Purim, Passover, and the Next Chapter

By Rabbi Katie Bauman; Delivered 3.15.2024

This week’s parasha is the final one in the Book of Exodus. The Mishkan is complete, the priests are bedecked, and the tablets and God’s presence fills the space.  Upon reading these final words of this book, we declare Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik, Let us be strong and strengthen one another, and we move forward to enter Vayikra, Leviticus.

We are also approaching a transition in the Hebrew calendar. This Saturday night, we will be observing the holiday of Purim, and a month after that, it will be Passover.   Purim takes place on the 14th of  Adar and Pesach on the 15th of Nissan, each exactly two weeks away from the 1st Nissan, which is the first day of the first month on our calendar. (Yes, Rosh Hashanah is when we celebrate the New Year, but the 1st of Nissan is actually the 1st day of the 1st month.)  

There is a strong teaching about these two holidays, Purim and Pesach, brought by modern Jewish commentator Yossi Klein Halevi1. He notes that there are two significant Torah commandments, each one applying to one of these holidays, and they form and shape us as a Jewish community in different ways.

We are commanded several times in the Torah to remember and blot out the name of Amalek, the nation that stalked and murdered us on our way across the wilderness2. And Haman, Purim’s villain, is considered one of the descendants of Amalek. So Purim becomes the holiday on which we celebrate our ability as Jews to stand up for ourselves against the Hamans and Amaleks of the world in every generation, all those who have decided we don’t have a right to exist. 

And we are also commanded several times in the Torah, more times than any other commandment in fact, to remember that we were strangers in Egypt and not to oppress the stranger in our midst3. So Passover becomes the holiday on which we celebrate our individual freedom by committing ourselves to a standard of decency and empathy on a broader scale, to spot and protect those who are vulnerable in the ways we have always been vulnerable. 

Both these commandments – to remember Amalek and to remember the stranger – are vague in their implementation but their impulse is clear. The Purim commandment is not to allow yourself to be victimized, and the Passover commandment is not to allow yourself to victimize others.

And Halevi notes that these two impulses within our tradition produce, in shorthand, two different kinds of Jews and Jewish worldviews, Purim Jews and Passover Jews. Purim Jews are those who are the most sensitive to existential threats against the Jewish people, and Passover Jews are those who are most sensitive to the injustices of the world. 

Even though a bit reductive, asking ourselves which kind of Jew we are, or which kind of Jew our partner or family member is, can be helpful in understanding which values are animating our thoughts and actions. And even without this self-analysis, it’s important for us all to know that both strands, both orientations exist and have validity in our tradition. Judaism isn’t Judaism without them both. To put it simply, our calendar includes both Purim and Passover, both are essential to our Jewishness, and the year isn’t complete without them. 

Throughout Jewish history, most Jews – meaning almost all Jews except North American Jews living in the last 100-150 years – have never had the luxury of acting in the world as Passover Jews. Purim has been the dominant framework of their lives. The notion that a Jew would feel safe enough in their own body and powerful enough in their own status to share some of that safety and power with another oppressed group is inconceivable to the Jews of Russia, the Jews of France, the Jews of Ethiopia, the Jews of Yemen, the Jews of Iraq, and is only occasionally conceivable to the Jews of Israel, depending on which war they’re fighting. Though Jews have been a part of certain coalitions and political and justice movements in modern times, they were almost always Jews first, a nationality apart from the rest. 

Understanding this reality of our people is crucially important for relating to Jews around the world and for authentically representing the Jewish people in any setting. It is our unique identity as a 20th and 21st century American Jewish community that has given us the privilege of feeling unaffected by the threat of antisemitism, even antisemitic violence, that has always, in every other place and time in our 2000 year old history since the expulsion from our ancient homeland, been a part of every Jew’s life or lurking just around the corner.

In our time, Israel’s relationship to Palestinians, during this war and for years before it, brings the issue to a head and the “agony of our dilemma,” to use Halevi’s words, becomes clear. With the rise of Hamas and its violent tactics, the very stranger in our midst, the one the Passover story insists we care for, is also governed by, or perhaps subscribes to the ideology of, a group that would inflict October 7ths on us over and over again. And we, as a collective, are grappling with which commandment to allow to take precedence. The Purim and Passover orientations are in direct conversation and conflict within our community, within our congregation, within our families, and even within each individual person. 

What makes this even more difficult and morally complex is that each of these impulses activates the other and appears to it as an existential threat, especially right now.  A Purim orientation of self-defense hears Passover pleas on behalf of the Palestinian cause right now as a call to self-sacrifice, to ignore the truth about the militant Islamic extremist threat we are fighting in Hamas, a movement whose ideology considers Israel’s complete destruction as fundamental to its vision for the future and the establishment of an Islamic state in the Levant.4 

A Passover orientation of radical empathy toward Palestinians in Gaza hears a Purim plea on behalf of Israel’s self-defense as a justification for inflicting immense violence on vulnerable people, precisely what the Torah repeats 36 times not to do, and it asks Jews who love and support Israel to wrestle with this question, “Precisely because we have sovereignty and power, don’t we have a higher calling to use that power with the utmost care? Isn’t that exactly what the Torah says?”

Surely each of these positions is more complicated and nuanced than I’ve expressed, but what I want us to consider as we stand on the precipice of the end of this Book of the Torah and the crescendo of this year is how to relate to this fundamental rift that manifests all around us every single day – in our schools, in our offices, around our own family tables, in our hearts.  

To opt into this Touro family is to concede that no good can come from being cruel to each other, from rebuking each other in unhinged and dramatic fashions, from harassing each other on the street or undermining each other to non-Jewish neighbors. And furthermore, that is absolutely not the Jewish way. In contrast to the gotcha culture we live in, in contrast to the pervasive cancellation and deplatforming examples all around us, rebuke is meant to be a gesture of love in Judaism, an invitation for self-reflection, not an opportunity for bullying and shaming. 

So then instead… we must teach each other, and not about politics, but about values. Purim and Passover are in a dialogue as bookends of a transitional moment in the year, and so must we be, bringing to light with the brightness of the full moons of our respective holidays the best parts of the ways we see the world and an openness to the possibility, the certainty, that from wherever we sit on the spectrum between them, there is much we do not see.

Our privilege as the Jewish community of North America living in a time of absolutely singular security, acceptance and power, a Golden Age as Franklin Foer recently wrote in his important Atlantic cover story5, has been to experiment with and model what Jewish tradition can do in a time of Jewish safety in a liberal democracy, to stretch it way beyond what even the Hebrew prophets imagined as possible, to use it to be a voice for justice not only for Jews but for all people. This is nothing short of revolutionary in our history as a people, to loudly live as Passover Jews for so long.

Our responsibility as part of the global, eternal Jewish people is to acknowledge to ourselves what is unique about our experience and identity, to own and integrate the violence and exiles that have informed our locations on the globe and what binds us together, which is far more than religious faith or specific ideology, far more than liberal values of equality and justice.  Defining Judaism using only these albeit elegant ideas are a result of the flattening of Jewishness to fit into the narrow definitions that make the American mindset comfortable, an ironic gesture of assimilation, actually.  To be protective of our identity, our past and our future, we must own that we are bound together by a history, by a calendar, by a language, by rituals and customs that are ours and ours alone. We have had to be a stateless nation for most of our history, but a nation – a tribe – we have always been.

For each one of us, there are people in our lives who can help us arrive at a sense of belonging in each of these frameworks, with a gragger in one hand and a matza in the other.  In a time of such turbulence and pain, there are some who will refuse to hold both, and they may not ultimately be able to be or choose to be part of building our collective future as self-possessed, proud Jews who hearken to both of these commandments. 

But I hope and pray that everyone in our Touro community will commit to try.  Let that be what holds us together as we go from this chapter to the next. Chazak, Chazak v’nitchazeik.

  1.  https://www.hartman.org.il/pesach-jews-v-purim-jews-the-agony-of-our-dilemma/ ↩︎
  2.  Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 25:17-19. ↩︎
  3.  Exodus 23:9, et al. ↩︎
  4.  https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2023/10/hamas-covenant-israel-attack-war-genocide/675602/ ↩︎
  5.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2024/04/us-anti-semitism-jewish-american-safety/677469 ↩︎