Perhaps You Attained Power for Such a Time as This
By Rabbi David Jaffe
The war in Ukraine has a personal dimension for me as a result of participating annually in Rosh Hashanah pilgrimages to the Central Ukrainian city of Uman, burial place of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Our Ukrainian host and his family are thankfully safe, for the time being, in the western city of Lviv. As this horrible war progresses, the resonances between key messages of Purim ( Adar 14/15; March 16-18) and early developments on the ground are striking. Central motifs of Purim, the only Biblical book without explicit mention of God, are Hiddenness and Nahafoch Hu, the concept that things can be turned upside down and the unexpected becomes reality. Ukraine’s resilience and ability to repel Russia’s initial attempts to conquer the capital, Kyiv, were certainly unexpected. Even more striking is the courageous leadership of Ukraine’s first Jewish president, comedian turned political leader, Volodymr Zelensky. Zelensky’s decision to remain in Kyiv to support his people, while facing extreme danger, echoes the dramatic climax of the Purim story.
In the Book of Esther, the title character is a young Jewish woman who becomes queen of the empire through a series of unlikely circumstances. When the wicked prime minister enacts a plan to destroy the Jews of the empire, her uncle urges her to use her position to advocate for her people to the king. She hesitates, claiming that it would be breaking protocol for her to approach the king without being summoned, and she could be put to death. Her uncle responds:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis. (Esther 4:13-14)
Esther responds courageously, calling on the Jews of the city to gather for public fasting and prayer while she risks her life advocating with the king for their salvation.
My point is not to make a one-to-one comparison between Zelensky and Esther, but to raise up the quality of courage demonstrated when facing a bullying tyrant. Achashverosh was an impulsive king whose emotional whims determined the life and death of his court and subjects. Putin is a heavily armed dictator with no internal checks on his power who is using that power to destroy Zelensky and Ukraine’s independence. Esther could have used her position and privilege to stay quiet and keep herself safe within the palace. Zelensky, like many world leaders in similar situations, could have used his status to accept offers to set up a government in exile, keeping him and his family safe. Rather, he decided to stay and fight, making the now famous response to the US offer of transport out of Ukraine, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” While he remains in grave danger, Zelensky’s courageous leadership has inspired Ukrainians to resist the Russian invasion and moved Western countries to step up their resistance to Russian aggression. Four years ago Zelensky was starring on a popular Ukrainian comedy show. NaHafoch Hu / Things are turned upside down - now he is a model of courage for the world. Did he know he had that kind of courage? Perhaps it was only this dire situation that brought this soul trait to the surface.
Where do you find yourself tempted to use whatever power and privilege you have to keep yourself safe and avoid taking on important fights? This is the message of these current events, and of the Purim story, that I’m thinking about for myself this year. What does staying and fighting look like on a personal and communal level? What situations do you find yourself in that call you to find this courage? May we be inspired by this season to find our courage and respond when the still, small voice asks, “Perhaps you attained the power you have for just a moment as this.”
The deepest prayer I have right now is for the killing to stop and for all people in the Ukraine to live safe, thriving lives. The below text is adapted from a prayer by a life-long Ukrainian resident, Rabbi Natan Sternhartz (d. 1844), Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s primary disciple:
May it be your will to undo wars and bloodshed from the earth,
and spread a great and wondrous peace in the world.
All who dwell on the earth will recognize and know the whole truth.
We did not come into this world for conflict and strife.
We did not come into this world for hatred and jealousy.
We did not come into this world for bickering and bloodshed.
We only come into the world to know you.
May you be blessed forever.