A Place Called Al Yahudu

On a visit to the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I learned about a place called Al Yahudu. Al Yahudu was a village in Babylonia (now Iraq) where Jews exiled from Israel by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia settled some 2,500 years ago. The story of the village is told in a special exhibit at the museum using fascinating artifacts that were excavated in Iraq, along with a multimedia presentation that tells the story of the destruction of Jerusalem, the difficult journey to Babylonia as captives and the lives of the exiles in captivity (Click here to see the video). The artifacts on display in the exhibit include clay tablets on which are inscribed the names of Jewish families and individuals who rebuilt their lives in Al Yahudu after experiencing the catastrophe of destruction and exile.

From these tablets and other pieces of archaeological evidence, the story of the march through history of the Jewish people becomes vivid. The exhibit connects the finds to Biblical verses, making them come alive. It’s clear that after exile, the Jews built meaningful and productive lives. Most were farmers, but some were involved in trades and crafts. Some even held positions in the local administration of their region. Within a little more than a century, King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Israel where they built the Second Temple, but many remained in what became Persia, reinforcing that the Jews would develop their unique religion and culture in the Diaspora, outside of the Land of Israel.

On a map of Babylonia displayed in the Bible Lands exhibit, Al Yahudu is located in the south east of the country, about 200 miles distant from another Babylonian (later Persian) city- Shushan. Yes, that’s the same Shushan that we’ll read about in the Book of Esther on Purim next week. The Purim story is historical fiction, a farcical story told to make a point. There probably was no King Achashverosh or Queen Esther, but there was a place called Shushan, and it was located not far from Al Yahudu, the village where the Jews first arrived from Israel. The Purim story, aside from being hilarious, was written to encourage and uplift the Jews living in Persia that they would be safe and could have a prosperous future even if they lived outside of the Land of Israel. It’s a tale of survival, with the quiet, hidden hand of God guiding His people to safety even in dangerous places.

That’s one of the messages I see in the story of Al Yahudu, and the story told in Megilat Esther. Our survival as a people results from our determination to carry our traditions forward, on our dedication to our way of life, and perhaps even on the quiet, hidden hand of God guiding us to safety. The Jews who were exiled from Israel back in the 6th century BCE to Babylonia established the village of Al Yahudu and there they survived, even flourished. We might ask how that was possible. Indeed, how is it possible that the Jewish story continues in the world more than 2,500 years later? That’s one of the hidden questions in the Book of Esther as well.

Given the odds against our survival across the centuries, why is it, do you think, that we have survived and thrived?

P.S. I do hope you will be at Oheb Shalom to celebrate Purim on the evening of Wednesday, March 4. Check www.ohebshalom.org for details.

Forgive but Don’t Forget

Those who have been the victim of a crime or some other type of offensive or invasive act often face a dilemma of whether or not to forgive and forget the terrible thing that was done to them.  This is true for individuals who have suffered hurt by the intentional or negligent act of another person.  And it is especially true for the Jewish people, who have, for centuries, been the victims of violence and persecution triggered by gratuitous hatred and anti-Semitism.  One thing we should remember is that it’s possible, even essential, that we forgive but not forget.

This idea is to be found in Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), the Biblical story that we read on the holiday of Purim that will be celebrated in Jewish communities around the world this Saturday night and Sunday morning, as well as in the brief Maftir selection (concluding portion) of the Torah reading this Shabbat morning.  Known as “Shabbat Zachor,” this Shabbat calls for the reading of extra verses from the Book of Deuteronomy that relate God’s command to remember in perpetuity that Amalek, a ruthless and brutal tribe of barbarians, attacked the weak and helpless Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  These verses are deemed appropriate to be read on the Shabbat before Purim because, according to the Scroll of Esther, Haman, the villain of the Purim tale, was himself a descendant of the Amalekites.  It is striking that we are specifically commanded to remember what Amalek did.  Indeed, the commandment is emphasized by the inclusion of the words “…and don’t forget.”  Why are we commanded to remember something painful and traumatic?  Not to be vengeful or carry a grudge, but to be vigilant, cautious and careful around those we don’t know well and perhaps cannot trust.

In her outstanding commentary on Esther (published by JPS), Adele Berlin writes that Esther is a “diaspora tale,” a genre of Biblical story that was likely written as a way of assuring Diaspora Jews that they could maintain Jewish identity and be safe even while living away from the Land of Israel.  Yet, Jewish history has shown us that the assurances of stories like Esther often do not materialize.  Diaspora Jews have often been subject to brutal, violent oppression and death.  It could be argued that only the State of Israel offers a true haven for Jews from anti-Semitic violence and hatred.  Thus, we are told to be cautious and remember what has happened in the past in order to protect ourselves in the present.

At the same time, Purim reminds us that we cannot be vengeful.  Berlin also points out in her Esther commentary that some version of the Purim holiday likely existed prior to the writing of the scroll.  That would explain the nature of the holiday as one of revelry and raucous celebration, rather than a day given over to glorifying our violent victory over the Persians.  It could be argued that Jewish tradition would never give birth to a holiday based on the defeat of our enemies.  Can we really bring ourselves to celebrate the killing of Haman, his sons and countless Persians that resulted from our liberation (in fact, on Passover we symbolically mute such celebrations by reducing the amount of wine in our cups during the recitation of the Ten Plagues).  Rather, whatever holiday existed in antiquity before the Rabbinic Sages formalized the observance of Purim was likely a Mardi Gras, carnival like occasion that was, centuries later, layered over with the story of the victory of the Jews over the Persians.  In short, Purim is a fun holiday, not one to remember or glorify violence.  It’s a day to forgive, even quietly, the evil and violent acts committed against us in the past.  It may not be easy to do that, but it’s essential in order to live life free from grudges and resentments.  The only targets of those feelings are the ones who bear them.

Release anger, resentment and ill feeling toward others, but be cautious and vigilant in an effort to remain safe.  Forgive but don’t forget.  Sounds like sound, and very Jewish, advice.

Purim is not only for kids, it’s for adults as well.  So please join us for our celebration of Purim this Saturday night and Sunday morning.  Check the Oheb Shalom website for details!

B’shalom,

RABBI COOPER