Megillah gives Americans a lesson about ties to Israel

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The holiday of Purim, which begins at sundown Tuesday, March 5, is the record of three great achievements in Jewish history — and of one huge mistake.

At this moment, American Jewry is on the brink of a major decision that will affect our relationship with Israel. If we grasp the lesson of the holiday, it might save us from repeating a historic error.

The first great achievement was the saving of the endangered Jewish community in the Persian Empire, in the fifth century BCE. This salvation is retold in the Megillah. The Purim practices of shalach manot (food portions and gifts to friends) and matanot la'evyonim (gifts to the poor) express the Jewish solidarity that played a key role in saving the day.

The second great achievement was the renewal of the covenant of Israel. Purim occurred after the destruction of the Temple; the age of visible miracles was over.

But humans like Mordechai and Esther took this as a call to greater responsibility and to partnership with God. They took charge to achieve a new redemption. Reading the Megillah (which omits God's name but hints at God's presence) and using masks and masquerade capture the presence of the hidden deity and the new human role.

The third great achievement was the coming-of-age of the diaspora. Ever since the Israelites conquered the Land of Israel, the diaspora was dismissed as a state of exile. Centuries passed before the Book of Esther was fully accepted; many claimed that only an Israel-based event could be truly redemptive and on a par with the divine redemption of Passover and Sukkot.

Yet the Jews of Persia insisted that Purim was nothing less than Passover II. This time the outcome was not an exodus to the Promised Land but peace and prosperity in Persia. Purim became the exodus event of the Rabbinic era. The Purim family feast — seudah — makes this analogy stronger by its association with the Passover seder. Yet on Purim, unlike all the other holidays of redemption, we do not say Hallel, psalms of thanksgiving.

The Talmud explains that the Purim achievement left the Jews in the diaspora. True, they were triumphant over Haman and the anti-Semites, but they remained vulnerable to the powers-that-be, Ahasuerus and his future successors. This would imply that the error committed by the Jews was that they continued to live outside the Land of Israel.

There was a deeper error, however. Persian Jews did not relate to Israel as a source of inspiration and Jewish learning. Early on, when the Jews were in trouble, the Megillah connects Mordechai to the exile from Israel.

In the plaintive melody with which this verse is read, we sense how much was lost by being cut off from Jerusalem. When Mordechai and Esther were victorious and on top of the world, they sent out Purim instructions to Jews worldwide, but they made no special connection to the Holy Land as the focus of Jewish life and longing. This weak link left Persian Jews more vulnerable to assimilation later.

Today, American Jewry wrestles with a new relationship to Israel as the Jewish state heads for peace and is better able to take care of itself. The argument over the proposed merger between United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations is being projected as a struggle over protecting Israel's share of American Jewish fund-raising.

In this scenario, those who are deeply concerned for American Jewish survival and continuity are fighting for a larger share of the funds to stay here to meet local needs. If the merger side wins, as seems likely, those whose attachment to Israel remains fierce threaten to pull out their money and send it there directly. The terms of the argument are wrong and the polarization threatens to repeat the mistake of Purim.

American Jewry has come of age. It must focus on the inner content of its life and the urgency of communicating its values to the next generation. It cannot go on with Israel serving as its surrogate for Jewish living.

But vital Jewish living has always connected with Israel as the land of history, tradition and memory. Jewish loyalty and pride are focused on Israel as a Jewish-majority society.

Israel's quality of life and exemplary behavior can serve as a living model that Jewish values work. When Israel comes across well, even unaffiliated Jews identify positively with the country and with the whole Jewish people.

Furthermore, Jewish learning comes alive in the land of Israel. Jewish culture is flourishing in Israel's Hebrew-speaking environment, especially since the national calendar incorporates the classic Jewish holidays and events. The Holy Land is a natural setting to inspire diaspora Jews with a deeper, more holistic sense of being Jewish.

Instead of arguing over funding priorities — continuity vs. Israel — a growing percentage of the money being sent to Israel should be spent on educating American Jews, especially young ones, in Israel. The experience of total immersion in Israel and Jewish living and learning will enrich their Jewish identity for life.

An American Judaism focused on its own spiritual needs but turning away from Israel would be a distortion of the classic Jewish message. The Torah calls for the creation of a vibrant human society; it envisions a people living God's laws, practicing Jewish ethics.

An American Jewish culture with a strong inner life and a commitment to Israel will recreate a classic universal religion that serves God and a people that enriches humanity, wherever it is located.

Purim is the holiday that celebrates diaspora, but Purim attains an unmatched vitality in Israel. Let that be a lesson to all of us. The state of Israel may indeed need less matanot la'evyonim (gifts to the needy), thank God.

Let the exchange shift to more shalach manot — more food portions — spiritual and material — between inseparable friends.