Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Megillat Esther is a book of walls.

It is about the walls around a city and the walls around a person.

It is about walls that protect and walls that enclose; walls that bind together and walls that separate.

It is about walls that were always there and those that sprang up out of nowhere.

Purim is celebrated on different days by walled and unwalled cities. The walls of Shushan did not protect the Jews, who needed an extra day to dispatch their enemies.

Shushan was a city ruled by a king who erected walls. Step beyond this wall and your head is forfeit. Spend one night with me and then be walled off forever. The only way for Esther to be married to such a man was to wall off her name, her identity, her emotions.

These were not the walls that the Jews had known in their land. The walls of the Temple of Jerusalem had united them in purpose. The walls of the Temple courtyard were locked to encompass each shift that came to sacrifice the Paschal offering. The borders separating Temple areas demarcated the Holy from the Holy of Holies. But in Persia, walls could spring up suddenly and trap you inside. While yesterday you had been an equal citizen of the empire, today the removal of the royal signet ring could raise a barrier that separated you from the protection of the king and the privileges other citizens enjoyed. A precursor to the Nuremberg laws, it ghettoized the Jews within their own minds.


Esther and Mordechai did what Jews have always done. They fought walls of separation with wails of united prayer, barriers of selfishness with bonds of cooperation. They dissolved the walls that separated Jew from Jew and Jews from God, and that brought down the walls that sought to immure them.

This past Purim and beyond, some Jewish communities, including that of my school, SAR Academy and High School, have been circumscribed within other walls. These are not walls of anti-Semitism, but of a force of nature that has left so many people—Jew and non-Jew, in our country and throughout the world—isolated, apprehensive and perplexed.

But this virus did not reckon with SAR’s special gift. From its inception, SAR has had an aversion to walls. It was built as an open school, with areas on each level visible to each other and intersected by two sets of stairs where children congregate for moments of unity. At SAR we know what it means to be responsible not only to your class but to the classes around you that hear your every shout. When Smartboards were introduced, we joked that they were affixed not to walls but to specially solidified pillars of air made for the purpose.

When a virus whose tool of terror is the isolating wall met a school that is allergic to walls of any kind, the result was, well, Purim. Tefilah and Torah by teachers and students over Zoom conferencing, virtual bar and bat mitzvahs, a patient and ever-sensitive principal and administration, teachers whose caring can be palpably felt by their students over the link—all of these were echoed by a community ready to do anything to help. On Purim, 1,500 quarantined people heard Megillat Esther read online, in keeping with a ruling of world-class halachic experts. Though I live in a different borough, I received delivery of catered meals donated by the family of a bat mitzvah who read the megillah over the airwaves. The food was delivered by SAR family members not in quarantine. That is the real definition of mishloach manot. That is the collapsing of walls and the uniting of people. That is how a book of walls was lived this year in our invisible halls.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg teaches Judaic Studies and JudeoTech at SAR Academy. He is rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and author, among other books, of “The Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah.” 

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