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The Limits of Imagination

Yesterday, Jews around the world celebrated the Festival of Purim.  In Jerusalem, the same celebration takes place today.  So I’m taking the opportunity to revisit these thoughts from 2009.

According to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.

One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.

The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.

Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.

Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner’s blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.

In the world of superficial cause-and-effect, the Jews appeared to owe their salvation to the random workings of fate. But it was no coincidence that their reversal of fortunes hinged upon the very moment when the invocations of Mordechai and Esther rallied their people to cast off the yoke of assimilation, no matter how imprudent such an act of defiance may have seemed.

It wasn’t wishful thinking that turned the hearts of the Jews back toward their Creator; it was the clarity that remained after all their schemes had failed and they were left staring into the cold, harsh light of reality.

Today, however, the light of reality shines neither cold nor harsh enough to make us open our eyes. Millions rally for an illusory peace to be won by appeasement before an expanding international culture of terrorism. Voices cry out against the leaders of democracy and in support of the enemies of mankind, urging us to walk the path of peace by laying down our arms before our enemies. Their anthem, it seems, echoes from a generation built on dreams and surviving on pure fantasy:

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Like Marxism and countless other utopian visions, it’s a lovely notion. Like its title, however, it is a dream existing only in imagination. Like its author, it is nothing but fantasy destined for tragedy.

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

The world will indeed live as one, but not by wishing or imagining utopia into existence. Simple answers to complex problems rarely yield lasting solutions.

The holiday of Purim teaches us that peace comes only with the triumph of good over evil, a triumph that must be bought and paid for by standing up, speaking out and, when necessary, taking action against evil.

Originally published in Jewish World Review.

Purim and the Jewish response to terror

After the horrific attacks in Brussels, especially coming as they did so close to the Festival of Purim, I’m revisiting these thoughts from 2005.  Lest we forget.

A man reacts at a street memorial following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Pogroms. Genocide. Jihad.

These are the devices our enemies have directed against us throughout the ages, for no other reason than because we are Jews. Yet for all that, the commitment to mercy and justice that defines us as a people and sets us apart from the other nations of the earth ensures that we would never seek the destruction of another people simply because of who they are.

Or wouldn’t we?

You shall erase the memory of Amolek from beneath the heavens. So the book of Deuteronomy commands us — a command renewed from generation to generation across the span of Jewish history — to strike down the nation of Amolek and obliterate its memory from the consciousness of mankind.

How is such a precept defensible? How can we claim the moral high ground over our enemies if we resort to the same tactics that they employ against us?

The decree against Amolek, however, is based upon neither racial hatred, ethnic struggle, religious ideology, nor even historical justification. Many nations have differed from the Jews in belief, practice, and culture, and many of these have waged war against us and sought our destruction. But only the nation of Amolek warrants such condemnation, not only that we seek out and destroy it, but that we never forget the reason why.

Remember what Amolek did to you on the way, as you departed from Egypt: How they fell upon you in the desert, when you were tired and weary, and cut down the weak who trailed behind you.

Why did Amolek attack us? Why did they descend upon us in the desert, unprovoked, and attempt to annihilate us?

At the time of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, 3328 years ago, the entire world witnessed an event both unprecedented and never to be repeated: The miraculous destruction of the most powerful nation on earth and the even more miraculous supremacy of a small and oppressed people. No one in the world doubted the involvement of the Divine Hand behind the upheaval, nor could anyone fail to recognize the significance of this fledgling nation: the rise of the Jewish nation introduced human civilization to such ideals as peace, collective conscience, social responsibility and, above all, a standard of moral values that would become the foundation of all ethics and human virtue.

Such ideals, previously unknown to human society, did not find immediate universal acceptance. Indeed, the values of Judaism have been rejected and discarded time after time throughout human history. But in the wake of the miraculous destruction of Egypt, every nation and every people recognized what the Jewish nation represented. And every nation stood in awe of them. Every nation except one.

The nation of Amolek despised the very concept of moral standards. They would accept no moral authority, would make every sacrifice to protect their moral autonomy, and would employ any tactic to strike out against the nation who, by teaching morality to the world, threatened to render them a pariah.

Why is it important that they cut down the weak who trailed behind you? What does it reveal that they chose the moment when an unsuspecting people were tired and weary to attack? What perverse strategy drove them to embark upon a hopeless campaign of violence that had no hope of success?

In short, Amolek introduced the world to the tactics of terrorism, launching a suicide campaign against the defenseless, against the tired and the weary, just as their ideological descendants would later blow themselves up to murder women and children, waging brutal physical and psychological war upon a civilian population — not for clearly defined political gain, but to spread chaos and the moral confusion of disorder.

Belgian Army soldiers patrol at Zaventem Airport in Brussels on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Belgian authorities were searching Wednesday for a top suspect in the country's deadliest attacks in decades, as the European Union's capital awoke under guard and with limited public transport after 34 were killed in bombings on the Brussels airport and a subway station. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

In response, the Torah teaches us the only possible answer to terror: Not negotiation, not compromise, not appeasement, not even military conquest and domination — none of these will ever succeed against the terrorist who seeks nothing less than the obliteration of his enemies, the terrorist driven by such singular purpose that he will sacrifice everything to achieve it and will stop at nothing until he has attained it. He will use others’ desire for peace, their respect for human life, and their confidence in the ultimate goodness of mankind as weapons to destroy them; he will make any promise and offer any gesture of goodwill to gain the opportunity to take another life, to cripple another limb, to break the spirit of all who stand between him and moral anarchy.

In confronting terror, little has changed over the course of 33 centuries. Four centuries after Amolek’s attack upon the Jews in the desert, King Saul showed a moment’s mercy to the king of Amolek, thereby allowing both that nation and its ideology of terror to survive. Five centuries after that, when the Jews of Persia thought to appease Haman, a descendant of Amolek, they very nearly brought about their own destruction, saved only by the miracle of Purim. Similarly did the governments of Europe seek to appease the greatest criminal in modern times, empowering him to send millions to meaningless death in pointless battle and incinerate millions more in an incomprehensible Holocaust.

And today, Western governments and ideologues continue to promote negotiation with and concession to terror, even as more and more innocents are murdered and maimed. Like King Saul, they prove the talmudic dictum that one who shows mercy at a time for cruelty will show cruelty at a time of mercy. For all its insistence upon compassion, upon virtue, upon love for our fellow man, Judaism teaches the cold practicality of confrontation with terror, that there can be no peace with those committed to violence, that there can be no offer of good faith to those who renounce faithfulness, that there can be no respect for the lives of those who devote their lives to dealing out death.

For those who live and die for the sake of terror, only one course of action exists to preserve the society that makes peace and justice possible: to erase their memory from beneath the heavens.

Originally published by Jewish World Review

Dustin Hoffman and the Miracle of Purim

tootsie_hamantaschenThe Festival of Purim may be the most misunderstood celebration in all Jewish tradition. Even the historical background seems to contradict the template of Jewish history and survival.

Confounded in the cultural and spiritual darkness of Persian exile 2372 years ago, the Jewish people faced a calculated plan for genocide beyond anything devised by Adolph Hitler. A conniving King Ahasuerus, inspired by his devious viceroy, Haman, laid out a scheme to exterminate the entire Jewish nation in a single day.

With the full force of the king and his empire turned against them, how could the Jews hold out any hope of salvation?

But in the wink of an eye, literally overnight, Haman fell out of favor and, through an improbable confluence of apparent coincidences, the Jews became the king’s most favored nation while the enemies who conspired to destroy them were themselves destroyed.

And how do Jews commemorate the divine intervention that saved them from annihilation? On this day that the sages equate with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, we replace fasting with feasting, exchange prayerful reflection for revelry, and eschew the simple white garments of purity for masks and costumes.

Purim becomes a day of backwards and inside-out, of contradictions and reversals, of parties and paradoxes.

In keeping with the counterintuitive practices of Purim, allow me to conscript a pair of latter-day Jewish cognoscenti to dispel confusion with the light of clarity:

Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack.

Click here to read the whole article.