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Purim Jews and Pesach Jews

D’var Torah from April 7, 2023 at Congregation Kol Ami.

When I was a kid, cereal commercials used to boast that their product was “part of a balanced breakfast.” At the time this was just noise to me—kind of like the side effects listed in a drug commercial. But I realize now that what these companies were trying to say was: Our cereal makes a healthy breakfast, if you eat it with milk, fruit, eggs, and toast. If you just eat our cereal, you’re not getting everything you need to be a healthy person (and judging by the other items on the proposed menu, the cereal is not pulling a lot of nutritional weight).

As a rabbi, I’ve come to apply this to the practice of Judaism, particularly to the observance of Jewish holidays. Taken by themselves, any one of our holidays might feel ridiculous, or at least heavy-handed. For instance, the High Holy Days might make us feel like Judaism is a massive guilt trip, if we don’t stick around to enjoy the eight-day harvest festival that comes right afterwards. And the silliness of Purim would seem even more over the top if we didn’t also observe our more solemn occasions.

Even within each holiday celebration, we often must balance remembering the tragedies of our past and defiantly declaring our hopes for the future. And just as important, we need to balance celebrating victory over our own oppression with a commitment to never becoming the oppressor ourselves. This is why, at the Passover seder, we spill wine from our glass for each of the ten plagues: to remind us that our freedom came at a great cost, and that no celebration can be completely joyous if others are suffering. There is no such thing as unmitigated joy, and we do not rejoice at the suffering of others.

I was intrigued when this concept of balance came up at a talk about Israeli politics with Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and the URJ’s Vice President of Israel and Reform Zionism. In discussing the current situation in Israel, he introduced a teaching by Yossi Klein HaLevi, a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. HaLevi argues that within the Jewish tradition as well as within Israeli society, there is a need for both “Purim Jews” and “Pesach Jews.” He writes:

“Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive.

“The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.”

Rabbis HaLevi applies this concept to how we understand and respond to the situation in Israel. He asks us to balance, as the majority of Israelis do, the existential threats to the State of Israel and the Jewish people from the outside with the threat of destroying Israeli democracy from within. We need to balance our need to stand up for ourselves with our need to avoid oppressing the other. He writes:

“A healthy people knows how to set its priorities of anxiety. It knows how to focus first on imminent threat. Yet a healthy people also knows that it cannot afford to allow even immediate threat to serve as pretext for denying long-term dangers.”

Like the old Hasidic teaching, we need to be able to carry two truths in our pocket. For HaLevi, one of these truths is that, “For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its survival, we have failed to acknowledge the consequences to Israel’s soul of occupying another people against its will.” While the other truth is that, “For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its democratic values, we have failed to acknowledge the urgency of existential threat once again facing our people.”

Even in the diaspora, we are called to strike a balance between being Purim Jews and Pesach Jews. I notice this tension around this time of year, when events commemorating the Holocaust and discussing antisemitism completely dwarf the attendance at any other Jewish event we organize during the year. This is not to say that these aren’t essential to our building our Jewish identities and our Jewish communities. Rather, it is a reminder that these are just part of a balanced Judaism, one that also includes joy, celebration, and hope; study prayer, and acts of lovingkindness.

We are called to commemorate the tragedies of the past, but also to nurture a joyful practice of Judaism in the present and lay the groundwork for a vibrant Jewish community in the future. We are called to strike a balance between making our Jewish spaces safe and secure for us while also making them open, accessible, and welcoming to the stranger. We are called to strike a balance between supporting our Jewish institutions and partnering with multi-faith and secular movements in the pursuit of justice.

But most importantly, we are called to strike a balance between being vigilant and being hopeful. At Passover, we can hold both truths close to our hearts: that our people have a history of being subject to persecution and oppression, and that we have a history of bearing witness to miraculous redemptions. These truths have helped us to keep our faith alive in the darkest times. May they also inspire us to fight persecution and oppression wherever we may find it, and to take an active role in bringing redemption to our world today. And let us say, Amen.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz