Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a modern-day Esther

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has gone from comedian to wartime hero.(Photo: YouTube)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster on some of the lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the West and her high regard for the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

'When Adar enters joy increases.' So goes the Jewish saying. Today is the first day of the Jewish month of Adar, known as Rosh Chodesh. In two weeks the crazy festival of Purim will be with us once again, and a month after that, the festival of Pesach.

Pesach celebrates of course the festival of Exodus and of homecoming. And this Shabbat we finish reading its biblical book of Shemot and enter the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus).

Our reading at the end of Shemot is about the holy construction dedicated to G-d. Our parallel Haftorah reading from the Book of Kings 7 and 8 describes the completion of the Temple by Solomon and its own dedication as a 'Machon', a settled safe space for all the people to feel at home and secure. Not for nothing does the Hebrew word 'bayit' mean both Temple and home.

Nothing could be more different though from the anarchic chaos of the upcoming festival of Purim when people dress up, wear masks, drink more than usual and read the Book of Esther, in which G-d's name is not even mentioned. G-d in fact 'hides His face' (Hester panim) at this time - the name of Esther resembling the word for 'hide'.

And today to add to the joy is my own daughter's birthday, also called Esther in honour of the Purim festival and this most joyful of months.

But when we look at the world around us, what we see is a contemporary parallel to these series of stark contradictions.

In contrast to what we expect, we see in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a Jewish comic becoming the Churchillian statesman of the world, whereas the Western leaders born to rule wring their hands and have nothing but fine words and no deeds.

Who are the real laughing stocks now? The writing has been on the wall for a long time and the kings of the world have been found wanting in every way.

What else do we see? We see a memorial dedicated to the Ukrainian Jews massacred at the ravine of Babi Yar in 1941 deliberately destroyed by the modern-day Amalek from Russia.

Babi Yar is seminal for the Jewish people. It is commemorated both in poetry and in a tremendous symphony by Shostakovich.

What the world witnessed on March 1st is a tragically clear illustration of how Holocaust memorials attract violence.

This has been pointed out repeatedly by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and myself in a number of unanswered joint letters to successive Secretaries of State of a government department which keeps changing its name.

Though keen on 'levelling up', this ever-changing department seems not to care one iota about the levelling down and total destruction of a tiny, beautiful park, which serves as the only safe and secure environment for children, pets, widows, orphans, young mothers and anyone who longs for a moment of peace and quiet in busy Westminster.

Who does that remind us of, do you think? As survivor of Auschwitz, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, pointed out on ITV a few days ago, not only is it immoral to build memorials to people like her in residential areas, but it is a highly dangerous thing to do. Anything to do with Jews, she added, will constitute a huge security risk to all and sundry and the whole concept of a building commemorating and thus celebrating Jewish deaths must be suspect and flawed at source, and - it might be added - the very reverse of our synagogue readings this Shabbat, which are consecrated to the living and holy. This is exactly what Anita said to the ITV interviewer on February 22nd. The interviewer opens up on the proposed construction thus:

'Anita Lasker-Wallfisch fears that it is a mistake and would be a beacon for anti-Semitic attacks'.

Anita then expands:

'The location has to be abandoned, absolutely abandoned, not just for moral reasons, but because it is highly dangerous. And it [the park] is much too small. Can you imagine where there is anything Jewish there will be no end of security?'

And what happened a couple of days ago, exactly one week after this prophetic utterance from the mouth of an Auschwitz survivor? Why Putin deliberately targeted the memorial site at Babi Yar, of course, destroying it and causing deaths and destruction.

Surely this must be a wake-up call to all of us in the West with our penchant for Big Ideas and constructions to match. Levelling up can so easily turn out to be levelling down, after all.

I asked Rowan Williams for his thoughts on the present situation in Ukraine. This is what he asked me to convey to readers of Christian Today:

'The criminal attack on the Babi Yar memorial as part of the Russian assault in Ukraine shows how the mythology of "Christian" states or empires still finds expression in the most violent kinds of action at the expense of Jews and Jewish history. A Russian victory in Ukraine would be very bad news indeed for all religious minorities there; the old tropes of international Jewish conspiracy are already being advanced against President Zelensky.'

I knew many Jewish Ukrainians in Israel. They excelled in engineering, electronics and mending my computer which often went wrong on top of Mount Carmel. They also excelled in music. I have fond memories of the pianist chemical engineer who accompanied the Haifa Technion choir, singing Borodin; the first soprano singing her solo in the Argentinian cantata we rehearsed for the university's Chanukah celebrations - never had I encountered musicality like it, conducted by Russia's youngest-ever conductor, who had himself fled Putin's Siberia and made for the promised land which welcomed him in with open arms.

This week, Israeli rabbi, Dr Nathan Cardozo, has been musing on the meaning of the month of Adar which leads up to Purim:

'Jews have been an ever-dying people that never died. They continuously experience resurrection, like the dry bones that Ezekiel saw in the valley (Ezekiel 37) ... To this day, a large part of the world does not know what to do with us. We make them feel uneasy because we represent something they can't put their finger on.'

That's it. While the world gripes and prevaricates, modern Esthers step up to the plate; Zelensky steps up to the plate.

And while memorials to dead Jews are ludicrously still being seriously envisaged by UK Departments for Levelling Up, G-d is silently showing us that Big Ideas let loose will always be destroyed in the end. And that what He actually requires from us are big hearts capable of small wondrous deeds. And G-d also shows us that a tiny people run by a Jewish comic are worth far more to Him in the end than any number of Borises.