Todd Berman

A Purim Message: it might not be what you think.

The repeated refrain of the Purim season is “VeNahafoch Hu” or “the opposite of what was expected.”

On Purim the Jewish people remember the victory of the Jews over their genocidal enemies. “The very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.” (Esther 9:1) And so indeed we eat, drink, and thank God “for the miracles, and the redemption, and the acts of might, and the salvation” that happened “on those days at this time.”

Yet Megillat Esther, contains a message deeper, perhaps, than the victory.  The major plot line in the “megillah” begins with Haman, the wicked vizier, disgusted by the actions of a single, court Jew. Mordechai, member of an alien, exiled, immigrant people, refused to subjugate himself to a seemingly capricious, court protocol. (I’m not going where you think with this.) Instead of relating to the individual affront, Haman derides an entire religious-ethnic group, “When Haman saw that Mordechai would not kneel or bow, he was filled with rage. But he disdained from laying hands on Mordechai alone…Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews.” (Esther 3:5-6) The plot thickens with what will become, with time, the classic anti-Semitic and racist trope: “Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8.)  Herein is the kernel of all xenophobia, “different from all other peoples.” Senseless hatred lies at the heart of the Megilla and the Purim story.

We are certainly not immune. Recently, I read that as part of a pre-Purim celebration boys from a certain yeshiva in Israel scared Arab women by chanting hateful things. This is an occurrence I have, unfortunately, witnessed at other times, but not as part of my joyous Purim celebration. I feel amiss writing this in an English publication and will try to express these sentiments in a Hebrew version. In a horrible perversion of the celebratory “VeNahafoc Hu” of redemption comes one of hatred. In the midst of holy joy comes the most despicable of human of attributes – hatred for the other.

Lest my words be misunderstood, I am no pacifist. The Talmud teaches us that “Im Ba LaHorgecha, Hashkem LeHargo”, if someone comes to kill you, strike first (Sanhedrin 72a).  We live in a world and region fraught with complex political and emotional realities; however, if we forget our humanity and the humanity of others, then, indeed, we have forgotten our Creator. Our sages teach, “man was created as a single individual … in order that one will not say to another, my father was greater than yours.”  (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:6) and they followed the Torah which teaches at its very beginning that all of Mankind was created in the Divine image. Even those we are forced to fight in war are none-the-less symbols of God.

Like so many in history, Haman unleashed the dogs of hatred and violence. Those same forces brought not only his downfall, but measure for measure, the downfall of his followers as well. Once off their chains, those same passions and hatreds will eventually consume their masters.

The Talmud in Tractate Megillah expresses one of the oddest mitzvoth, “one is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until [the point] of not [being able to] distinguish between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai.”  Halacha, built upon clear definitions and distinctions, founded upon clarity of thought and precise thinking, demands a blurring of lines? Almost unfathomable!  Haman was a genocidal murderer and Mordechai was a saint. Why does the Halacha demand that we put forth effort to blur that stark reality?

Perhaps this is one of the central messages of the four mitzvoth on Purim: Reading megillah, gifts to the poor, sending food to friends and neighbors, and having a joyous party with wine. Let’s face it, we are good at seeing otherness, living in our personal bubbles, and separating ourselves from those not completely like us; however, on Purim we must come together as a community to read the Megillah, we try harder to enable the poor and downtrodden to rejoice like everyone else, we are obligated to send presents to spread brotherly love, and yes, we must even blur the lines between ourselves and the evil doers of this world. We must stretch beyond our boundaries, be they physical, financial, emotional, or spiritual, to see everyone as created in the Image of God.

God is hiding in the story of Purim. In order to find Him, Halacha forces us to remove hatred from our hearts and to really look into the faces of those around us.

Happy Purim.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.