Purim: by telling ourselves stories we can open up a world of choices, or “is it bashert or is it what I do”

The book of Esther, the foundational text for the minor post biblical festival of Purim, is riddled with ambiguities and ambivalences, allusions and opacities, and we are uncomfortably aware that the text is a constant tease of hidden and revealed, covered and discovered, secret and known. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from a Hebrew root that means concealment. Yet Esther is also related to the word for a star, which shines brightly under the right conditions.

The themes of concealment and revelation are constantly played with – God is never mentioned in the book, yet clearly God is at work here – and there are many other examples. Mordechai overhears a plot to kill the king from his hidden place and brings it to official attention;  Esther is constrained in the harem yet is able to influence the royal policy;  Vashti chooses to remain enclosed when ordered to reveal her beauty in public; , Mordechai’s act is recorded at the time but not revealed and rewarded till much later, the almost playful peek-a-boo of now you see it now you don’t is a thread that runs through the story,  our peripheral vision catching it momentarily as it disappears when we try to look straight at it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary “now you see it now you don’t” moment is in the interchange between Mordechai and Esther, carried on through the medium of Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs. Mordechai sends word of everything that has happened with regard to the decree against the Jews, and tells Esther she must go to the king to make supplications on behalf of her people. Esther’s response via Hatach is that everyone knows that to approach the king in the innermost (hidden) courtyard without being invited is to risk certain death, and she has not been called to the king in thirty days.

We are right at the centre of the book – almost exactly at the centre in terms of the number of verses – as Mordechai answer’s Esther’s anxious justification for her inability to help. His answer is three fold. First he reminds her that she will not be safe either, even though she is in the harem. Secondly he tells her that the Jewish people will not be destroyed as help will most certainly come from another source if she continues to be inactive, and finally he asks a rhetorical question of her – could it be that this moment is the moment of destiny her life has been leading up to?

“Then Mordecai asked them to return his answer to Esther: ‘ Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13-14)

It is an extraordinary speech and it raises many questions for us too. The first is a reminder that should we try to keep our heads down and not resist injustice on the grounds that we may survive a toxic political climate by keeping our presence shadowy and not attracting attention to ourselves is a folly and a false position. One need only think of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller castigating the German intellectuals for their silence in the face of rising Nazi power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Or the quotation famously attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing”, reframed by Albert Einstein as “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

The second assertion is a classical theological position that God will never abandon the Jewish people, even though at times it may appear that God is silent, uncaring, absent, or even chas v’chalila apparently allowing Jewish suffering at this time for some particular purpose. This is a deeply problematic area in theology, not least because of the deep suffering during the Shoah, and while the idea of ‘hester panim, the face of God is concealed from us”  may be rooted in the words of such books as the prophet Isaiah, so that the act of God concealing God’s face is understood as a way of God punishing disobedient subjects, by far the prevailing Jewish sentiment is that of Job:  God may appear to be distant and God’s face hidden from us, but as Martin Buber writes, “a hiding God is also a God who can be found”.

So while the Jews were facing a terrible crisis throughout the empire, Mordechai knew and asserted that relief would come, that God would turn towards them and help them, that even if Esther failed to deliver the liberation, the Jewish people would still prevail.  “Relief and deliverance will arise from a different place”.

The third statement is probably the most challenging for us, the question Mordechai asks Esther “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” This is a formulation of the idea of having a destiny, a preordained role in life, something which can be found in expressions of folk religions, but which comes dangerously close to encroaching on our freedom of will, freedom of choice.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” reminding us of our absolute freedom of will and our own absolute responsibility for our actions. We are entirely free to make our own choices, God has no power over this.

So Mordechai questioning Esther with the veiled suggestion that her destiny has led her to be in such a position, able to make a difference to the experience of the Jewish people, is problematic and in need of our attention. Can she have been destined for this moment?

Many of us like to think that there is a plan in the world, that the universe is not random and our existence in it not merely incidental and accidental.  We like to locate ourselves in something that has meaning; we like to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our life and our choices.

Judaism is predicated on the freedom of will, but still our narratives contain hints of ways to try to understand the mind of God. Decision-making involving the casting of lots (goralim) is mentioned 77 times in the biblical narrative:- in the story of the scapegoat, in the allocation of tribal territories  once the people enter the land of Israel, described both before in the book of Numbers and after in the book of Joshua. Lots are cast in the books of Chronicles to divide the priestly work, in Jonah to decide who is responsible for God sending the storm, and are mentioned in both Psalms and Proverbs as well of course of the famous ‘purim’ cast in the book of Esther to decide a favourable date.  One might also argue that the Urim and Thumim found in the breastplate of the High Priest in the book of Exodus were artefacts of divination to understand the will of God (Exodus 28:30), though they did not always seem to give a certainty, as King Saul found (Sam 28:6) and their use seems to have ended by the early days of the monarchy and the advent of the prophetic tradition.

One of the things that makes us human is our need for storytelling. We are generally uncomfortable with an entirely random context, with the idea that only arbitrary luck brought us into being, of there being no framework of meaning supporting our existence. So we tell ourselves stories to support our choices and those stories in turn become our inner dialogue and shape what we think is possible or justifiable.

Whether we frame our stories in quasi-religious or in historical or political language, we hold these narratives dear because they explain us to ourselves.  In the words of the less than conventionally religious Jewish thinker Karl Marx “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”

We make our choices in life, but these choices are shaped by our context, by how we understand ourselves and our history and how we got to be in the place we are. Whether it is because we believe in something to be ‘bashert’ – (our destiny somehow gifted from God), or whether we consider that the decision making is ours alone, we still tell stories around how we come to our choices, we allow our internal narratives to shape us, to help form what we think and to give us the courage to act. Whether because we believe God is guiding us or we believe that history and context have privileged us;  whether we can tell ourselves it will all be alright because somewhere there is a plan, or we can tell ourselves that if we fail it is because of the randomness of luck, each of us holds to the thread of meaning we tell ourselves is our truth.

One of the questions that arises from Mordechai’s question to Esther is one we  might sometimes ask of ourselves. “Do we feel that our lives have been organised to bring us to a moment of critical action or decision making?”  And if so, what are the things we feel ourselves put on the earth to do? Or maybe to change the perspective slightly – do we feel, looking back on our lives so far, that our existence has impacted positively on the world around us in any way, that we have done things of which we are proud, that are something uniquely ours to have achieved?

Mordechai tells Esther that her not acting will not save her, nor will her inaction change the thrust of history into the future – the Jews will be saved by some means or other, and he introduces to her then that the choice of whether she acts or does not act is in the context of a story she can tell herself – that maybe God has put her in this place where she can risk a meeting with the King in order to try to save her people. This is a powerful pivot in the story that speaks also to us. Our choices cannot be made on the basis of trying to survive a hostile power by keeping a low profile. We need to make choices actively, and there will be consequences that are contingent on our choices. Knowing that, what is important is the story we tell ourselves to confirm or justify the choices we make.

What are the stories that we tell ourselves? The narrative of Jewish persecution and survival is a strong one in our tradition, embodied in many of our festivals with the rather tongue in cheek “they tried to kill us off, they failed, let’s eat”.  Yet alongside this celebration is the remembrance of the  pain and the fear of our history – we look around us to see from where an attack may come, worry about our own likely responses.  We see ourselves as modern, western, education, integrated citizens of our countries, at the same time as identifying with an ancient and particular tradition that encourages a different set of perspectives.  We understand that history rolls on, that our actions may affect its particular course but not its ultimate progression. Our internal story telling may give us the courage to act in a particular way, it may allow us to justify ex post facto the choices we made and our actions or inactions, our beliefs shape how we see the world and help us to imagine a different one.  We toy with the dynamic interface between free-will and destiny, and nowhere in bible is that so clear as in Mordechai’s threefold response to Esther. We must act in the world, we must understand that our actions are neither  ultimate or irrevocable, but we are not free to hide away from making those choices.

Our tradition has always given us a helping set of stories so that we can construct a narrative that will support our choices. Be it Hillel haZakein who told us “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” or Rabbi Tarfon who taught “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” we know the imperative is to act to make the world a better place for our being in it.  In the words again of Hillel haZakein, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. go and learn.”






Sermon for Rosh Hashanah at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

My father was the son of Walter, the son of Alice, the daughter of Leah, the daughter of Rosalie, the daughter of Abraham, the son of Gitel, the daughter of Isaac, the son of Jacob, the son of Meir the son of Shmuel, the son of Yehoshua, the son of Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, for whom this synagogue is named and grandson of Aharon Meshulam Horowitz it’s founder: my eleventh great grandfather.

So in a strange sort of way, I feel this Rosh Hashanah that I am coming home.

pinkus synagogue pinkus synagogue4

This family link got me to thinking about the roots and connections, and about the nature of Jewish history which in bible is framed within the structure of ‘toledot’ – generations. Judaism has traditionally passed on its defining ideas and ways of being within the family home and within the extended family we call community. The teaching goes from one generation to the next, the identity formed by watching and doing as much as by any formal learning.

( That said, from earliest times the idea of Judaism being a family tradition alone doesn’t really have traction. Abraham and Sarah famously “made souls” in Haran before leaving on God’s instructions ‘Lech Lecha’ – go, leave your ancestral land and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:5). These souls are understood to be people they had converted to their faith; in other words, birth is only one doorway into Judaism, and the formation of Jews happens in a wider context than family alone.)

So I was thinking about the genealogical line between me and Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, the 13 generations between us, eight of whom were rabbinic families whose history I know only sketchily, and I wondered about what this relationship might mean, how his life fed ultimately into mine. I wondered too about how Judaism had developed in the almost 400 years since his death, what had changed, what had endured. For the truth about Judaism and about families is that they are not monolithic, they do not stay the same and their natural state is of flux and of change.

So if my ur-ancestor Pinchas was sitting here today in the synagogue that bears his name, what would be familiar to him? What would be radically changed? And what would be the golden thread, the Shalshelet haKabbalah, that ties his community to us, the latest in the toledot line?

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 29b) “Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said, “When Moses ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters. He said to God “Sovereign of the Universe! What are you doing? God said to him, “There is one man who will exist after many generations, and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name, he will in the future expound on every crown and crown piles and piles of laws.” Moses said “Sovereign of the Universe! Show him to me.” He said to him, “Turn around.” He went and sat behind the students in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash, and he did not know what they were talking [about]. He became upset but when he heard the students ask “Our teacher, from where do you learn this?” And heard Akiva answer “It is a law [that was taught] to Moses at Sinai” he calmed down.

This very early Talmudic story sets the rabbinic principle that Judaism evolves, and that what was understood or necessary in one generation was not written in stone. Just as Moses would not understand the teachings of Akiva, so would Pinchas Halevy Horowitz not recognise much of the Judaism of the 21st century.  Yet there is a great deal he would recognise. The great themes of this service have remained the same since the Rosh Hashanah liturgy was instituted and the mussaf service in particular is explicit about the leitmotifs of the festival – Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot – the Coronation of God, the time for both we and God to Remember each other, and the blowing of the Shofar. Essentially, the service we have today stays true to the ancient themes of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah has a number of different names: it is Yom Teruah, the day of blowing of the shofar; Yom haZikaron, the day for remembrance; Yom haDin, the day for judgement; and less well known it is also Yom haKesseh, the day of concealment. The first three are clear to us, we hear the shofar calling us to attention, and speak of standing before God (and also in our own eyes) in order to judge ourselves. We think back over our lives and our actions in order to be able to put things right where possible. But what is the concealment of which our liturgy speaks when we recite “Tiku ba’chodesh shofar, ba’kesseh l’yom chageinu. Ki chok l’yisrael hu, Mishpat lelohei Yaakov. (Psalm 81:4-5) Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the [Kesseh] concealed time for our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”

It would make sense in the poetic structure for Kesseh to be the parallel of Chodesh and mean the new moon, and so the psalmist would be speaking of blowing the shofar when the moon is so new it could barely be seen, Rosh Hashanah is the only festival to be celebrated at the beginning of a month rather than at the full moon or later. But Kesseh is an unusual word to use and so it draws our attention. And suddenly the work of this season becomes clearer, though ironically the clarity we gain shows that the work of the Yamim Noraim is to both make transparent and then to obscure some of our past behaviour.

The core meaning of the word Kesseh is to cover or to conceal; the meaning of Kapparah is also to cover over, to hide or even obliterate. We are in the season of concealment – but who is doing the hiding, what is being concealed, where does it go and to what purpose?

One of my favourite teachings of how Jews do teshuvah, the work of this penitential period is that we do not expect to wash clean all our past actions as if they never existed, and start again as if we were newly born souls. Instead we have time to reflect on our past, to face all the things we did that we wish we had not, and all the things we did not do that we wish we had done, and to own up to them, to accept our own actions. We admit to ourselves under the watchful gaze of God, and we repent – an active behaviour in Jewish law that requires us to try to make good the damage we have done, to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, to resolve to change how we will act in the future when faced with the choices again. And then, when we have done all we can to repair our past, we are able to let go of it – not to deny it or to disown it, but to cover it (kapparah) to conceal from view (Kesseh) all the things of which we are ashamed and of which we have repented. We know that if we do this, God too will forgive us, the page will turn on our heavenly record so that a clean sheet shows going forward, although the previous pages of the book remains written, just hidden from view and not holding us back in hopelessness. We are shaped by our past but our future is not distorted because of it.

Reading recently about transitional justice I came across an interview with Vaclav Havel and was struck by the similarities in his views. Speaking of dealing with the political past and its effects, he said “It is important to find the right balance, the right approach, one that would be humane and civilized but would not try to escape from the past. We have to try to face our own past, to name it, to draw conclusions from it, and to bring it before the bar of justice. Yet we must do this honestly and with caution, generosity and imagination. There should be a place for forgiveness wherever there is confession of guilt and repentance.” Transitional Justice: Country Studies v.2: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes: Country Studies…Dec 1996 by Neil J. Kritz

Jewish tradition holds that the work of this season – teshuvah – requires us to bring to mind the harsh realities of our failings, to go through a process that ends with us no longer held back by the pain or the shame or the fear of what we have done, and to move forward in our lives. We leave behind, concealed from view but not forgotten or denied, the actions and inaction that stained our souls, that had imprisoned us. This is what we are doing here today, it is what the Jews of this community were doing when this synagogue was built. While some of the language may have altered and some of the prayers been edited, Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz would recognise what we are doing were he to join us today. As would those whose names are inscribed on the walls, and all the Jews of the generations between the two. We are joined to them by the liturgy of this day, by the shared understanding of the meaning and work of this season, by the timelessness of the tradition that speaks of repentance and return to God, of forgiveness and of moving on, of not denying the past but not being held captive to its power.

The Jews who came before us are held with us in a chain of tradition, their wisdom and experience passed on through the generations and through the communities which welcome people into Judaism We in modernity will one day pass into history, leaving behind a name, some family stories, some wisdom and some love, maybe some descendants, and hopefully a physical memorial of some kind. On that memorial will no doubt be the acronym also found on the walls of this synagogue over the names of those Prague Jews taken and murdered in the camps  ת’נ’צ’ב’ה  It is taken from a verse in Samuel via the memorial prayer and which speaks of the soul being bound up in the bundle of life, an image rather like an unending piece of fabric or carpet, in which the souls of those who came before are part of the weave, necessary to anchor and to hold the structure which will go on being woven as new souls come into the mix. In this image, the lives of those who came before are an integral part of the fabric of our lives, as our lives will help shape the world of those to come. And this knowledge brings both a sense of rootedness and of responsibility to those who came before and to those who will come after.

For the fabric to be strong, the lives must be connected, and even when one thread physically ends, its existence provides the anchor for the later ones. For that anchor to be solid, there must be regular teshuvah, the reflection and balance, the bringing to mind and naming of what went wrong in order to face it, to learn and understand, to apply compassionate and proper justice, and to bring about a conclusion, an end to the pain or bitterness or anger in order to let go, to cover over and to move on with the weave. Whether that image is about each of our individual lives, or scaled up to the life of a family or of the Jewish people as a whole, the lesson and the work remains the same. We reflect and remember, we admit and repent, we try to repair, we do our best to make good, and then we let go and go out into life ready to write on a new page of our Book of Life.

Our Rosh Hashanah Liturgy quotes not only the psalmist but also Isaiah (65:16-17) who describes God as saying “So that the one who blesses in the earth shall bless by the God of truth; and the one that swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from Mine eyes. For now I create new heavens and a new earth, and the past need not be remembered, nor ever brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I can create.”

The work of remembering, of making transparent, of repenting and repairing and of letting go in order to go move on is holy work. The Kesseh or Kapparah of this season mirrors the divine work of creation. This season is the season of penitence in which we wear white; Yom Kippur a joyful fast rather than a time of misery and gloom. The sound of the shofar reminds us of the work we do alongside God, the concealment and covering of a reasonably resolved past nudges us forward to do the work God expects from us. We are tied into the past and we honour from where we came. We are tied into the future, and in order to help bring about the best one we can, we are here together. As links in the shalshelet haKabbalah, the chain of tradition, the golden thread that brings us close to all who prayed the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it is our turn to Remember, to Repair, to Repent, and to Return. May all who came before us bless us, and may we in turn be a blessing to those who journey with us and those who come after.