Purim, Pesach and the President

Rabbi 2 Rabbi

Donald Trump’s presidential run mirrors the erosion of civility in society at large, and in the Jewish community too

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin

Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal

Rabbi Korobkin: As an American, I am watching with great interest and consternation as the election of a new president gets closer. I am alarmed at the surprising popularity of Donald Trump. Is it understandable that a large number of Americans have become disenchanted by the status quo, by the career politicians and all their double-speak? Yes, and that is part of Trump’s appeal of this brash and aggressive anti-politician.

I’m quite concerned about what a Trump presidency may mean to the fabric of our society. We’ve seen a frightening erosion of civility in the public sphere over the last few years and Trump seems to be the living incarnation of this pent-up fury.

We’re witnessing the same kind of rhetoric and blind allegiance to a charismatic leader that appeared in the 20th century with various despots, and these regimes never ended well for the common citizen. And yet, perhaps what America needs now is a strong leader who has the necessary vision and determination to secure the borders and destroy terrorism once and for all.

Rabbi Grushcow: Perhaps not surprisingly, you and I are not on exactly the same page in our political beliefs. But, like you, I am very concerned about the Trump campaign, and how easily charisma can turn into demagoguery. I am especially disheartened by what happened at the AIPAC convention, where thousands of Jews stood up and cheered as a candidate insulted a sitting president.

How have we reached this point, where those who support Israel are assumed to be entirely right wing? And is our memory so short that we don’t relate to those minority groups Trump stereotypes and insults?

We live in difficult times, but that’s true in every generation. The important question always is, how do we respond? Purim teaches us the importance of mustering our courage – as well as our sense of humour – as we work to undermine tyrants. Pesach reminds us of the Jewish conviction that we will move from slavery to freedom, and degradation to praise.

In our Reform prayer book, there is a line that reads, “We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.” The challenge is to live – and act, and vote – according to our hopes, rather than being drawn in by those who play to our fears.

Rabbi Korobkin: Part of Trump’s attraction is that he is playing to people’s fears, but it’s not that simple. Terrorism is real, and it’s happening all around us. The Islamic State (ISIS) is getting stronger by the day, and both the current U.S. president and the Canadian prime minister seem to be ignoring, or at least playing down, this very real threat.

It’s great to live by our hopes, but we need to realize that evil still exists in the world and to fight that evil with every fibre of our being. And remember: in order to defeat evil, the Jews fought and killed Haman and thousands of others anti-Semites in Persia.

Americans have seen less than satisfactory results from its current leaders. What impels so many to give Trump a second look is his resolve to make sure that evil does not triumph.

Rabbi Grushcow: For me, the great lesson of the Purim story is not the slaughter of the non-Jews at the end, which I think simply points to the incompetence of the king and the over-the-top nature of the story. Rather, I am drawn to the scene in Chapter 4 where Esther decides to risk her position as queen, and even her life. She is willing to use every resource she has to change the course of history.

There’s no denying that ego is often a driving force behind leadership, but it should not be the primary force. I want our leaders to be those who feel called to serve, who are willing to risk their own safety and comfort for the sake of the greater good. I also believe that fighting terror will require a lot more than one or two good leaders.

It is not just political candidates but each of us who should ask ourselves what Mordechai asked Esther: “Who knows, maybe you came to your position for a time like this?”

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