Born in 1860, Theodor Herzl grew up secular and spoke of Judaism with mocking cynicism. As a late 19th century westernized Jewish intellectual, he believed that complete assimilation was both desirable and inevitable.
Herzl was the Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse in 1894 when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military, was accused of spying for Germany. Reporting on what became known as the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl experienced a turning point in his life when he saw Dreyfus stripped of his epaulets and drummed out in disgrace. At that moment, Theodor Herzl as the father of modern political Zionism was born.
We typically speak of Herzl on Yom HaAtzma’ut, but I would like to suggest that his story is very much the story
We fantasize that Mordechai and Esther were religious Jews, committed to G-d and the Jewish people. Yet we know that not only is G-d never mentioned in the Megillah, but Esther actively conceals her Jewish identity. The message seems clear: If you strip away your Jewish identity, if you give up your unique culture and completely assimilate into secular society, you can rise to the very top. We know that Jewish history is dotted with many such examples.
But here is the rub. Haman doesn’t see Mordechai as an individual. He sees Mordechai, an obstacle to his own success, as a member of a distinct people, and plots to destroy all the Jews. Here we find an all too familiar story. No matter how assimilated or secular Mordechai could have been, Haman would not have cared.
Meanwhile, Esther cannot fathom that there is real danger lurking around the corner. In the pivotal moment of the story, Mordechai informs Esther that if she remains silent, “Do not think that you will escape [the fate of] all the Jews by being in the king’s palace.” This becomes Esther’s critical moment of self-recognition. This is the moment that Esther removes her mask, embraces her Jewish heritage, and embarks upon a critical mission.
Esther may indeed have denied or been indifferent about her Judaism. But at the crucial moment when the existence of the Jewish community was threatened, she and Mordechai did everything they could to free their nation from distress, sparking a return to Jewish heritage. Like Theodor Herzl so many centuries later, it is the external crisis that brings our heroes back to their identity, back to devoting their lives to the Jewish people.
Every year on the holiday of Purim we speak about gifts — gifts to the poor, and gifts to each other. This year I want to emphasize a very different kind of gift: the gift of the modern state of Israel. This gift represents not only a political reality in our ancestral homeland, but also the realization that we no longer need a crisis to walk proudly as Jews. In the words of Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, “Once Israel exists, it changes the rules of the game; it changes our standing and our ability to walk upright within the world.”
When I attend AIPAC’s upcoming Policy Conference, I recognize that my ability as a Jew to lobby our elected officials is only possible because of Israel’s existence. I can stand tall and walk proudly as an American, proudly as a Jew, and urge members of Congress to maintain and strengthen our relationship with Israel. I do this because I love Israel, but also because of the great gift Israel has given to world Jewry.
The story of Purim, the story of Herzl, and the story of Israel is the story of Jewish destiny, the story of Jewish identity, and the story of our greatest aspirations as a people. Together they create an invitation to rediscover ourselves and to choose again to belong to the people of Israel, standing together for our right to live as Jews, in Shushan, and everywhere around the globe. Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – if you will it, it is no dream.
And, who knows, perhaps Esther, perhaps Herzl, perhaps each and every one of us is where we are for just this very purpose.
By Rabbi Steven I. Rein
Rabbi Steven I. Rein is the rabbi at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He is also a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force and serves as the Jewish chaplain for Arlington National Cemetery.