March 16, 2022 / 13 Adar 5782
I write this note with a breaking heart. What we are witnessing in Ukraine should not be happening, but we know there are people in history who do not act by “should.” We are hostage to their actions and we all suffer. The people in Ukraine most of all.
Tonight, we celebrate Purim and read Megillat (Scroll of) Esther, recounting an event in our own history that is both horrific and miraculous. By the end of the story, there is a human-led redemption and celebration but with descriptions of realistic terror we rarely reference. God stays behind the scenes; Esther is the only book in our Tanakh (Bible) that doesn’t mention God.
We deal with our story by “turning things upside down.” And we will tonight too. I hope you will join us. Purim is our Mardi Gras and literally coincides with St. Patrick’s Day, all of which have a similar Spring vibe.
As we prepare for tonight, there is a tradition of fasting during the day in honor of Queen Esther’s bravery and her invitation in Esther 4:16 to her fellow Jews to fast as she prepared to risk her life by seeing the King. I am partaking in this fast today. Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that we call today’s fast, Taanit Tzibbur, a Communal Fast to Alert and Avert Calamity in Ukraine.
Fasting is a way of connecting, of not forgetting. We are taught again and again in our tradition, “Don’t forget.” After the Shoah, we added, “Never again.”
I will never forget what it felt like to watch TV as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Right now I am holding a piece of the Berlin Wall that a friend who was there gave to me. It is composite concrete with colorful paint on one side, and it feels like hope. That event ushered in a decade of change, a new world order, and a paradigm shift that some called the end of history. Then 9/11 destroyed our sense of safety. It was not yet a shattering of the world order of the 90s. They were candlelight vigils in Tehran! Now with Putin, this year 2022 will be remembered as a return to history.
What do we mean when we say, “Don’t forget” and “Never again”? If it means never will people suffer a genocide, then our world has utterly failed. Darfur. Rwanda. Bosnia, Myanmar. All of these haunt us. If it means never again will our people suffer, then we are pained by rising antisemitism in the world even as we marvel that Ukrainian Jewish refugees, and thankfully others, are able to find shelter in a Jewish state that welcomes them.
If “never again” means that we will not hide our face from what is happening, that we will speak out, that we will contribute to people who are helping on the front lines, that we not let anyone manipulate the truth, and that we hold our politicians accountable, then maybe we can authentically and genuinely say, “Never again.”
One of the four mitzvot (sacred obligations) of Purim is to give to the poor, matanot l’evyonim. Today, please use that mitzvah to give generously to help Ukrainian refugees. I am contributing to the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s efforts (www.wupj.org), but there are many other worthy places doing holy work.
Thankfully, our topsy-turvy holiday will allow us to laugh, for otherwise we would cry. May our laughter give us respite and stir our conscience to remember and to act.
May Purim be good to you. We all need it.
Adam Stock Spilker, Rabbi
PS. I encourage you to listen to this podcast by Yehuda Kurtzer. It speaks to the question of what we mean by “Never Again.” Kurtzer’s conversation with Paul Shapiro, head of the Holocaust Museum in DC, led to this reflection.