, those we work with, work out with, shop with, or live near will speak out and stand up to demand resolutions of condemnation and removal of voices of hate from critical committees.
And so my friends, if you share these concerns, this Purim, as you listen to the Megillah ask yourself – are you willing to not only dress up like Mordechai, but be like Mordechai?