Dear B’nai Sholom Friend,
Perhaps you have heard this quip: “All Jewish holidays are the same: ‘They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!’” This joke always draws a chuckle, but as we approach Passover and review the holidays of our calendar I’ve been wondering just how true the witticism is. Not all that accurate, I think. For instance, there are no great festive meals associated with Purim or Chanukah. Yes, on Purim there are hamantaschen and on Chanukah we eat latkes but these are not great feasts and they carry little weight. Only on Passover do we retell a story of survival during a major meal that is central to the holiday.
But all three holidays do concern anti-Semitic rulers (or their henchmen) who would have preferred us subservient or dead, and each holiday does teach a way to respond to anti-Semitism when it presents itself.
Let’s take Chanukah, which is an innocent holiday when our children play with dreidles and families eat fried foods. Though King Antiochus really did reign in Assyria in the year 168 BCE, Chanukah plays often turn him into a cartoon figure. What we learn from Chanukah is this – and the lesson on anti-Semitism is entirely relevant because we are back in the land of Israel – sometimes it is necessary to take up arms and fight against those who threaten us. Sometimes a strong military is our best strategy for survival.
Now let’s turn to Purim. On Purim the theme of anti-Semitism appears as a fairy tale of a little Jewish girl who gets to be Queen. There are no great sermons to give on the evening the Megillah is read. Children are reassured that they can make fun of murderous figures and that the bad guys will lose. And we adults learn that we should never be afraid to identify ourselves as Jews. So on Purim we learn another strategy for survival – that it is good to have connections in high places in order to circumvent those who would seek our harm. (This is why we vote for congressional candidates who will protect Jewish interests.)
And finally there is Pesach, which comes this month. We tell the story of standing at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, fleeing Pharaoh’s armies. How many times throughout the centuries have we had to flee our enemies? In medieval times, as blood libels were cast at us, we ate our Passover dinners and discussed how there were those who rose up against us in every generation to hurt us. Passover teaches us that sometimes the only strategy to survive is to escape.
“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!” The one-liner does not do justice to the variety of ways our holidays teach us to respond to anti-Semitism, but for Passover there is truth in the joke.
So on this Pesach of 5781, let us recline and discuss the themes of political oppression and freedom of religion. Let us enjoy the holiday…the food, the company of family and friends (even on Zoom) and the prayers we recite – prayers of hope for a world without hatred, prayers of hope for a world free of fear.
Nancy and I wish you and your family a very happy Passover.
Rabbi David Katz