What Golda Meir, Richard Nixon, Esther And Mordechai Have In Common [Parshat Vayikra By Rabbi Zalman]

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This Shabbat we begin reading the third book of the Torah – Sefer Vayikra, which deals in great detail with things we are largely unfamiliar with nowadays; the different offerings brought in the Beit Hamikdash,whether animals, birds or grain offerings.

Our Sages discuss at great length the whole concept of animal offerings and sacrifices, and they propose different reasons as to why G-d wants these offerings, and why an animal offering has the power to connect finite humans with an infinite G-d.

One of the lessons that we may learn from the sacrifices and offerings is that G-d finds it valuable when we take our possessions and dedicate some of them to a higher purpose. When we take our hard-earned money, and forfeit any benefit we could have had, giving it instead to G-d, or to a G-dly purpose, the effect is powerful. It makes us aware that not all of what we have is ours, and that sometimes we need to give of what belongs to us for a higher cause.

Nowadays, we no longer offer animals, birds, grain or meal offerings. Without a Beit Hamikdash, a Temple, how do we instil in ourselves this ability to sacrifice, to give away what is valuable to us for a better cause?

There are other ways to sacrifice then simply to donate an animal to the Beit Hamikdash. Personal sacrifice is when we put ourselves aside, and ignore our own needs to care for another, higher cause. That may be when we give our time, our energy, or our money; It might mean spending time with the elderly, or with those who need a listening ear. Sacrifice may mean keeping our opinions to ourselves, even when we think we know better. It may mean not saying the things that are on the edge of our tongue to say, but which may hurt another. Sacrifice may mean leaving work early to spend time with family, or leaving home early to help make a minyan in shul. It may mean helping another to find a job, or sharing advice and experience with someone who needs it.

Sacrifice comes in many forms.

Shortly we will celebrate the festival of Purim, when will we read of great sacrifice; an entire people who risk their lives for what they believe in. We will read of Esther, the Jewish Queen who risks everything, including her life, in an attempt to save her people.

Esther’s Jewish identity is a secret, unknown to the King and his advisers. When Mordechai hears of the royal edict that Jews across the 127 provinces are to be slaughtered on a single day, he sends an urgent message to Esther, asking her to intervene with the King.

Esther replies to Mordechai that for her to get involved will put her in grave danger. The King has not summoned her for a month, and entry to the royal court without a summons is liable to be punished with death –her very life is at risk.

Mordechai responds with possibly the most powerful words in the Megillah (Book of Esther): He tells Esther, Ulay la’ayt kazot hi’gaat la’malchut!  Perhaps this is the very reason for your rise to royalty. For this very moment … to save your people.”

There is a fascinating parallel to this conversation between Mordechai and Esther in a conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and US President Richard Nixon in 1973 – during the Yom Kippur War. In a recent documentary one of President Nixon’s aides recalled what Nixon told him after that fateful conversation.

Golda Meir’s plea to Nixon had been unequivocal: “If you don’t help us now,” she said, “the Jewish people will never survive.” Nixon gave his assurance that she would get all the help she needed, and she hung up the phone reassured. The subsequent shipments were enormous, including fifty-six combat aircraft and 27,900 tonnes of munitions and supplies.

Nixon later explained to his aide why he felt the need to assist. He said, “I could almost hear my mother’s voice. She would read me stories from the Bible – the Old Testament. Once she said to me, ‘Richard, some day you are going to be in a position to save the Jewish people. When that day comes, you must do everything in your power to do so.’ “

Nixon continued: “At that moment, (Golda’s phone call) I realized, maybe for the first time in my presidency, why I had become President of the United States.”

As Mordechai said to Esther, “Maybe your rise to royalty was for this very moment.”

What was Esther’s response to Mordechai’s blunt statement? She replied, “I will go to the King, against the palace rules, – and if I perish, so be it!”

Very little in contemporary society calls upon us to give up what is truly precious to anybody or anything else. We are taught to be pleasant and cordial, tolerant and respectful; we are taught to give charity to the poor and empathetic to those in pain … but we are not taught to make real sacrifices, sacrifices that will force us out of our comfort zones and which require profound and unwavering commitments.

Sometimes G-d wants us to give of ourselves, to put our needs and desires aside in order to help others. Not all of us will be asked to risk our lives like Queen Esther, or like Eli Cohen, but occasionally in life we will be faced with a choice, to put ourselves first, or to put others first, at risk to ourselves. When you are on the deck of the Titanic and there is one space left in a lifeboat, what will you do? Save yourself or the woman or child beside you?

Such incredibly difficult choices, such sacrifices, are thankfully not demanded of us often. Smaller sacrifices, however, are demanded of us every day: Will we be charitable with our money, will we visit the sick, will we support the shul minyan and the communal events, will we stand up for Israel … and the list goes on.

The story of Esther’s sacrifice helps guide us to make the right choices. The final decisions are up to us, and us alone. Shabbat Shalom.

 Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent  is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

 

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