Published on March 14th, 2022 | by Jacob Sapon2
Ukraine, Purim, and the Power of Connection
This year many of us are thinking about Purim in the context of the horrible war of Russian aggression in Ukraine. It is not hard to imagine Putin as a Haman-like figure, or as an embodiment of Amalek—the tribe of Haman which is the archetypical enemy of Israel.
Putin has made his calculations on the basis of vastly superior numbers of soldiers and is counting on fear and brutality to motivate his own soldiers, to keep the Russian nation submissive to his will and ultimately to conquer Ukraine.
Putin’s way of accounting reminds me of one of the lesser-known customs of Purim: giving the equivalent of a half-Shekel to charity in memory of the way that the biblical census was taken using a half-Shekel to count the people. They didn’t just count the people, but each gave a half shekel and those were counted in their stead. What’s the point? Why the half shekel? The Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, explains it this way: a coin is nearly worthless if we just look at the physical object. Its real worth is something that exists somehow in the object but beyond it. It seems to be a kind of spiritual quality that imbues the coin with a value far beyond its physical qualities. This more-than-physical value emerges from a larger whole, of which the coin is a small part. A coin or any type of money only has value when a whole group of people’s consciousness somehow joins together to create a non-physical but very real reality.
It’s easy to miss the qualities that emerge from the whole, but it’s the key to all of life: a scientist can look at cells under a microscope, and miss that mysterious quality that emerges from the whole which imbues those cells with life. It’s easy to see some trees and only see individual trees, and miss the way that they are all connected, through underground networks of mycorrhizal fungi and through air born chemicals that create a much more resilient whole: the forest. And it’s easy to miss the way that we humans only come into our lives and our humanness through our many relationships: with the earth, air, plants and animals though the air we breathe and the food we eat; with other people through our many relationships, our language, culture, history and memories.
Right now, the Ukrainians are fighting with amazing strength and courage—because they are fighting for the love of their country, their place and identity. Around the world many countries are supporting them as we all find ourselves in a battle for the system of government that says that the only legitimate government is one that emerges from the consent of the people as a whole.
I always love Purim, but this year I especially love it because, in addition to the custom of the half-shekel, on Purim we do everything we can to remind ourselves that we are only fully ourself, only fully in our vibrant power, when we are connected. We give matanot l’evionim, gifts to the poor, mishlo’ach manot, gifts of food to friends; we dress in costumes, sing, eat and drink to loosen up any ways that we are stuck in old limiting mind-frames which separate us. We do everything we can to shake ourselves out of the illusion of separateness. We remind ourselves that the Amalek/Putin way of accounting people as numbers and brute force as the only power is an illusion and that our real power comes from that spiritual vibrancy which brings us alive when we connect with each other.
If you’d like to follow the thread of this way of thinking about connection, emergence, Judaism and ecology, I’ll be teaching a five-part online class titled “The Sacred Patterns Which Connect: An Integration of Judaism and Ecological Thinking” starting on April 4. It’s based on my book, The Pearl and the Flame: A Journey into Jewish Wisdom and Ecological Thinking, which will be coming out in the next few weeks.