Ki Im Hacharesh Tacharishi Ba’Et HaZot
For If You Remain Silent At This Time
The Book of Esther is perhaps the best-loved book of the Tanakh; the reading of its dramatic narrative the centerpiece of the holiday of Purim. The story pivots on a number of theatrical confrontations: the confrontation between Haman and Mordechai at the palace gate, between Esther and Haman at the second party she calls with the king. But the one that carries the most emotional weight is the confrontation between Mordechai and Esther after the Jews of Shushan receive word of Haman’s genocidal plan. Mordechai calls upon Esther to approach the king; Esther demurs, saying that she will be safer if she waits to raise the matter until the king next summons her. And Mordechai–who is, according to the simple text of the Megillah, Esther’s close relative and guardian, and according to the Midrash indeed her husband–excoriates her: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish.”
In two brutal sentences, Mordechai establishes two truths: As a practical matter, taking advantage of your status to save yourself from the Jews’ fate will not work. And the attempt to do so will cost you your soul in the process.
The attack seems undeserved, unfair. Esther was perfectly ready to speak with the king on behalf of her people. And her plan made perfectly good sense. But with Mordechai’s harshness, he tears away the veil of rationalizations, explanations, self-justifications. If you really felt the urgency of the moment, says Mordechai, you would not be able to temporize. Rationalization is a luxury of the insufficiently outraged, or the insufficiently frightened. If you felt either, or both, you would be impelled to act.
We are past the Sukkot season, rounding the corner towards Chanuka, but the message of Mordechai’s rebuke of Esther is timely, and urgent. We as a community of American Orthodox Jews are collectively–our institutions, our rabbis, our masses–failing our moral responsibility, and deluding ourselves about our safety. For the sake of our bodies and our souls–our physical security and our national legacy–we need to be shaken by Mordechai’s words.
For a long time, the American Jewish establishment assumed that its best chance at safety and security lay in a strict separation of church and state, in a thoroughly non-denominational public square. In more recent decades, some in the Jewish community have questioned whether our interests might be better served by a more explicitly faith-centered body politic, as envisioned by Christian conservatives with whom it seems we might make common cause. Orthodox Jews, particularly, with their concern about Israel, investment in yeshiva education, conservative social values, and strong family ties, were receptive to this new approach to securing Jewish wellbeing in America.
We need not relitigate this debate now; it is wholly irrelevant to the current moment (no matter how many voucher proponents sit in the Cabinet.) We are in great peril of selling every shred of principle, moral courage, and prophetic mission for a mess of pottage, a tax cut, and a promise to move an embassy–and with all that, of overlooking the gathering danger that we face. As a community, we would do well to remember the lessons of history, in the hope–the prayer–of not being condemned to repeat them. (That Jews, of all people, could find themselves being willfully blind to history seems unfathomable, and yet here we are.)
We make a ritual of quoting Martin Niemoller, the Protestant theologian who opposed Hitler and was eventually imprisoned in Dachau for his resistance:
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.
Translated into 2016, this sounds like
First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for the Mexicans, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Mexican.
Then they came for–
Wait! We were supposed to be safe this time!
Is there any way that this does not end badly for us? In the history of the human race, has there been a group of people who hated foreigners, the “Other,” the ones not of the majority culture or religion–who did not eventually set themselves against the Jews? The Book of Esther provides the paradigm again, in Haman’s pitch to the king to be allowed to eradicate the Jews:
There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them….
We got next, because we’ve always got next.
The striking thing about our current political moment is that, whether as a function of the exceptional security that Jews feel in America, or of a hyperpartisan environment in which nothing will dissuade committed party loyalists from their views, or of our sense that we have our own Esther in the person of Ivanka in the royal palace–Orthodox Jews are widely not only not condemning the attacks on other racial, ethnic, and religious groups, they are making excuses for attacks on us, as well. Every Orthodox Jew who explains away the spray-painted swastikas as the acts of a few crazies, the Hitler salutes as misguided exuberance, Steve Bannon as rightly opposed to freeloaders who are sponging off of our tax dollars, the emailed ovens and lampshades and photoshopped Jewish journalists in gas chambers as–what are we explaining those away as, again?–chooses to not see at a time when not seeing is not safe. Our grandparents would have known what they were looking at.
I am an Orthodox Jewish woman. In my distinctive dress and obvious headcovering, I am a visible minority. My husband and sons, in their tzitzit and kippot, are more distinctive still. To say that we have always felt safe in New York City is a category error–we have never thought for a second that we should consider the possibility of being unsafe in New York City. I cannot say that I consider the possibility of my being unsafe, still. But I think often of the Muslim woman, wearing hijab instead of a kerchief, going through her day. What does she hear, see, feel? How secure can I be if she is not?
But it is not for the physical safety of the Jewish people alone that Mordechai lashed out at Esther. We may not be secure if we do not pay attention, but that is the lesser ill that we will suffer. The greater is that of which Mordechai warned Esther of when he said that not only would she be unable to escape the fate of the Jews in the king’s palace, but also that she and her father’s house would be lost. That lost is a spiritual lost, a soul-lost. Long before your physical safety is at risk, that which identifies you as a member of a covenantal community will be erased.
If we continue to sit by, watch this unfold, and say nothing because we feel safe or because we have more pressing concerns or because (if we are being thoroughly honest with ourselves) we are not all unhappy about some of the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic developments, we will betray our covenantal status as sons and daughters of Avraham Avinu, about whom God said: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice….”
Where is the righteousness in turning away from the ugliness, from the voices of hate and the communities in fear? Where is the justice in not standing up for the fundamental dignity and equality of every human being created in the image of God? (Please do not invoke what one or another member of these groups may have done to invite opprobrium. The hate is not focused solely on those people, and it spews indiscriminately over entire communities. And God made His declaration about Avraham as He informed Avraham of His plans for the people of Sodom–hardly a wholesome bunch, and nevertheless worthy of Avraham’s intercession and indeed, Divine reconsideration. Avraham’s subsequent plea resounds as our mission and our mandate: “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from You to do such a thing!”)
Did we mean what we said, any of it? When we said that the world had to learn the lessons of 1933, and 1935, and 1938, as well as of 1942? When we said that, if faced with warning signs, we would see more clearly, choose more bravely, do the right, hard thing sooner? Now is the time for that seeing, that choosing, that doing. Our covenant enjoins it; our history demands it.
“These are the times, “ wrote Thomas Paine, “that try men’s souls.”
The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Our security may be at stake at some point in the future; our souls are being tried right now. May we not be found wanting.