With great clarity I recall exactly where I was on Purim on February 25, 1994 – the day that Baruch Goldstein entered Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and killed twenty-nine Muslim worshippers, also wounding over 125. I was living in Israel that year on a gap program after college. It was a Friday; we had a free weekend in honor of Purim, and I was at a bus stop on my way to see a cute girl I had met a few months earlier. (Her name was Debbie.) From the pay phone at the bus stop I called my adopted Israeli family to wish them shabbat shalom, and my host mother Shari broke the horrific news to me, going on to tell me in no uncertain terms that I needed to be careful and steer clear of public spaces, that Goldstein’s murderous rampage would undoubtedly unleash a violent response. Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called Yasser Arafat, describing the attack as a “loathsome, criminal act of murder,” and publicly denounced Goldstein on the Knesset floor as a “shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.” Nevertheless, the anger on the streets overflowed. In the days that followed, Palestinian protests and riots broke out in which five Israelis and twenty-five Palestinians were killed. The violence, the fear, the calls back and forth to my parents making sure I was okay. I remember it all – always – but especially during these days leading up to Monday night’s festival of Purim.
Vivid as my memories are, what I didn’t understand then and what I want to share with you today is the connection behind Goldstein’s murderous rampage and Purim – the reason, to the degree that one can use the word “reason,” why he chose that specific day to carry out his heinous act.
When we think of Purim, most of us think of festivity and fun – costumes, groggers, and Purim spiels. We let down our hair, we poke fun at each other. It is a commandment to drink, and hopefully we will all fulfill the mitzvah of giving gifts to each other and gifts to the poor. Most of all, Purim is the day we read the megillah, the scroll of Esther, the tale of Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman and how Haman’s dastardly plans to kill all the Jews of Shushan are foiled by the courageous and beautiful Esther who, at the critical moment, saves the day by revealing her Jewish identity to King Ahasuerus, putting the needs of her people before her self-interest. It is a fabulous story that has inspired sermons on topics as diverse as Jewish identity in the diaspora, the role of luck and happenstance, competing models of women’s leadership and leadership in general, God’s role (or lack thereof) in this world, and, of course, the threat of antisemitism. Not just Haman’s hatred against our people, not just the hatred of his people, the Amalekites, for the Jews, but the presence and persistence of pernicious Jew-hatred throughout the ages. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, one should not pick favorites, but as a literary creation, the story of Esther is about as good as it gets. Like the jewels in a royal diadem, Esther casts its light in a a number of directions producing endless take-home messages.
But the message that is rarely discussed, that I have never spoken about until today, but that is critical to talk about when speaking of Baruch Goldstein, comes from the conclusion of the megillah. In the second half of the book, Esther rises to the occasion, Haman’s plans are foiled, and the Jews are saved. Mordecai is elevated to power and King Ahasuerus issues another decree, this time permitting the Jews to defend themselves; the day marked for their destruction is transformed into one of salvation – the Jews enjoying light and gladness, happiness and honor. But that is not where the story ends. In chapter nine, things go both sideways and dark. You may remember that Haman and his ten sons are impaled on the stake, but what you may not know is that the text states that on that day the Jews of Persia rose up to attack all those who had sought to do them harm. In the city of Shushan, 500 killed (in addition to Haman and his sons), and 300 more the following day. And in the rest of Persia, a staggering bloodbath of 75,000 killed by Jews. And the violence is not only in this chapter. This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, named for the first word in the Torah reading that is added to the weekly portion, with verses commanding us to wipe out Amalek, blotting out the memory of our enemies and all those who would seek our downfall.
When taken as a whole, the story of Esther is hard to swallow – a nightmare dressed like a daydream. We rarely spotlight its ending, and for obvious reasons we don’t teach it to kids, but it is part of the story – no more and no less than Vashti’s character, Esther’s beauty, and Haman’s wickedness. I have always excused the ninth chapter of Esther as great literature but not to be taken literally, rather some sort of gruesome fantasy devised by the author in response to their near destruction at the hands of Haman. A cathartic psychological release created by a disempowered author imagining what they would do to their oppressor if only they had the power. It’s a bit like that moment in the Passover Haggadah when we open the door for Elijah to read sh’fokh hamat’kha, pour out your wrath upon the nations, a downtrodden people thumbing their nose at their oppressors. Alternatively, for those of you with a cinematic bent, it’s something like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” a brutal movie about an alternate and purgative reality in which Hitler and his henchmen are themselves violently killed. And beyond the story of Esther itself, there is the reception of the story throughout Jewish history. As Elliot Horowitz documents in his book Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, generations of oppressed Jews have turned to the story of Esther and to the holiday of Purim as a vehicle of expression for their violent fantasies of what they would do to those Jew-hating non-Jews if they had the power.
And Baruch Goldstein, he had the power: specifically, a Gillon assault rifle and 140 rounds of ammunition. For Goldstein, the fantasy of Esther chapter nine was no fantasy; it was a biblical text providing license to perform a commanded act of vengeance. In Goldstein’s twisted and murderous mind, the Jewish collective memory of oppression, together with the continued presence of antisemitism, was his prompt for violent action. In the words of philosopher Yehuda Elkana, Goldstein felt obligated not only to assert “never again,” rather “never again to us,” even if that means shedding further blood. There is a direct connection between the Jewish historical memory of persecution and our present actions. For me, and I hope for many of us here today, that connection, in a word, is “empathy.” As stated in the book of Exodus: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (23:9). But Goldstein leveraged the Jewish memory of vulnerability and near destruction towards ulterior and obscene ends. Why did Goldstein commit mass murder against non-Jews on Purim? Because his theology was founded not on Exodus but on Esther – a messianic vision stemming from the fear of Jewish powerlessness, to which, gun in hand, he gave murderous expression on that fateful Purim.
Goldstein was beaten to death that day by survivors of his attack, but the ideology by which he lived did not die. Although he was denied burial in a Jewish cemetery by the Israeli military authorities, his gravesite has become a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists, the epitaph on his tombstone calling him a martyr who died with clean hands and a pure heart. Far more worrisome to me than where his remains are buried is where his spirit lives on. No different than in bygone times, Jews are living in the midst of the push and pull of the story of Esther – a dialectic between vulnerability and power. None of us need look far to see the Hamans of our time, those who would seek the destruction of the Jews. Take your pick. Last weekend’s neo-Nazi Day of Hate; the antisemitic rally outside the Broadway performance of “Parade,” a play about the lynching of the Jew Leo Frank; Farrakhan’s most recent rant against the Jews. Hateful graffiti sprayed on the walls of synagogues, and, just in the last twenty-four hours, the arrest of a Michigan man who had been plotting to kill Jewish elected officials. The threats are real. We are not wrong to feel vulnerable. As Jews, we know full well the threats we face in the diaspora and against our brothers and sisters in Israel who live under the threat of an imminently nuclear Iran, a hostile and rocket-firing line-up of proximate neighbors, and a terror-rewarding Palestinian Authority. Make no mistake, the world’s most ancient hatred is alive and well today – online, on the streets, and on the world stage. The Jew being made “other,” depicted as menacing, powerful, and threatening, and then rendered an object of hatred and violence. We must stand vigilant; we must fight to secure the well-being of our people in the diaspora and in Israel; and the perpetrators of violence against our people must be brought to justice.
And we must never, ever let the historic memory and lived reality of antisemitism provide cover for the violent excesses of an unhinged and messianic abuse of Jewish power. The vigilante settlers who rampaged through the Palestinian town of Huwara in the West Bank this past week committed a pogrom that is a travesty of every human and Jewish value. It is an outrage: The fact that it happened; the fact that the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice; and the fact that Betzalel Smotrich, a high-ranking minister in Israel’s government subsequently called for that town to be “wiped out.” Jews, to be sure, are not the only people in whose ranks the memory of persecution and victimization has been leveraged toward acts of violent aggression. The example of the Serbs is but one of many examples that come to mind. But it is Jews, perhaps more than any other people, who would be well-advised to consider how the memory of victimization when combined with the apparatus of state power can lead to violent injustices perpetrated against others.
Israel stands on the precipice. The fabric of Israeli society is unraveling before our eyes. I am frightened, very frightened. as to what might happen in the coming days as this tinderbox of the Jewish state comes in contact with the match of a theologically fraught holiday. It is not merely that the specter of Baruch Goldstein and the hateful ideology he espoused continues to loom large. Until recently, Itamar Ben-Gvir had a framed picture of Baruch Goldstein on his wall. Ben-Gvir is not an outlawed, fringe figure; in this new government he is the Minister of Security overseeing the police! If, God forbid, violence breaks out this Purim, whose side will he be on? The side of calm or the side of bloodletting? It is enough to keep me up at night. It should be keeping all of us up at night.
As American Jews, we neither vote in Israel, nor do we serve in its military. Ours is a bit part in this unfolding drama, our powers far more modest than our passions. There is not a whole lot we can do, but we do have a choice to make. This is an Esther moment. Will our vision for the Jewish people be one that stems from fear, hatred, and demonization of the other, or will we commit to a vision and path of dialogue, trust, and bridge building? Will we turn inward, crouching tightly into a defensive posture, or will we stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone, break bread with one another, and seek to strengthen our future? Will we lay all blame at the feet of the other side, condemning only their crimes, or will we turn the moral mirror onto ourselves and call out the ugly elements within our own community? Will our experience of Jewish vulnerability be leveraged as a moral cudgel to excuse Jewish violence, or will it be a prompt for empathy? We are Jews. We do not turn the other cheek, but we can and we must be ever willing to be open to the possibility that tomorrow can be better than today. To live by the maxim that “those to whom evil is done do evil in return” is to resign ourselves to an unbreakable cycle of violence. As Reverend King preached: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
This Purim, I pray that light and love reign supreme and that all people enjoy the blessing of light and gladness, happiness, and honor and – most of all – shalom, peace.
Horowitz, Elliot. Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.