Purim, replete with the structured chaos surrounding the Megillah reading and shpiels, the costumed merriment of song, dance, and sweets consumption, and the purveyance of shaloch manot, is communal, triumphant, expressive, and generous of heart, a seemingly unfettered celebration. Each Purim, I am transported back to those childhood nights when I frolicked with abandon, with not a shush to be heard from adults, and even encouraged to sip schnaps and wine.
I truly welcome these moments in the Jewish calendar, but as with other holidays filled with joy such as Pesach and Chanukah, during Purim, amidst the jubilance and exultation, a breath of relief contributes to the joy as fibers of disquiet and danger inhabit the seams of the masquerade. After all, the basis for the holiday was the last moment averting of the then world-wide destruction of the Jews. And consider that by the time Chapter 9 of the Megillah rolls around, while much of our attention as adults has been lost to grogger tumult and advancing evening sleepiness, we note that despite the royal decree from the fickle King Ahasueros setting aside Haman’s genocidal plans, the Jews still had to take up arms to defeat Haman adherents arrayed against them throughout the Persian empire with the number of enemy slain in the tens of thousands.
By the Megillah’s end, as much as one feels gladness, the picture of human carnage has stolen into the elation. As much as we have mocked and cursed Haman, we Jews, as a people of conscience, may recoil from the harsh measures required to survive. As much as we can explain the necessity for such actions, we might doubt our certainty that we have identified an evil calling us to extreme means of defense. As much as we feel vindication, perhaps we wrangle with the price paid for courageously identifying evil and resolutely opposing it. And as much as we feel relief, might we also feel exhaustion fighting seemingly endless battles against the Hamans, Assyrian Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and Nazis who have assailed us throughout our history?
We properly complete our Purim celebration and hold these thoughts at bay at least until the next morning when we repeat, in short order, a reading of the Megillah and continue with our day. Then, from time to time, we might reflect on the implications of the full Purim story as a lesson in Jewish history, its meaning for present times, and possibly come to terms with what discomfits us.
I’ll share my own reflections. Going back to my youth, I was taught that Haman was his generation’s offshoot of Amalek, a tribe at the time of the Israelites 40-years of wandering to the promised land, singled out in the Torah as the incarnation of evil. But when I considered God’s injunction to annihilate utterly Amalek including women, children, and livestock, I was uneasy about the validity and moral authority of a deity who would give such a command. I comprehended that Amalek’s unprovoked actions in attacking the Israelite sick and vulnerable were despicable, but did this original provocation or the Purim plot demand such maximally severe responses?
Also, confused as to the nature of evil and appropriate responses, I had asked my teachers what fairness was there in condemning Pharaoh as an unredeemable reprobate when it was God who, time after time, hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he did not let the Israelites go. What chance, I would demand, did the Egyptian first born children have to alter their fates if it were pre-ordained that they would die? My teachers tried to explain, but still I struggled with my perplexity.
But as I grew older and was exposed to various representations of the drive to inflict pain on others, I thought of the following: when I watch a Greek tragedy and with certainty know from the very first act that Medea or Oedipus can’t stop themselves from their destiny, how is it I don’t question the play’s premise that these figures cannot change who they are nor stem the malevolent actions that sweep them to their bitter end? Similarly, when I take in a Shakespearian tragedy, I watch characters being given innumerable opportunities to make the right decision and alter their path, but they simply cannot. And I accepted that paralysis and obstinacy as a brilliant rendition on the nature of evil and came away dazzled by Shakespeare’s genius.
I experienced another complementing realization. As a child of Holocaust survivors who knew my parents’ anguished suffering at the hands of the Nazis, I admitted to myself then and do so to this day that if I am honest, as part of my own outraged personal response, I have hated the Nazis and their evil with a furious anger and repeatedly have replayed in my mind scenarios of their utter destruction.
Together, I took the cerebral and visceral perspectives and concluded that the Torah and subsequent texts such as the Purim Megillah may be offering us more than just stories of a primitive people. If I could accept the basis of tragedy in a Greek or Shakespearian play, why not see the Torah (perhaps the greatest play of all) or the Purim story as offering instruction on the nature of evil and the impossibility of some evildoers changing? In “character,” was Pharaoh, or for that matter Haman, any different from Lady Macbeth, or Othello, or the historical Hitler?
Regardless of my acceptance that “Amalekites” will always be part of the world and need to be fiercely beaten back, I cannot accept the targeted destruction of non-combatants as part of a Jewish response to evil. Thus, I wonder if God’s commandment was so absolute because God, much like a parent who worries greatly about a sensitive child surviving in a difficult world, knew how reluctant the Israelites and subsequent generations may be in waging such a total war and very well may demur. The resolve may be clearly imperative, but by constantly needing to be on guard and responding to evil, even if the conscience accepts the need for a forceful response, we can become physically tired, spiritually weary, and perhaps even calloused. Thus, we easily understand the pathos in Golda Meier’s words when she said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
When as a child I was encouraged to partake of the wine and schnaps, the adults also made it a point of telling the children to drink to the point of tipsiness so the distinction between the “blessed Mordechai” and the “cursed Haman” becomes blurred. Without quoting directly, they were referring to the words of Rava, a fourth Century sage. What might Rava have meant by his enigmatic instruction?
Rava, I believe, was not simply interested in stimulating Purim merriment. His words have serious import. If the Jews of Persia had to kill thousands of Haman’s followers to survive, what a moral toll must have been exacted. With one’s sensibilities challenged, any decent person might at least momentarily confuse the difference between Mordechai and Haman. Thus Rava may be suggesting that at least once a year, we engage in a therapeutic intervention that serves as a check on conscience while we mobilize resolute action. After the Megillah reading, after the shpiel, after the inebriated disorientation, we may wake up the next morning and find that there are “Amalekites” wantonly threatening our existence against whom we must fight. Then, to overcome the peril with courage and dignity, we also must focus sharply and soberly examine our anger, challenge our certainty, and weigh carefully our methods demonstrating that there is a clear difference between Mordechai and Haman.