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Day 167: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

Today marks the Fast of Queen Esther, commemorating two communal fasts undertaken by the Persian Jewish community of Shushan in the 5th century B.C. Haman, a senior official in the empire of Persia, was the first Jew hater and the first known antisemite in the tragic, long history of Jewish persecution. Haman decided that Jews’ customs justified their genocide, and by the king’s order, the 15th of the month of Adar was declared the day all Jews of the Persian empire were to be executed and their property looted.

Sound familiar?

Queen Esther called for the fast, which was dedicated to prayer and pleading for salvation from annihilation. The people’s prayers were answered and the fate of annihilation was reversed and turned to the day the Jews overcame their enemies. And as such, Purim became a day marking the miracle of mourning turned to celebration.

The decree of annihilation was almost carried out because Haman seized upon the Jews of Persia as “a single nation scattered and separated among the nations.” Esther understood what was necessary for salvation and commanded her uncle, Mordechai: “Go gather all the Jews.” Only by uniting, we can prevail.

The story of Purim is the eternal narrative of the Jewish people, relevant throughout generations. This year, in a horrifying way, it is more relevant than ever.

Until October 6, Israelis were divided. An ideological civil war threatened us. It was a tumultuous period of social protests that split and tore us apart, the most difficult, sad year in the history of Israeli society. The lack of trust between elected officials and citizens brought hundreds of thousands to the streets every week, calling upon the government to preserve the state’s democratic character and the fundamental values upon which it was founded. Never in our 75 years of existence had we been so divided, each side convinced that the other threatened the identity of the Jewish state. It was a year of despair and frustration, a year in which we weakened as a people and in which the things that divided us were greater than the things that unified us.

As it was 2,500 years ago, this time, too, a cruel enemy took advantage of our weaknesses and ideological separation and conspired to kill us all in one day. And as if Queen Esther’s call for unity echoed from ancient Shushan, carried on the waves of history, we too understood that despite the atrocities of October 7, we must gather as one and shed past disputes to stand together in the face of evil. We must be one people again.

This time, though, the mourning has not yet turned into a victory celebration. The time has not yet come to feast. The enemy hasn’t yet been defeated. Evil still threatens us.

On the night of October 7, only after the scale of the disaster began to sink in and the horror stories from the massacre were just starting to be revealed, I laid in bed, unable to sleep. Only one thought burned in my mind: When will we be happy again? When will the day come when we will be truly happy again, with full-hearted joy and free from the terrible, black, gloomy shadow of the massacre? Will the still bleeding scar ever heal and allow our spirit to rise, to breathe again, to truly smile?

Since that sleepless night, the first of many, the painful question of “When will we be happy again?” does not let go. I am a happy person, always grateful for many blessings, but since that black Shabbat of October 7, something turned off and the joy in me is not full—and it won’t be until the 134 hostages are returned home safely.

Purim will be celebrated throughout the Jewish world at the beginning of the week differently than in every other year. In Israel, mask festivals and street dances in many cities have been canceled. The celebration will be diminished, the joy will be modest, limited, almost apologetic. How can we be happy when our hearts are broken? How can we celebrate when our brothers and sisters have been in the darkness of Gaza’s tunnels for 167 days? How can we be cheerful when bereaved families are mourning and their grief is so palpable?

On the Fast of Esther, the families of the hostages announced a Global Hour of Jewish Unity, a collective Shema Yisrael prayer event in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Today at 5:30 p.m. in Israel and 11:30 a.m. ET, thousands of Israelis will gather with President Herzog in the plaza of the Western Wall and, joined by millions across the Jewish world, will cry out together as one:

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.
.שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד

Idan, brother of Uriel Baruch, kidnapped to Gaza

Join us.

Raise your eyes to the sky, and see how the blue sky in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and the entire Jewish world will open to welcome the cry of the entire Jewish people, the heartbreaking plea for the rescue of the hostages.

Close your eyes and imagine how our collective prayers will be carried on angels’ wings. On the wings of the 1,200 massacred on October 7 and the 250 soldiers killed in the war. Look up and see the dead babies whispering the offering of our joint prayers before God, imploring: Hear, O Eternal, we are your people. Eternal, hear us.

Many in Israel who normally do not observe the Fast of Esther have chosen to fast this year as a prayer for the salvation of the Israeli women held captive in Gaza, many of whom may be pregnant, carrying fetuses that are the fruits of brutal rape.

If our pleas are not yet answered on Sunday, Purim will be celebrated sadly, for without the 134 hostages, how can anyone be happy?

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught us that when there is no reason to rejoice or when the heart cries for troubles, we must remember past joys or imagine future ones. This year on Purim, I will read the Book of Esther with my family—not as a story that happened over 2,500 years ago but rather as a prophecy that will come true in our time. My reading will be a prayer, and my holiday joy will be in gratitude for past miracles and in hope for ones to come.

Now, more than ever, together, united, we will overcome.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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