Purim, Pesach and Shavuot: Insights for a Turbulent Time

By Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman


The spring holiday cycle is upon us, with Purim, Passover, and Shavuot coming in quick succession. This year, I am looking to these days and their themes to help us navigate a turbulent time in our country with personal awareness, resilience, and perhaps grace.


In May 2013, Yosi Klein Halevi, award winning author and research fellow at the Hartman Institute, published an important blog post entitled Pesach Jews V. Purim Jews: The Agony of Our Dilemma. Halevi’s insight is that the core respective messages of Purim and Passover can be mapped onto conflicting Jewish responses to the ongoing strife between Israel’s government and the Palestinian people. Purim commands us to blot out Amalek, the Other who is a grave threat to us. Passover commands us to not oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Halevi cogently points out that the doveish left is deeply identified with the message of Passover, and the hawkish right with the message of Purim.


He writes, “‘Passover Jews’ are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; ‘Purim Jews’ are motivated by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.” Halevi calls for American Jews to, “internalize or at least acknowledge each other’s anxieties [so that] the shrillness of much of American Jewish debate over Israel will give way to a more nuanced conversation.”


I have greatly appreciated Halevi’s teaching in my own engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this year I am fascinated by how these the Purim and Passover motivations are playing out in the USA today, as communities navigate America post-election 2016. There is a well-placed anxiety about the treatment of marginalized and vulnerable people and the rise of anti-Semitic incidents. There is also a fear on both left and right that the core values of our country are under threat from others here. Many people are, I would say, feeling strong pulls to both the Passover message and the Purim message as ways to deal with different Others – those deemed vulnerable, and those deemed dangerous.


The intensity of grief, anxiety, and fear that I have heard from congregants and colleagues of all stripes since November leads me to wonder how that third holiday in the spring cycle, Shavuot, might help us. In Halevi’s rubric, both Passover and Purim’s messages come from a stance of anxiety. What might it look like to work for our values in the world from a place of deep spiritual security? How might such a stance change our ability to respond well and wisely when threats come? How might it change our day-to-day inner experiences?


Shavuot, the pilgrimage holiday that arrives fifty days after Passover, is not only the day when we commemorate God giving us the Torah; the Kabbalists understand it as a day of marriage between us and God. Shavuot celebrates the unconditional love relationship between us and Torah, and between us and God. To be a Shavuot Jew, then, is to walk through the world with the deep knowing that on a spiritual level, we are safe and loved. It means embodying, at least on a good day, this profound truth. It means fighting fiercely and compassionately for our values and safety not from a stance of anxiety but from a stance of being grounded in nothing less than God’s love. From this psycho-spiritual place, we can notice the Passover motivation and the Purim motivation when they arise in us, and choose to act wisely in that moment.