Using the Story of Purim to Judge the Presidential Candidates
Thousands of words have been written about this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference in publications across the world. It seems that everyone wanted to weigh in on this gathering of pro-Israel activists. But its real attraction was the appearance of the various presidential hopefuls, and particularly the appearance of real estate mogul-turned-Republican firebrand, Donald J. Trump.
I sat in the cavernous Verizon Center as the various candidates slugged it out, trying to outdo each other in their pro-Israel pledges and sentiment. Even if you were listening carefully, it would have been difficult to choose between them based purely on what they said. They are all suspicious of Iran, concerned about increased violence in the Middle East, committed to US military support for Israel, critical of Palestinian terrorism and violence and everything else relevant. And, of course, they all declared that the US-Israel relationship would be most safe in their hands.
But can we really know what the candidates truly feel and think? In this critical year it is essential for us to know what is really going on in their minds, so that we don’t allow our imagination to determine our opinions, and our actions.
We learn this exact lesson as we read Megillat Esther on Purim. We see a king getting rid of his wife, a beautiful woman whose family origins had been the force that propelled him to the throne, on the spurious basis that her refusal to appear at his drunken party would foment rebellion against him across the Persian Empire. It turned out that his commitment to her was fickle, discarded easily when it was expedient.
That same king, Achashverosh, was willing to participate in genocide against the Jews, and then, later on, to ensure their survival. On every occasion when he needed to make a major decision, it was expedience that underpinned it, not conviction.
The king was not a man of principle; he was a fair-weather friend whose warm words of amity were, as Sam Goldwyn might have put it, not worth the paper they were written on. The Jews of the Persian Empire were not safe even after the Purim story, and after Achashverosh’s untimely death, the Jewish diaspora lobbied his successor to permit the exiled community to return to their homeland, Israel, and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter the duties of the High Priest in the Temple. The same man whose elevated position demanded that he preside over the Yom Kippur service was also expected to clean up the ashes from the altar: “He should pick up the ashes where the fire has consumed the burnt-offering on the altar, and put them next to the altar.” The commentaries all puzzle over this instruction that the High Priest should carry out such a lowly task. Couldn’t one of the ordinary priests have done it?
The powerful answer is that the embers on the altar embodied the continuity of Jewish life. If its fire was extinguished, all the sacred functions of the Temple would cease, and the High Priesthood would have been a redundant job. The message of “terumat hadeshen” — the disposal of the ashes, so that the fire wouldn’t die out — was to stress the importance of continuity and consistency. Even the holder of the most elevated position in the land must be cognizant of the fact that no task is too insignificant when continuity and consistency is at stake. For this reason, the highest appointed Temple official would carry out the lowly task of ash disposal himself. His office was not about glory; it was about the service of God, and representing the will of God as spiritual leader of the people.
As I reflect on my three days in Washington, DC, having witnessed the candidates and leaders revel in the glory and hype of their role in US politics, I must admit that none the pomp and ceremony around them particularly impressed me. Ultimately, what we need to be looking for is their devoted attention to the small details of the US-Israel relationship, as well as their genuine commitment to consistent support for Israel that will transcend electoral needs and political pressures. It is these qualities that are the mark of true leadership and true friendship.