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The World turned around

03/07/2022 04:08:39 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

This week, our world began to look entirely different.  It's hard to say this after two years of a pandemic that has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives, and created the greatest societal shift in generations. Yet the war in Ukraine has done something that even the pandemic could not.  We have been brought back to a world that so many of us didn’t think even exist anymore, where true evil has once again been brought out into the open.  Seeing a dictator send his troops into a neighboring democratic country with as much reason as an eighteenth century king would send his troops to another country to kill the “savages” has been a shock to our collective consciousness like nothing else in recent history.

After these years of such deep division between different political parties and seeing so many values clash on the streets in protest, this war has been an oddly uniting force.  Yes there have been the expected holdouts, Donald Trump, certain conservative and Republican leaders, and China--but this war has snapped us out of our complacency, and given us something maybe even bigger than the fights we have been embroiled in for so many months.  

We thought that these past two years were about fighting over masks or vaccine mandates, or even things as important as remembering tragedies such as the residential schools, or the many deaths honored by the Black Lives Matters protests, and we need to continue these fights.  But when you see families hiding in metro stations and tanks making their way past coffee shops on the streets of Ukrainian towns, we have the reminder to remember that the fight we are on is about the very notion of humanity and life.

It has been a while since I've woken up sick to my stomach looking at the news, and what we are seeing truly feels like the world is deeply broken in an entirely new way.  I simply am not sure how this can be repaired.  But there is always hope.

So it is interesting that just yesterday we entered Adar II,  the month of Joy, the month Purim. While this is the time of year when we’re meant to do our best to put smiles on our faces, eat treats, dress up in costumes, get drunk and have fun, one of the core experiences of this holiday is to “turn things around”.  We are asked to make what is unexpected the expected and to acknowledge that what we never thought would happen is now happening in front of our eyes.  Remember, the sense of the topsy-turvy is so strong that we are commanded to drink so heavily that we can no longer tell the difference between the hero Mordechai, and the enemy Haman. 

The origins of this notion of everything being upside down from Megillat Esther, the story of Esther:

וּבִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ הוּא־חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם בּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הִגִּיעַ דְּבַר־הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ לְהֵעָשׂוֹת בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר שִׂבְּרוּ אֹיְבֵי הַיְּהוּדִים לִשְׁלוֹט בָּהֶם וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁלְטוּ הַיְּהוּדִים הֵמָּה בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם

And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. (Esther 9:1)

While we often use וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ ה֔וּא, “The opposite happened,” to describe Purim and its strangeness, in the Megillah it more literally means “the unexpected scenario came to be”: 

There's so much about the war in Ukraine that is so unexpected, that it seems like it just could no longer happen in our modern world. The level of evil in the mind of Putin, and the actions of his cronies in his armies it's so sick and so destructive, that it just feels like even in our already broken world there's no place for this.  With the internet and all the technology that we now have at our disposal, for the first time these events are being played out on our screens and on our smartphones at a level of detail that hides very little.  Now we can see the horror and the challenges play out live in front of us each day.  And for Putin, the only way that he can continue to have his people support him is by literally turning off the internet, closing down the free press and spouting nothing but lies to his people. This is scary stuff.

But then we have the heroes of the story. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the Ukrainian people themselves.  Seeing their heroism, we see the hope.  And talk about the unexpected!  A Jewish comedian, rising to power with nearly 75% of the vote, in a country where his own ancestors were prohibited from celebrating their holidays or living freely as Jews.  Now this man is leading his country's fight against an evil dictator who has vowed to destroy them.  He's standing proudly in news conferences, and he’s speaking to his people saying those familiar words, that we cannot let anyone destroy our culture, our identity, or take our lives anymore. 

Gal Beckerman wrote about Zelelnskys rise to power as a jew in a fascinating article in the Atlantic:

It’s uncanny in retrospect that the character he played on television in the series Servant of the People—the role that foretold his actual ascendance to the presidency—is a nobody whose rise begins when a private rant is filmed and goes viral. But there is a kind of logic to this coincidence. Zelensky grabbed the attention of Ukrainians by playing out what has traditionally been the part of the Jew: the outsider. In this case, what Ukrainians saw in this lonely figure banging on the window was themselves, embattled, trying to hold on to their national identity amid growing threats to their independence. It may have been this aspect of his Jewishness and the way it came to dovetail with those Ukrainian anxieties that made him such a suddenly popular figure

Going back to the Megillah.  Most interestingly, the same word verb נַהֲפ֣וֹךְ  (the opposite happened) that is used in the Megillah is also used in a teaching from Avot D’Rabbi Natan 24:4:

אדם שיש בו מעשים טובים ולמד תורה הרבה דומה לכוס שיש לו פיספס שכיון שמניח אותו מידו אע”פ שנהפך על צידו אין נשפך כל מה שיש בו

A person who has done good deeds and has learned a lot of Torah is like a cup with a flat base. When one sets it down, even if it is knocked over, not all of its contents will spill. 

In this case, na’hafoch means “to be knocked over”.  In the sense that it's used, it's a idea of stability even when encountering challenges.  As Jews, we have been able to right ourselves and stay strong through fighting, through learning, and above all through a pride in our identity and our people.  We can only hope that the Ukrainian people will do the same, and make their way through this war with strength and a commitment to never give up on their people, their country, or their identity. 

These past few weeks can give us pause and remind us what we are meant to do in this world as individuals, as Jews and as a world community.  We have lost so much of our stability over the past few years, and through the horrifying shock of seeing this kind of war, we can hopefully gain some of  it back.  On Purim we get an annual reminder of a story of strength amid tyranny, but now we get a similar reminder from the Ukrainians.  Their heroism is part of the story that we all need right now. David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times:

They’ve reminded us that you can believe things with greater and lesser intensity, faintly, with words, or deeply and fervently, with a conviction in your bones. They’ve reminded us how much the events of the past few years have conspired to weaken our faith in ourselves. They’ve reminded us how the setbacks and humiliations (Donald Trump, Afghanistan, racial injustice, political dysfunction) have caused us to doubt and be passive about the gospel of democracy. But despite all our failings the gospel is still glowingly true.

Or through the words of Zelensky himself, in recent speech to the European Union, he said:

Our people are very much motivated. Very much so. We are fighting for our rights. For our freedoms. For life. For our life. And now, we’re fighting for survival. And this is the highest of our motivation. But we are fighting also to be equal members of Europe. I believe that today we are showing everybody that’s exactly what we are.

As we get ready in just a few days to celebrate one of our communal stories of fighting for our freedom, of a people who turn the tables to fight against Haman and his evil plan, we of course hope that the story of Ukraine under the leadership of President Zelensky will have a similar outcome.   Maybe Putin can suffer the fate as Haman, who as any evil dictator should be, can be symbolically paraded through the streets, publicly ridiculed, shamed and forced to give back his power to the people who deserve it, the people he is meant to serve.  At this point, with all the news that we have to encounter each day, this seems nearly impossible to even imagine.  But if the story of Purim and the story of the Jewish people can teach us anything, it is the power of community, and the power of the idea of freedom that can turn things around even when things seem hopeless.  Let us all do what we can to hold on to this hope and step up to help Ukraine and all the people of the world who need to hold onto their pride, their freedom, and their lives.  Maybe this can be a story with a good ending worth telling future generations.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782