June 17, 2019

All Jews Count

It is a familiar sight. On each flight to Israel, in the back of the plane, a minyan gathers for services.

It was no different on my flight to Israel last year. Although I was participating in an Israel Bonds rabbinic mission, our delegation from Los Angeles was small, and we didn’t have enough rabbis for a minyan. As we searched the plane for the requisite number of men, everyone we asked, whether observant or not, agreed to help make the minyan.

After our first service, one of the men who joined us commented how wonderful it was that so many Jews were willing to pray together, although it was obvious our observance levels differed. No one rejected the other, he noted, uttering the belief that this must be a sign that the Messiah is imminently approaching.

I told him that although no one could guarantee a messianic moment, we could be certain that, dating back to the Bible, Jews always included each other in the minyan. I reminded him that this was at the heart of the Purim story, as recounted in Megillat Esther. The Megillah records that Haman wanted to destroy all Jews, young and old, infants and women together. In order to achieve his goal, Haman told King Ahasuerus that the opportune time had arrived because, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom” (Esther 3:8).

The Midrash comments that Haman recognized that this was the perfect time to attack the Jews because we weren’t simply “scattered and separate.” Rather, we were divided and contentious. We were fighting with each other, and disunity reigned. Haman knew that when Jews don’t get along with each other, their enemy has the ability to defeat them.

Our rabbis comment that, for this reason, Esther instructed Mordechai, “Go assemble all the Jews who are present in Shushan” (4:16). Esther didn’t say to Mordechai, “Go assemble the observant individuals.” Rather, she clearly instructed that “all Jews,” no matter what their observance level might be, must pray together. If we wish to survive, Esther knew, we must be united.

Although my new acquaintance found my observation encouraging, he wondered if it was realistic. I told him that I didn’t know if it was realistic or not, but I knew that it is imperative for Jewish survival.

During our convention in Israel, this very theme arose in an address delivered by Natan Sharansky, the great hero of Soviet Jewish resistance and now Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade. He pleaded for Jewish unity by describing the feelings he had when he sat in prison for his refusenik activities.

“When you feel that all Jews around the world are struggling with you, it gives you a sense of power. You feel strong when all Jews around the world are one. Alone in prison, in the punishment cell, it is dark, without food and drink, but there is a powerful feeling of connection. And if a Jew were to come to you then and ask to whom do you feel connected, the Orthodox or the Reform, Labor or Likud, Ashkenazi or Sephardi … please, that is crazy! We would have never been able to survive with such thoughts. Unity is such a powerful feeling. It gives you the power to be free and say no the KGB.”

That is the story of Purim, a lesson we may never forget.

Elazar Muskin is the rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.