“Perhaps for Just such a Time as This…”: Reflecting on this Moment in History, and this Moment in the Jewish Calendar

March 15, 2024


This week In “Torah time” we are concluding the reading of the book of Exodus. In Jewish calendar time, we are soon to celebrate Purim. In Jewish historical time, we are five months into a war of survival for our Jewish nation, fought in impossible circumstances leading to incomprehensible and unacceptable loss of innocent life in Gaza; we are five months into the hell of captivity for over 100 hostages torn from their homes on October 7th, likely used now as human shields along with innocent Gazans to protect Hamas leaders. We are also five months into an upsurge in antisemitic rhetoric and action unprecedented in our lifetimes in the US and around the world. In the book of Esther which we will read and retell on Purim, Mordecai says to Esther to compel her to speak out on behalf of her people: …”Perhaps you are here (in your position of power) for just such a time as this…” (Esther 4:14)

This line jumps off of the page (the scroll!) this year. We are here, each of us, part of a Jewish community at a time of profound crisis and threat. We, like Queen Esther, did not expect that we would live through such a time. We had gotten used to being the ones who remember the horrors and the crises of Jewish catastrophes and existential threats throughout our history; we did not expect to be the ones living this history. I recently read this important cover piece in The Atlantic, written by Franklin Foer, titled “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending.” Foer, who like me grew up entirely in this “Golden Age,” powerfully articulates the meaning of this very new and disorienting moment in American Jewish life. My friend Stephen Arnoff, also a peer who grew up in the Golden Age, and whom some of you heard last year speaking to our community over Zoom about his book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan wrote an equally powerful response to Foer’s piece. I encourage you to read both, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Perhaps we will plan a gathering to discuss both of these as a community.

It is shocking and disorienting to find ourselves living a history we thought was past, but perhaps it is for just such a time as this that we are here. What wisdom and guidance can we draw upon in this time from Torah, the stories begun millennia ago to which our people has clung in every place and amidst every challenge?

The last third of the book of Exodus has centered almost entirely on the building of the mishkan – a portable dwelling place for the divine that our ancestors would take with them through their wilderness journey. This sacred center would remind the Israelites of the presence of God with them, by enabling them to come together in and around it. It would be at the center of their encampments wherever they stopped along the way. It symbolized and enabled the unity of the people, and in that way it nurtured and sustained the connection of the people to each other, and of the people to the divine. Torah goes into painstaking detail about the construction of this sacred center and emphasizes that every person was to bring something to this communal project. Every individual Israelite was to bring what they uniquely could give, and they needed to be fully present in the giving, giving with a full and generous heart. 

When I was in Israel last month I saw signs that read “Am Echad b’Lev Echad” (One People, One Heart.) At this moment there is a deep chasm between our people in Israel and many American Jews. As the war goes on, the hostages are still in captivity and their fates are unknown, rockets are still being launched at Israel daily, and thousands of young people and older reservists are physically on the frontlines; Israelis are both traumatized and grieving from the horrors of October 7th and the ongoing horrors of this impossible war. They are focused on taking care of one another and there is incredible unity there, though the deep divisions that preceded the war are still present and beginning to show themselves in new ways. It is impossible fully to describe what it is like in Israel right now, but I can say that the feeling of unity is palpable, and the consistent message I heard from every person I encountered there on both of my trips since October 7th was: “Thank you for coming. We are one people and we need you. We need you to bring back to your community the reality of what is happening here – to be a bridge for our people.” But our people, just as the mishkan itself, is built of so many materials – so many distinct individuals – each of us with our unique perspectives born of our fears and our sorrows, our joys and our passions, our hopes and our gifts and our challenges. Here as we bear witness to this war from thousands of miles away, it can be hard to remember our interdependence and interconnection. The Jewish People constitutes 0.2% of the world’s population. As of 2023, 7.2 million of us live in Israel, and 6.3 million of us live in the US. We as American Jews cannot separate ourselves from the other half of our people. 

I encourage you to connect with Israelis – to hear their stories and to know the particular gifts that they bring to this mishkan, to this moment. I plan to offer many more opportunities to hear from Israelis in the coming months. Also, if you would be interested in a TOS mission to Israel in late spring, I would be happy to lead such a trip and to foster connections between us and the Israeli people. Please let me know as soon as possible if this would be of interest. In the meantime, I want to share with you an excerpt from a beautiful, spontaneous blessing that Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, of Kehilat Zion, a liberal synagogue in Jerusalem, gave to us, a group of rabbis who traveled to Israel in November. Rabbi Tamar gave us this blessing as we stood in “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv. (This was spoken and transcribed): “… I think that emunah (faith) is not only an ideal, it is an action. To be ne’eman – a rabbi is ne’eman (faithful) to ALL the stories she hears. “Rabbi” comes from “Harbeh” (a lot) and be able to hold ALL these perspectives and to have compassion and to have the ability to hold them up together as if all of them were one light. It is not easy. I want to bless you with the ancient blessing of Shomer Yisrael (Guardian of Israel). When I say Yisrael, I mean the BIG sense of Yisrael – that we have had a dream that Am Yisrael is precious to the world, that it is a blessing to the world… I believe that Am Yisrael wherever we are – we are precious to the world and we are needed. Right now, wherever we are, I fear for us. I fear for you more than I fear for me… I wonder “are you safe?”… I want Zion (our community) to be with you, with each of the communities, and stand together and hold together. But I can’t. We are all dispersed now in the world, and we have to hold on strong to something. We have to be the guardians of guarding the vulnerable and the strong, guarding the Jews inIsrael and the Jews abroad. Guarding the Palestinians and the Bedouins and the Druze in Israel and every human being around the world. This is Shomer Yisrael. And I want to pray for you that you will guard your hearts and souls and you will hold the candle higher than you ever held it before, because the darkness will be strong…We have to be Shomer Yisrael together…It is a very big responsibility. So we have to listen to every partner. We have to prepare ourselves and be guardians of human care in whatever circumstances we go through. That is the light. Human care. Solidarity. Responsibility.”

We at TOS are committed to continuing the ongoing work of building and sustaining our sacred center. Our mishkan is sacred because of each one of us and we need to hear each other – we need to hear and see the unique materials each of us brings to the building of this center. This moment feels impossible in its pain but it is our sacred obligation not to lose hope, and to stay connected to and present for one another. It is especially wonderful at this time to be able to share news of how our Temple Ohabei Shalom mishkan is expanding, with our new Jewish afterschool program, ShalomBASE, launching now! You can learn about this wonderful program here. It is our sacred obligation to lean into Jewish joy, now more than ever. ShalomBASE will be a center of Jewish joy, learning and connection. It will be its own beautiful mishkan – a sacred center made sacred by the diversity of its students and families, just like the entirety of our Temple Ohabei Shalom community.


Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman