By Rabbi Aaron Miller
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36.
My young children are keeping their Purim plans a secret. All my wife and I know is that they hope to wake up very early and that, for whatever reason, they need a screwdriver to remove the bells from their bikes. We are expecting quite a wake up.
This has been a season of rude awakenings and, like you, I have been following the news cycle with dread. As Russia advances in Ukraine, we are witnessing an unthinkable invasion, a callous war, an unprecedented refugee crisis, and a merciless targeting of innocent civilians fleeing for their lives. Hadn’t Europe already learned from its mistakes? Weren’t we supposed to be living in a new chapter of history?
As King Solomon observed, “Only that shall happen which has happened… there is nothing new beneath the sun!” Old stories have a way of repeating themselves. Religion gives us context and to know the story of Purim is to also know that we have been here before.
“It happened in the days of Achashverosh,” the Book of Esther begins. From a fortress in Shushan, an evil Haman plotted to annihilate the Jews of Persia and was moments away from seeing his plan through. At the last minute, Queen Esther stood against Haman and rescued our ancestors from their plight. As Jews, we know this story of Haman’s cruelty and Esther’s courage by heart.
As a new Haman terrorizes Ukraine, I am struck by how far back Haman’s story goes. Hundreds of years before Haman stepped foot in Shushan, a desert tribe called Amalek prowled the wilderness looking to maim and kill. As Moses led our weary ancestors out of Egypt, Amalek crept behind, cutting down the weakest among us. Our sages observe that, many generations later, Amalek’s direct descendent is none other than Haman himself.
Purim is our annual reminder that, while Haman of Shushan remains defeated, Amalek looms large. “Not only one arose and tried to destroy us,” our tradition teaches, “but in every generation, they try to destroy us.” If there is a reason for Jewish paranoia, it is because we know that Amalek’s spiritual descendants still lurk in the shadows. Purim gives us context, because the question is not if Amalek will strike, but when.
This is why our Torah teaches, Never forget! Never forget that Amalek was, is and will always be a force of terror and death. Never forget that, in every generation, there will always be an Amalek. But also, never forget that Amalek will be defeated. Not just once, but over and over and over again. Amalek is history’s great loser. One day, I pray soon, Putin will lose his senseless war. As for the Amalek who comes after Putin — he will lose too, and so will the Amalek after that.
We sing a victory song each Purim: Utzu eitza v’tufar — “They who devised evil plans have been foiled.”
We have been here before. For every wickedly powerful Haman, there is always an Esther who prevails against him. Jews like Ukrainian President Zelensky and the millions, even billions of people who are inspired by his country’s courage are standing firm against Putin’s brutality. In the 21st century, Esther is not just one person, but all of us. Putin underestimated the opposition. Hamans never quite know what they are up against. And that is why they lose. Every time.
In a pivotal moment of the Bible’s story, Mordechai urged Queen Esther to act before it was too late. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe you are here for just such a crisis.” We have been here before. To rise against tyranny — that is why you are here. To embrace those who flee — that is why you are here. To foil this Haman’s plot — that is why you are here. To sound the alarm when the next Haman comes — that is why you are here. You are Esther. We are Esther. And as the story goes, so long as there is Esther, Haman does not
stand a chance.
Rabbi Aaron Miller is associate rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation.