Today the Jewish world celebrates Purim, one of the happiest Jewish holidays. Although Purim is associated mostly with children, it is in my opinion one of the most serious holidays, with an eternal message that perhaps today is more relevant than ever.
In Esther’s book we read: ….”And letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day,
And one chapter later Esther commends: ‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish…”
When all Jews are threatened, all Jews come together as one to do whatever they can to dismiss cruel plans, fight evil and survive.
Eventually, thanks to the unity of all Jews and the power that comes with standing together in solidarity, neither Esther, nor the Jewish people of Persia perished.
Fast forward, Israel of 2014 is a sovereign Jewish state. Many evil Hamans have tried through the centuries to destroy us, and yet we are here, stronger than ever. But with one reservation – not all Jews in our sovereign Jewish state consider the power of unity and standing as one, a core value as Mordechai and Esther did.
Last week the Israeli parliament passed a historic and controversial legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the army. This is the most pressing item in the news these days. It consumes conversation, and people discuss it with anger, passion, hope and despair.
David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, exempted the ultra-Orthodox from joining the army. They were few in number at the time, and since the founding of the state of Israel, have been excused from military service as long as they were registered in a yeshiva or religious seminary and engaged in fulltime Torah study. Other Israelis, who are conscripted at age 18, have been calling for years for a more equal sharing of the burdens of citizenship. The majority of Israelis have come to view conscripting the fast-growing haredi minority as crucial to addressing equality in the country and for securing our future.
The ultra-Orthodox community opposes this new policy and vows fight it in any possible way. Two weeks ago in Jerusalem, at least 300,000 haredi Jews flooded the streets around the main entrance to the city in protest against this law.
The rally, described as a mass prayer gathering by ultra-Orthodox leaders, was a largely peaceful expression. Many here are calling it a culture war over one of the most significant challenges facing Israeli society. This mass protest was followed by a smaller demonstration of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City last week.
I don’t believe there is one Jew in Israel or around the Jewish world who will deny the importance of Jewish culture, heritage, values and the centrality of Torah to our Jewish existence in our Jewish state. However, in my eyes, as well as in the eyes of most Israelis, Torah and defending the country are not contradictory, but rather, complimentary. The Israeli army will gain so much from religiously committed, idealistic, observant soldiers who will join its ranks under this new law, just as it did through the years, when modern Orthodox Israelis joined the army with great passion and commitment, bringing to the armed service a sense of mission and Zionism.
A Jewish soldier, proudly defending this country, should be able to practice according to his or her custom and observance. A soldier is a better soldier because of the Jewish values, practice and ethics he or she brings to military service.
Exactly one month from today, Jews around the world will celebrate Pesach, which marks the end of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Pesach not only marks the beginning of redemption, but also the notions of peoplehood, of nation building and the spark of a Jewish sovereign state dream.
Jewish unity today is as imperative to our survival as it was for the Israelites in Egypt and the Jews of Persia.
Megillat Esther, the book we read during the Purim celebration, ends with “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” May we be blessed with the power of unity that will lead to light and gladness, and bring joy and honor to us all.