Shushan and Berlin—Differences and Similarities

America today is a rerun of the perplexed Shushan, and we Jews will decide if the story ends with a miracle, or not…

“The city of Shushan [Susa] was perplexed.” If any verse from The Book of Esther reflects the current state of American Jewry, the current state of the State of Israel, and the current state of humanity, this must be it. Nearly two months after the election, there are still more questions than answers. Is Trump getting along with Putin or is he not? Is the anti-Semitism spree in the US real or is it a stunt that the Democrats are pulling in order to defame President Trump, or maybe the Democrats are the real anti-Semites and have stopped hiding themselves? We watch the news in order to make some sense of what’s going on, but we can’t be sure that we are not being fed fake news. How do we make rational, calculated decisions in the “post-truth” era? The Book of Esther provides at least some of the answers.

Pieter Lastman - The Triumph of Mordechai

The Jews of Shushan and the Jews Berlin

It is no coincidence that whenever anti-Semitism raises its ugly head, we remember Haman. Not only did Haman want to destroy us just as contemporary anti-Semites do, but the tactic that caused the danger to be “turned to the contrary,” as the story tells us (Est 9:1), is the same tactic that we must employ today.

Just recently, Rabbi Abraham Cooper suggested in The Jewish Journal: “Left, right must unite against anti-Semitic hate." Danny Danon, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, took a similar tone when he called on the “Jewish people to unite against anti-Semitism” because “When we come together as a people and a community, we can make a real difference.” “Love and unity,” reads the book Maor VaShemesh, are our “prime defense against calamity.”

There is a tight link between Jewish unity, or lack thereof, and the increase or decrease in anti-Semitism. In 1929, Dr. Kurt Fleischer, leader of the Liberals in the Berlin Jewish Community Assembly, argued that “Anti-Semitism is the scourge that God has sent us in order to lead us together and weld us together.” In other words, Dr. Fleischer believed that had Jews been united, there would not be anti-Semitism in Germany.

When Haman first approached King Ahasuerus and began his argument in favor of destroying the Jews, he stressed, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed” (Est 3:8). As an antidote to the menacing decree to destroy the Jews, the first thing that Esther instructed Mordechai to do was, “Go, gather together all the Jews” (Est 4:16).

The Jews of Shushan heeded Mordechai, and to this day we celebrate their victory. The Jews of Berlin did not, and to this day we commemorate the tragic fate of our families and loved ones in the Holocaust. We cannot say that in today’s America, the writing isn’t on the wall.

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A House Built to Withstand Hurricanes

It is with good reason that unity is so vital to our existence. Abraham, the patriarchal ancestor of our nation, forged our people hood in Babylon when he observed that the Babylonians were becoming increasingly alienated from each other and self-centered. The book Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter of Rabbi Eliezer) describes how the builders of the Tower of Babylon would “push up the bricks [to build the tower] from the east, then descend from the west. If a man fell and died, they would not pay him any mind. But if a brick fell they would sit down and wail, ‘Woe unto us; when will another come in its place?’” Finally, the book continues, the Babylonians “wanted to speak to one another but did not know each other's language. What did they do? Each took his sword and they fought each other to the death. Indeed, half the world was slaughtered there, and from there they scattered all over the world.”

To try to save the Babylonians, Abraham developed a method for connecting people. He realized that the selfishness of his brethren was intensifying faster than they could tame it, so instead of trying to restrain it, he suggested that they use their egos as a lever to increase their connection. Abraham taught the Babylonians that as long as we understand that the unity of our people is the most important, the ego actually strengthens us as it forces us to intensify our efforts to unite above it. Just as a house built to withstand a hurricane is much stronger than a house built to withstand an evening breeze, unity that is built to keep people together despite ferocious egos is much stronger than unity built to keep together people who feel no enmity toward each other.

The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah) tells us that Abraham’s ideas were met with intense resistance and that Nimrod, king of Babylon, eventually chased him out of his homeland. Yet, being exiled did not deter Abraham from promoting his views. Together with his wife, Sarah, he taught anyone who wished to learn about uniting above growing egos. Gradually, writes Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, the two amassed around them tens of thousands of people who were all versed in the method of unity above enmity.

When the progeny of Abraham’s group emerged from Egypt under Moses’ leadership, four seminal interdependent events took place:

1) They pledged to be “as one man with one heart”;

2) As an offshoot of their vow, they were declared a nation;

3) They were given the Torah, whose essence is “love your neighbor as yourself”;

4) They were tasked with being “a light unto nations.”

In other words, as soon as the Hebrews became a nation, they were tasked with being the role model of people hood for all the nations.

The unique way in which our nation was formed gave us a unique quality, as well. The early Hebrews did not emerge from a specific clan or tribe, nor from a specific location. They were individuals who felt, as did Abraham, that something was changing for the worse in their societies and sought answers as to what was happening. When Abraham shared with them his method of uniting above the ego, they resonated with it and stayed with him. In this way, the Jewish nation was formed strictly around a shared idea that unity above enmity is the key principle of their lives. This is why they became a nation only once they achieved total unity, epitomized in their commitment to be “as one man with one heart.”

The Ego Is an Asset, if You Know How to Use It

The burst of egoism in Babylon was not an isolated incident. It is in fact part of the process of development of human desires. Our sages described it in their famous truism: “A man does not leave the world with half his desire in his hand. Rather, if he has one hundred, he wants to have two hundred, and if he has two hundred, he wants to have four hundred” (Kohelet Rabah 3:13).

There is a very good reason for the development of human egoism: It allows us to enhance our unity and foster prosperous societies whose members grasp the rudimentary forces of nature—that of giving and that of receiving. Justas Abraham discovered this when he observed the egoism of his country folk, his disciples continued to experience bursts of growing egoism, and continued to develop the connection method as they covered their hatred with unity and love of others. King Solomon clinched the essence of this method with the proverb words: “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes” (Prov 10:12).

The Babylonian exile, where the story of Esther takes place, marks a seminal point in the history of our people. The Jews were dispersed and disunited, as Haman said, and therefore in his eyes had no right to exist, since their task was to be a role model of unity, “a light unto nations.” The Jews were saved only once they reunited, and thereby reversed Haman’s decree and eventually even won back the Land of Israel.

In 1950, my teacher, Rav Baruch Ashlag (RABASH), wrote down these apt words of his father, the great commentator on The Zohar, Rav Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), summarizing the application of the Jewish method in Shushan: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples. Haman said that in his view, they could destroy the Jews because they are separated from one another .For this reason, Mordecai went to correct that flaw, as it is explained in the verse, ‘the Jews gathered, ’etc., ‘to gather themselves together, and to stand up for their lives.’ In other words, they saved themselves by uniting.”

Shushan All Over Again

Some two millennia ago, we faced similar circumstances, where disunity was disintegrating us from within. We did not face a threat of extermination, but only of expulsion, and so we did not unite and did not recreate the miracle of Purim. Instead, we were exiled and dispersed throughout the world.

In 1930s Europe, even the threat of extermination failed to bring us together and the inevitable unfolded. Now that a similar wave of hatred is enveloping the globe, The Book of Esther and the Holocaust serve as two examples that history has presented before us. The former shows what unity can achieve, and the latter demonstrates what happens when we are apart.

The nations will not let us be until we become a role model of unity above enmity, “a light unto nations.” The more the ego takes over the world, the more humanity will seek a method of correction. And they will look for it in the nation whose task is to provide them precisely with this. The more we stall in providing it, the more the world will resent us for it. It makes no difference that we have long forgotten the meaning and purpose of unity. They feel that the key to their hatred of each other somehow lies with us, though they may not know what that key is.

We, on the other hand, do have the seed of unity within us. This is why, as I mentioned earlier, many Jewish people are now hailing unity as a remedy for anti-Semitism. Our unity will not only abate Jew-hatred. It will terminate all hatreds. People’s dislike for one another stems only from the ego. When the ego is covered with love, as King Solomon put it, it dispels all hatred.

In these days of Purim, we should remember not only the miracle that took place eons ago, and thanks to which we are allowed one day a year to test the limits of our alcohol intake. More importantly, we should reflect on what this miracle means to our nation, what it means to the entire world, and how we can use its lessons in today’s hostile arena. Contemporary America is the perplexed Shushan all over again, and we Jews will decide whether the story ends the way it did for Mordecai or, God forbid, ends otherwise.