March 28, 2024

Dear Slifka Family,

There’s an old rabbinic teaching to the startling effect that whereas, in the messianic era, all present holidays will be rendered null – celebrations of past redemptions will be subsumed, swallowed up, in the overwhelming glory of the final redemption – Purim will remain. In our present, unredeemed world, the memory of our miraculous salvation from Egypt via God’s outstretched arm which we celebrate on Passover, for instance, sustains and nourishes us, giving us the strength to hope for a radically better world. Once the lambs have lain down with lions and the knowledge of the Lord saturates the land as the water drapes the sea, this memory will no longer be of legible celebratory use. The events of Purim, however, apparently will. Why?

The stories of the Exodus, to stick with this example, and Purim are superficially similar. A genocidal, proto — but chillingly modern-sounding antisemite tries to kill us and in the end we’re saved. But there are critical differences. First, whereas the Exodus features manifest and overwhelming divine intervention, the Purim story involves no miracle, and the megilah famously does not so much as once invoke the name of God. Second, whereas the Exodus results in a decisive defeat of the bad guys and so a decisive salvation, the victory on Purim is ambiguous and precarious. As the rabbis put it in explaining why we do not recite the exaltant Hallel prayer on Purim, “We remain servants of Achashverosh.” Haman’s plot has been foiled, and royal favor has shifted to the Jews for now, but there is no reason to think another Haman won’t take a crack at it, and no reason to think they couldn’t succeed if they did. In any case we are surely not free. And yet we celebrate on Purim all the same, and in fact all the more. 

Consider now this explanation offered by R. Isaac Hutner (1906-1980):

It is like two individuals commanded to recognize others at night. One lights a candle and looks at people’s faces in its light, so as to recognize their faces. The second has no candle, and since they are nonetheless required to recognize people, they train themselves to recognize them by recognizing their voices. And so it turns out, that with respect to clarity and luminosity the first is superior, as the recognition of others via sight is clearer than via the sense of sound. But on the other hand, the second has an advantage over the first, in that they have acquired for themselves the new capacity of attunement to people’s voices. Whereas the first, who used the candle, lacks this capacity of hearing. And so it turns out that afterward, when the sun rises, and the first puts out their candle, as a candle in the sun is of no use, all the capacities they gained at night via the candle are now superfluous. By contrast, the second, granted that they now recognize others by sight, but nonetheless the capacity for listening and attunement which their labor in the darkness created will remain as an eternal achievement of their soul. 

For R. Hutner, the major biblical holidays are candles in the darkness, providing clarity and illumination as to our salvation and the sovereign God who provides it. And so in a world of darkness we rejoice, but in the anticipated future world of light these holidays will contribute nothing of note. The joy of Purim, by contrast, is not in the light provided for us to see, but in our hard-won achievement of the capacity to see what needs to be seen without light. We train ourselves to recognize a mundane political salvation as divine and a precarious one as participating in the genuine, ultimate redemption to come. Learning this recognition of redemption, R. Hutner says, is learning attunement to each other’s voices, recognizing each other not via the visual surface but through auditory depth, through conversation. And this is a capacity, he says, which will remain with us as an eternal achievement of our souls. 

I want to stress that the experiences and reflections I am going to share now are strictly my own. But I hope that they resonate with you, and I hope that I hear from you whether they do or do not. 

It is clear to me that there is a deep, painful, and ultimately monstrous antisemitism problem in the present world, on college campuses in general, and even right here at our own beloved Yale. It is clear to me too, as I have written elsewhere, that the difference between Hamas and the naarishkeit we deal with on campus is only one of degree. I feel we are living through a genuine crisis. 

And yet I feel perplexed in feeling this, because it also seems to me that we are basically safe and secure, even comfortable. We are not, and in no way need to be, scared to proudly identify as Jews on campus. Both of my grandfathers faced outright, career-impeding antisemitism at American universities; our students are not only here at Yale but win achievement and acclaim in every field. Today at Yale Jews are not merely tolerated but are celebrated leaders. And when there are problems, as there surely have been, we have sympathetic ears and powerful allies to turn to. History tells us all of this could change in an instant; a new Haman could come along at any moment. But for now it seems to me our position is fundamentally strong, and conditions have never been better. 

What I want to say in face of this perplexity is that today’s antisemitism actually presents us with a historically unique opportunity: To see and confront antisemitism as a distinctively spiritual problem. That we are for the most part materially unperturbed does not lessen the monstrousness of today’s antisemitism; it allows us to see it in relief as the spiritual calamity that it is. 

We can recognize, even, that few if any of the individuals participating in it are acting out of any conscious malice. They are merely going along with, failing to decisively oppose, the ascending spiritual trend. It is due to these concatenated failures of responsibility that we receive the message that our pain does not count, and that our friends and family – we ourselves, under the right circumstances – can be killed without compunction because of the nation they and we belong to. This is, as I see it, ultimately the human problem of injustice more broadly, viciously focused on the bodies and spirits of Jews. This is cruel and unfair.   

But precisely as we understand our peril in this way, we can come to recognize the distinctive possibilities of redemption available to us. And I am in fact overwhelmingly, poignantly proud of just how energetically our community has seized them. We can in the first place fight this kind of antisemitism by coming together as a community and simply, proudly being who we are without reservation. I have been on this campus for 10 years, and served as a rabbi for 6, and I have never felt so powerful a sense of Jewish community as I have in these past months. 

And if the problem of antisemitism is most basically the problem of indifference, of the failure of individuals to stand against viciousness, we can fight antisemitism by going out on campus and modeling genuine responsibility and respect, calling others to reciprocate. When we oppose antisemitism not only in the name of our interests but in the name of what’s right; when we hold power-holders to account with firm resolve tempered by an empathetic patience, helping them find and execute the solutions they owe us; when we simply say what needs to be said, or when we set up a table and invite others to exchange ideas with civility, we attack antisemitism at its spiritual core. 

None of this will bring an Exodus-like salvation anytime soon. We will remain servants of Achashverosh so long as any of us are here. But there are more subtle redemptions, the kind of redemption you don’t see in the light but can, with enough spiritual conviction and industry, come to recognize and celebrate all the same – all the more. We can make our own community more loving, more suffused with mutual responsibility and care, each of us better able to recognize and honor each other’s voices and identities on the deepest levels. In so doing we can call the Yale community to do the same, and so too the world at large. 

This kind of redemption, the Purim kind, is the kind we will celebrate even in the times of the messiah, perhaps because this work simply is the very stuff of the messianic era. In any case, it is an eternal achievement which will serve us well, and give us reason to celebrate, in times of both darkness and light. 

Kol tuv,

Rabbi Alex S. Ozar, PhD
JLIC and Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University