“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”
–General Omar Bradley as quoted in Call of Duty video game.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn”
–Alfred inThe Dark Knight
“And letters were sent out in the hands of messengers to all the countries of the king to destroy, to kill, to lay waste to all the Jews from youth to the elderly, children, and women.”
–Book of Esther 3:13
Over the past few years I sense that more and more people are nervous about teaching scary material. I have read Jewish authors lamenting teaching Bible stories and specifically the destruction of the Egyptians or the Purim story as examples which are both horrifying as well as counter to a pluralistic world view. Does focusing on the genocidal tendencies of Haman or Pharaoh reinforce a particular narrative and inculcate an antiquated fear of the outside world? Do we need trigger warnings or censorship to ensure the mental health of our children?
To be clear, the rabbis were concerned with the direction one may take from these stories. On the one hand, salvation of the Jewish people evokes joy and in order to encapsulate that emotion, the Torah and the rabbis established special prayers and rituals such as Hallel, Haggadah, and reading Megillat Esther on Purim. On the other hand, the rabbis cautioned against focusing on the destructive aspects of these historical events. “[We recite the Hallel prayer in abridged form] because on the Seventh day of Passover the Egyptians drowned. God said, ‘my creations drown and you want to sing joyous song before Me?’ And since on the seventh day we don’t recite the complete version therefore on the rest of Chol HaMoed we should not recite it…” [Mishna Brura based on Talmud Megillah 10b]
Yet to whitewash Jewish tradition to fit a rosy picture of both the past and present seems to me to be lacking in intellectual honesty and misses what is often the heart of the message of Jewish history and tradition – God’s salvation.
Furthermore, the culture of sugarcoating messages seems to reflect a false perspective of adolescent experience. In a world where anyone venturing to surf the internet is exposed to quasi-pornographic images — and often more than quasi — and where high school students regularly play graphically violent video games the idea that exposure to Bible will somehow sully the pristine minds of our youth seems downright naive. I grew up in the early 80’s with the limited violence of Star Wars (which then was just called Star Wars) where storm troopers died with no sign of blood and there were no implication of crimes of a sexual nature. Today with movies such as the Dark Night or harsher shown to full audiences, the story of Esther’s saving the Jewish people from destruction, even with the concomitant implications of sexual oppression and violence, seems almost G rated.
While it may be true that, as Dr. Chaya Gorsetman writes, “we need to inquire about and discuss those messages of Purim which are age appropriate and easily grasped by 3, 4 and 5-year-old, Jewish children to enhance their experience of the holiday to encourage deeper thinking and making deeper meaning for them”, at the same time, we need to be aware that older children are less naïve than we might be led to believe. Aware of the reality described above, Dr. Gorsetman continues, “Assuredly, this type of discussion is not meant to eliminate the recitation of the Megillah altogether in a school. The storyline of Purim is appropriate for older children, and as young children mature they will have ample time to hear the details of the story and discuss it fully in depth.”
Yet, I am nervous that the watering down of Jewish holidays and history can continue far beyond pre-school. Gorsteman ends her piece saying, “Young children need to be engaged in developmentally appropriate practices. As educators we need to refocus our attentions less on the simple storyline and more on the depth and message of the holiday … We can accomplish this by encouraging our teachers (and parents) to engage the big ideas of each holiday and how that is expressed by our customs and practices.” But what are the fundamental ideas and messages of the holiday stories? Gorsteman states, “Perhaps the details of the Purim story no longer need to be at the center of the learning. Perhaps the experience of cooking and baking and giving to those in need may be more meaningful because young children can enjoy the experience. They can develop the mental disposition of caring for others, and become more aware of others and how they feel. They can learn songs related to the holiday with the actual words of the prayers.”
I am sympathetic to this viewpoint when dealing with little children and indeed one of my children was frightened that Haman was coming to kill the Jews. I understand that Gorsetman’s focus, indeed, is the pre-school set. But I believe we need to use caution lest we miss the central theological message.
Let’s be clear, according to tradition the central message of Purim doesn’t seem to be primarily about “giving to others in need“, although that does play a role. Rather, the fundamental component as highlighted in our liturgy seems to be the failed attempt of genocide by a major political leader and how God saved the Jewish people, “in the days of Mordechai and Esther in the great city of Shushan when the evil Haman rose up against them, he wanted to destroy, kill, and lay waste all the Jews from youth to the elderly, women, and children…and You in Your great mercy nullified his plan and destroyed his intentions… ” (Traditional Prayer Book.)
How true is this message even today when the likes of Hamas would destroy Israel or as in the case of ISIS much of the western world. I have heard others lament that we Jews in Israel have a victim complex and that the Holocaust reigns too regnant in our country. But as the Jewish satirist Joseph Heller informs us so eloquently, “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t after you.”
The Purim and Passover stories are complex, scary, and haunting. But they highlight a central pillar of Jewish tradition, to wit, that salvation ultimately comes from God even as the Jewish people need be prepared to play a role. Living here in Israel that notion is not relegated to some mythic past but is part of our everyday existence. My children learn from a young age in school how to be careful of bombs, and missiles and knife attacks perpetrated by those who would come to destroy them because they are Jews. We have our Hamans today and a combination of Divine providence, military preparedness, and thoughtful diplomacy are as needed today as they were when Mordechai and Esther begged the king to allow the Jews to fight for their own survival.
Figuring out exactly at what age and how to convey the horror which lies at the center of the Purim story presents a difficult educational choice. As the wisest of men said, “Teach a child according to his way.” (Proverbs 22:6) Yet we also want the message to reflect the truth for “when he ages, [the teaching] will not leave him.”