Today I read a wonderful d’var Torah from Rabbi Joshua Boettiger of Congregation Beth El in Bennington, Vermont. I asked for and received permission to share it here. Rabbi Boettiger is a member of the Board of Rabbis for Human Rights, North America, and organization I admire and support.
Esther was an Activist
As we approach Purim, I have found myself lingering this year on what we might call Esther’s “Joseph moment”: her moment of revealing herself as a Jew, of choosing to say ami, my people, when speaking to the king and Haman. My cousin, Jared, perhaps intuiting this, perhaps already heavy into the slivovitz, has a tradition when the megillah is being read of crying out, over and over, “Tell ’em you’re a Jew!” as the story unfolds. Esther’s confessional moment is arguably the climax of the entire Purim story, as this sets in motion all of the events that lead to the end of Haman’s evil game. In the lead-up to this moment, we empathize with Esther – who not only fasts, but calls on all the Jews of Shushan to fast for three days before she goes before the king. What compels me about this moment is that Esther’s naming of her particular identity, her stepping into her story and her people’s story with such clarity and power, is an act of social justice in itself. Contextually it means, we need to stop what is going on. To say, I’m a Jew, as we read it in Esther, is an act of justice.
Often we fear that when we ‘particularize’ ourselves, our agenda immediately becomes more parochial, or our scope of interests become limited. Instead, it is often one of the wonderful quirks of choosing to name our belonging (in Esther’s case, to the Jewish people) that instead of narrowing our world, it opens it up. Instead of cutting the ties to those around us, commitment to the particular shows us doorways of interconnectedness and by extension, we feel the mandate to serve that interconnectedness by working for justice. Esther’s choosing to belong makes her into an activist.
Perhaps it is always like this: it is the particular that paradoxically brings us into the realm of the universal. But in Judaism, this is heightened by the notion that to be Jewish is to be in relationship with a force in existence that works to bring people out of slavery. Witness the oft-quoted way God is described or self-describes: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. (Leviticus 26:13, Exodus 20:2, etc.). Whatever our image of God (and in Esther, on the surface at least, it seems we are left to our own devices), our identity as Jews is inextricable from what God represents: ultimate concern for ending slavery and coming into a true relationship with holy service.
Rabbis for Human Rights’ understanding of this equation between being Jewish and feeling the mandate to work for justice has been at the heart of their work for years. RHR-NA’s new Jewish campaign against slavery, launched this fall, continues this work. This Purim is the time to remember and call on our tradition’s commitment to ending slavery: there are more people living as slaves today than at any other time in human history, with estimates of 12-27 million adults and children enslaved in forced sex work, forced labor, debt bondage, and domestic service.
Esther’s naming herself as Jewish begins the season of heeding this ancient call. We see who we are, and then we see what that means. Esther’s “Joseph moment” leads us from Purim into Pesach, and all of the narratives of freedom that come with that observance. Please join us in this work (http://www.rhr-na.org/kvod_habriot/home), and in the words of cousin Jared, “Tell ’em you’re a Jew!”