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Coronavirus, Antisemitism, and Miracles

The spread of hatred is often likened to the spread of disease.  Both are weighing on us these days.  Every other post in my Facebook feed seems to be about one or the other. When fear gives way to panic, we look for miracles.

This week we welcome in the month of Adar, when, according to the Mishnah, happiness increases. The long dark nights of winter are behind us and the days are growing longer. Moreover, Purim is coming! The Megillah asserts that Purim is central to Jewish life. “These days are recalled and observed in every generation:  by every family, every province, and every city.  And these days of Purim shall never case among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants.”  (Esther 9:28)

What’s so important about Purim, the celebration of another near miss, another story of survival?

According to our Talmudic Sages, the Purim story marks a pivot point in Jewish history.  Everything changed with Esther.  (Note:  There is little to no evidence that the Megillah recounts historic events of historic kings and queens, villains and heroes, but the Talmudic teaching is still instructive.)

Rabbi Asi asks: “Why was Esther likened to a deer at dawn? Because just as a deer’s antlers spread out in every direction, so do the rays of dawn diffuse their light out in every direction. Because just as the dawn is the conclusion of the long night, so too, Esther was the conclusion of all miracles.” (Yoma 29a:3-4)

Rabbi Asi claims that the Megillah of Esther, a late addition to the Biblical canon, tells of an inflection point in Jewish history, if not in human history. Before Esther, God brought miracles for our survival. How and when and why, God only knows, but there were occasions when God entered into human history and performed supernatural wonders – sometimes for rescue, sometimes for destruction, but always awe-inducing. And then something changed. Rabbi Asi asserts that the days of these kind of miracles are closed. With Esther, a new reality was ushered in and this is the time in which we live. Since Esther and Mordechai, miracles are not wrought by God alone, but at the hand of human initiative.

Rabbi Asi does not write God out of the picture; rather he puts the responsibility on our human shoulders, which God has made strong. Rabbi Asi does not deny God’s power; he puts out the call to imagination and courage into our ears, which God has made with the ability to discern truth from falsehood and right from wrong.

Our Sages imagine that before Esther went into to address King Achashveirosh without invitation, she prayed from Psalm 22, which begins: “For the leader, about the deer at dawn.” Esther did not panic. She rose above her fears and called on God to strengthen her so that she might bring a miracle, so that she might keep her people from harm.

May every fear be met and matched with the grace and confidence of a deer at dawn. Steadily and swiftly, may we counter any threat with due diligence, with human ingenuity, and with good partners, including God Almighty.

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