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Purim: Jewish Women’s Day

Purim invites the voice of Esther and the voices of girls to come forward and be seen and heard.
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March 21, 2024
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On March 8, the world commemorated International Women’s Day.  Claimed as an accomplishment of the United Nations in 1977, according to their own website, it is a day when women are acknowledged for their achievement, when their stories are celebrated.  For centuries, the Jewish tradition has also maintained a day when women are acknowledged for their achievement.  It is called Purim.

Usually perceived as a day of costumed revelry, similar to a Jewish Mardi Gras, the day carries with it a very serious message.  The holiday’s central text is the Book of Esther. The book describes a villain named Haman who designs a widespread genocide against the Jews, and the Jewish People must rely on a Jewish princess named Esther to save them.  In the end, Esther stands against Haman and inspires Jewish self-defense.

This upcoming holiday of Purim places us at a familiar crossroads.  Jews currently face Jew hatred on many fronts. Hamas and Hezbollah form the tip of a long spear of acute antisemitism that extends through foreign governmental agencies, some of our own elected officials, overwhelming media propaganda, dangerous university presidents and professors, and packs of feckless thug students who cover their faces while they attack Jewish students on campus.  All of this evil rampages through the world in an effort to support Hamas, who perpetrated sexual violence against Jewish women, and murdered, mangled and kidnapped Jewish civilians on Oct. 7.  Has anybody heard the cries of the Jewish women?  The mothers who cry out for their children to be returned?  The teenage Israeli girls who describe the rape and molestation of our daughters?

A small, overlooked detail of Esther is that she does not volunteer for the beauty pageant that wins her the royal crown.  The Hebrew clearly states that Esther is “taken” into the harem. (Esther 2:8) Esther stands as an example of Jewish captivity. The great irony about Purim is that we celebrate the act of Esther raising her voice on our behalf.  We toast our own strength and our own survival.  And, at the end of the story, we leave Esther as a captive in the foreign palace.

We live in a world in which we are reminded that we ought to learn from women.  We should believe women.  We must stand with women.  Yet, when it comes to the rape, murder and kidnapping of Jewish women, the world says not so fast.

We live in a world in which we are reminded that we ought to learn from women.  We should believe women.  We must stand with women.  Yet, when it comes to the rape, murder and kidnapping of Jewish women, the world says, not so fast.

Five months after the attack, the United Nations finally acknowledged the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli women.  In the most predictable sense of irony, the United Nations wants to celebrate and honor the stories of all women in the international community, except Jewish women.  The violation of Jewish women needs to be verified through a five-month investigation for the officials of the U.N.  Most of us only required 30 seconds on YouTube to believe these Hamas barbaric acts recorded by Hamas on their own GoPro cameras to boast to the world.

Two and a half months ago, The New York Times covered the sexual violence in an eye-opening article titled “Screams without Words: Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.”    Yet, people have stopped listening to the screams.  Jewish girls are still being held in captivity and at this point, due to survivor testimonials, we know that they are being sexually violated in Gaza.  We must hear the words of each Jewish woman and we must rescue those held in captivity.  All of them, immediately and unconditionally.

For the past several years, on Purim I have posted on my social media a simple message, “I stand with Esther.”  She was in fact the first biblical case of a woman standing before powerful men and contradicting their understanding of a situation.  In the text, she beckons us to stand with her. (Esther 4:16) So, I stand with her.  I stand with my mother, my wife, my sister, and my daughters.  I stand with all of the women of Israel now as well.  If you maintain any sense of morality, you should too. 

Standing with Esther is a challenge.  She sets an example for us as a leader who cannot sit idly by as Jews face attacks around the globe. (Esther 8:5-6) She inspires us to act with agency and reminds us that sometimes to push back against the darkness of genocidal maniacs we need to shine the bright light of force. (Esther 9:1-5) She even asks us to continue the military campaign beyond its initial phase. (Esther 9:13). For the lesson of Esther is that none of us are safe, if any of us remain vulnerable.

The Jewish People has always served as the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Hamas provided a trial for the terrorist world on Oct. 7. Americans should remember the attacks of 9/11 and imagine the next wave of kidnappings here. If Israel does not accomplish complete and total victory, then we should expect Oct. 7 attacks around the civilized world.

This year, Purim stands as a challenge to all decent members of the world community that this war cannot end without the return of every captive.  

This year, Purim stands as a challenge to all decent members of the world community that this war cannot end without the return of every captive.  A ceasefire only grants victory to those perpetrators of crimes against humanity and their supporters.  Listen to Esther.  Her voice still haunts us.

Purim invites the voice of Esther and the voices of girls to come forward and be seen and heard. Esther beckons us all to believe in the power of women as a catalyst for positive change.  As a rabbi, scholar, husband and father, it is important for Esther to inspire my daughters to speak, to scream, to influence, to save us.  It is important for all of us to encourage our daughters to do the same.  None of our daughters can be heard here until their Israeli sisters are heard there.  Their collective voice of pain and anguish, of victimhood and suffering, must be amplified and heard this year, beginning now.  Esther is not a gleeful festivity this year.  It is a call to action.

For at the end of the Purim story, the Jewish People survive, but we sacrifice our collective daughter.  Completely forgotten, Esther bears no children.  Her legacy is cut short.  Her tie to the community is cut off.  At the end of the Oct. 7 narrative, we cannot accept any single captive left behind, especially our daughters.

This year, like every year, I stand with Esther.  My question is: Will you?


Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz serves as the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA, and sits on the Executive Board of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition. Follow him on social media at @RabbiNolan.

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