March 16, 2022

The World Turned Upside Down

Robert Lichtman Chief Jewish Learning Officer

We have read the Purim story so many times over the past 2,500 years that even before the story begins, we know how it ends. But let’s say we didn’t. Let’s read the Megillah for the first time and feel the tension tighten as sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, the vise is closing on the Jewish People who are about to be extinguished in a global genocide. Then, in a dramatic turnaround, the evil perpetrator of the plan is exposed and executed, and the Jewish People emerge victorious. Towards the end of the story the entire congregation reads this joyous conclusion in unison:

The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness, and honor. (Esther 8:16)

The Hebrew expression of that instantaneous topsy-turvy outcome is summarized in two words, V’na’ha’foch Hu, Events flipped around.

One of the reasons that we retell the Purim story every year is not only to recount what happened to us then, but to remind us that in our most dire moments, redemption may arrive. In fact, every week at the conclusion of Shabbat we proclaim, “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness, and honor. (Then we add,) So may it be for us!” Sometimes redemption is as startling as it appears in the Megillah. Sometimes it unwinds more subtly.

Just days ago, Natan Sharansky reminded us of this. The former Prisoner of Conscience and human rights activist who was arrested on Purim day and faced a death sentence for his leadership of the Soviet Jewry movement in the USSR shared this reflection:

“When I was growing up in Ukraine, there were many nations and nationalities. There were those with identity papers that read ‘Russian,’ ‘Ukrainian,’ ‘Georgian,’ or ‘Kozak.’ This was not so important since there was not much difference between them. The single designation that stood out was ‘Jew.’ If that was written as your identity, it was as if you had a disease.

“This week, I was reminded of those days when I saw thousands of people standing at the borders of Ukraine trying to escape. They are standing there day and night and there is only one word that can help them get out: ‘Jew.’ If you are a Jew, there are Jews outside who care about you and are waiting for you. There is someone on the other side of the border who is searching for you.

“The world has changed. When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was an unfortunate designation. No one envied us. But today on the Ukrainian border, identifying as a Jew is a most fortunate circumstance. It describes those who have a place to go, where their family, an entire nation, is waiting for them on the other side.”

Just as brave Jewish leadership overcame peril on Purim and helped to bring about the dissolution of the USSR, today and once again it is bold Jewish action that is saving Jewish lives in Ukraine. It is our generous community that is unhesitatingly providing the precious financial resources. In each and every hour as we safeguard another Jewish life, we utter this prayer:

The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.

So may it be for us.

So may it be for the Jews of Ukraine.

So may it be for all the innocents of Ukraine.