March 05, 2009

Purim Now

We have always reinterpreted Biblical stories to suit changing times. One of my favorite examples of how fanciful it can become is the relatively modern "conceit" that the Ten Sons of Haman hint at or predict to the Ten Nazis sentenced to death at the trials at Nuremburg. Actually 12 were sentenced to death but Goering, who was said to have declared that the Jews will celebrate a Second Purim, cheated the gallows by taking poison and Martin Bormann was convicted in absentia. The hangman was an American called John Woods. The Ten Sons of Haman were hung on gallows, which is "Etz" in Hebrew, and the Hebrew for "Wood" is also "Etz". Of course, "Woods" would be "Eytzim", but never mind, after a few bottles of vodka it sounds good!

Yet with Ahmadinejad, a latter day Haman, publicly declaring his intention of destroying Israel, one is bound to see modern parallels. There is the issue of dual loyalty that has not gone away over the two thousand five hundred years or so since Mordechai was accused of being an alien and worshipping according to an alien religion. You cannot trust these Jews, you know! He had proved his loyalty to the king by revealing the Bigtan and Teresh plot. (See, plots and assassinations seem to have been part of life forever and the Middle East a hotbed of intrigue and deviousness forever. That has not changed.)

Mordechai's loyalty only comes out later when the king needs a bedtime story to put him to sleep. He commands the chronicler to read the archives. I guess it was either the most exciting book available or the most boring and sleep inducing. This was, after all, before computerization but it does show how inefficient and incompetent bureaucratic systems have always been with us. And given that Persia is supposed, by those who know, to be an Aryan race, and so too were the Nazis, there certainly seems to be a contradiction there in terms of governmental efficiency.

The Book of Esther is a Political Satire

A lazy incompetent chief executive spends too much time enjoying himself. He partakes but does not inhale and loves parties. He does not get on too well with his talented wife so he seeks comfort elsewhere getting drunk with willing young virgins. He dispenses pork barrel largesse to keep his states united. He lays on a relay of expenses-paid junkets to the capital for legislators, which altogether last for 180 days, in which he reassures the doubters that his economic policies are working. Then, to please the locals in the main city, who begin to show resentment at the influx of out-of-towners, he lays on another seven-day shindig, including some the best known performers and media tycoons.

Old racial animosities raise their ugly heads, but he is constrained by Supreme Court procedure. Fortunately, his newest girlfriend happens to be Jewish, from a family of well known rabbis, and she reminds the CE of his election commitments. Various Jewish lobbies get to work and exert pressure and, although freedom of speech has to be allowed and anti-Semites can continue saying what they like, any attempt at violence may be met proactively.

The threat is pre-empted. Persistent offenders are sent to jail. To celebrate, the Big Man reduces taxes across the board (also to stimulate an economy in recession and shore up the banks who unwisely committed their reserves to support a risky and illegal venture). Religious leaders try to claim credit for the successful outcome, but are fortunately left out of the narrative.

The Book of Esther is a Religious Story

A people is threatened with destruction simply because it is loyal to its religious ideals. God intervenes but not in an overt way. Using human agents He gives the impression that the crisis is solved through their good offices when in fact He is orchestrating everything from a different sphere. What appears fixed and firm one moment is overturned the next. That is life--unpredictable. Joy turns to sadness and back again. Enemies suddenly disappear, threats recede and everyone lives happily and ethically ever after, increasing goodwill, charity, and religious devotion, rather than self-indulgent materialism. Meanwhile, God takes no public credit and does not even ask for a mention (certainly not an Oscar), leading skeptics to claim He was not there at all.

The story also reminds us that the majority of the members of the Persian Empire were not against the Jews and did not take advantage of the opportunity to attack them. The actual numbers who did are relatively small. The text repeats several times that the Jews refused to touch any of the spoil, but were simply engaged in self-defense.

I have seen it argued (Elliot Horowitz, Reckless Rites) that this is a story of bloody vengeance and vindictiveness that encouraged violence. I believe that closer examination reveals that it is really about prejudice, distorted arguments, lies, and irrational hatred. The dual response is proactive--self-defense and harnessing spiritual energy as well--to overcome the opposition. It is about people as varied in personality as Esther and Mordechai from their very different positions within the Jewish and non-Jewish hierarchy, as well as the combined positive energy and cooperation of the Jewish people coming together to respond to the threat.

Certainly worth celebrating, and as relevant today as ever. It reminds us that we can get too overconfident and apathetic in the Diaspora, taking our safety for granted. We may fail to respond to danger until it is so late that by then the way back is far more difficult.

2 Comments:

At 4:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Rabbi Rosen
Please make it clear to your readers that Elliott Horowitz did not argue in Reckless Rites that Esther is "a story of bloody vengeance and vindictiveness that encouraged violence." He merely presented the opinions of many scholars (mostly Christian) who thought so.

 
At 10:24 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Thank you for making that point!

 

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