From the Editor – Purim 5784

BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL

A Purim Revival

Over the last century, the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry became progressively, and seemingly inevitably, more secular. With an intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox American Jews of 72%, all signs have pointed to the imminent end of Diaspora Jewry – until now. 

In late January, New York radio talk show host Sid Rosenberg visited Israel for the first time, broadcasting his popular show from Jerusalem. “I say all the time, if Hamas wanted to try and ruin the spirit of the Jewish people and break us – the exact opposite has happened, you’ve brought the Jew out in me… I’ve always been a proud Jew, but I’ve skipped going to synagogue and over the past few years, even the High Holidays. But two weeks after October 7, my wife joined a temple, I’ve started to go to Friday night Shabbat dinners… and I’ve even sat and learned Torah with a rabbi” (JNS).

Meanwhile, Matisyahu – the superstar reggae musician who in recent years distanced himself from Judaism – reacted similarly to the massacre of October 7. On the Ami’s House podcast, he explained that his “pintele Yid,” his “Jewish spark,” was awakened. “Over the years, [being Jewish] became less central to me. And right now it’s come back, full force.” 

Israel’s religious revival, particularly among IDF soldiers, is well documented. High demand for tzitzit and tefillin and moving scenes of religious and “secular” soldiers praying together have become tangible signs of a spiritual awakening. But the impact among Diaspora Jews, though less obvious, seems just as real. According to a Chabad survey taken in the wake of October 7, 86% of respondents said that community members were experiencing a “deeper connection to their own Jewish identity.” 

Though today’s spiritual revival may seem unprecedented, the Jewish people have been here before. During the generation of the Purim story, the great majority of Jews were assimilated. “For what reason were the Jews of that generation deserving of destruction?… Because they participated in the banquet of the evil [Achashverosh]” (Megillah 12a). Most Jews of that era identified as Persians first and Jews second, if at all.

We tend to view Mordechai and Esther as righteous Jews who, from the very start of the Megillah, rejected the assimilation of their brothers and sisters. The sages portray Mordechai as a rabbi, a member of the Great Assembly and one of the nation’s great spiritual leaders, while Esther is described as a deeply religious woman who secretly maintained her Torah observance in Achashverosh’s palace. But there is another, more historical approach offered by many commentators, which views Mordechai and Esther very differently.

“Mordechai” and “Esther” are Persian names. Mordechai is named for the Babylonian god Mordoch, while Esther is named for a Persian goddess. The contrast to their fathers’ Hebrew names, “Yair” and “Avichayil,” is stark. The implication is that their parents, Jewish exiles from Jerusalem, had established themselves in Persian society and hoped their children would become full-fledged Persians, unencumbered by Jewish names and differences. Mordechai, a successful politician, was part of the Persian upper class, while Esther was so distant from the Jewish community that no one in Achashverosh’s palace suspected she was a Jew. Like the other assimilated Jews of their time, neither Mordechai nor Esther heeded the call of the emperor Coresh to return to Israel. In other words, they were very similar to most Diaspora Jews of our own time.

But everything changed with Haman’s decree. “The removal of Achashverosh’s ring [for the sealing of Haman’s decree] was more effective [at encouraging the Jews to repent] than the forty-eight prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people” (Megillah 14a). Haman’s rise to power triggered a spiritual crisis for Mordechai. People he thought were friends and allies remained silent in the face of Haman’s decree, just as so many ‘friends’ of the Jewish people have remained silent today after the massacre of October 7. For the first time, Mordechai understood that he was part of the nation of Israel, discovering a Jewish pride he never knew he had. Esther, ultimately, made the same noble choice. She reclaimed her Jewish identity, and risked her life to defend her people.

As Mordechai and Esther went, so did the Jews of their time. The terror of Haman and the heroism of Esther sparked a religious revival unlike anything the nation had experienced before. “Kimu mah shekiblu kvar, They confirmed what they had accepted earlier” (Shevuot 39a), reaccepting the Torah in the wake of the miracle of Purim. Nevertheless, despite the revival, only a small percentage of Diaspora Jewry returned to the Land. As recorded in Ezra and Nechemia, only 42,500 Jews returned to Israel, while the vast majority, including the wealthiest and most influential Jews, remained in the Diaspora. Tragically, an incredible opportunity was lost.

This is our moment. Am Yisrael is awakening, and we now have the chance to complete the miracle of Purim. This time, we pray, the script will be different and masses of Jews from all over the Diaspora will return home. 

“Awaken, awaken, for your light has come!”

 

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Editor of HaMizrachi magazine. 

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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