Remembering to never forget

I made a mistake yesterday. A big one.

After work, I brought my 9-year-old daughter (who spent the day with me at the office) to Jerusalem to meet friends of my parents from the States.

Unfortunately, it was Shushan Purim, when Jerusalem celebrated Purim (most of the world celebrated on Sunday, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Adar, but cities that were walled during the time of Joshua some 3000 years ago, such as Jerusalem, celebrate the following day).

The mistake was two-fold (besides the fact that we never did meet up with the friends). First of all, traffic out of the city was the worst I have ever seen, and the normally 40-or-so minute trip home (with a very tired daughter in tow) took about two hours. Even worse were the many displays of public drunkenness that we witnessed while there. I’m not sure, but it seems that people in the bigger cities are much more inclined to lose control on this festival than in the ‘burbs where I live.

For those unfamiliar with it, Purim commemorates the salvation of the Persian Jews in about the 5th century BCE. The evil vizier Haman sought to exterminate us, he was thwarted by the righteous Jewish queen Esther and her cousin/adoptive father Mordechai.

One explanation as to how Haman had the king’s support and nearly succeeded in his diabolical plot was that the king had many “feasts,” which involved a great deal of alcohol. In the book of Esther’s 168 verses, 10 “feasts” are described — called mishteh, which comes from the root “to drink.” On the surface, it would seem that King Ahasuarus was always in a drunken stupor (although he ruled an enormous kingdom for so many years that he must have been a stronger king than the text would have us believe). In this state of constantly feasting, partying and drinking, the king quickly and willingly agreed to let Haman wipe out an entire people – without even asking who he was annihilating.

It’s an odd holiday – yet a fun one. In synagogues around the world, when Jews read (hear) the book of Esther, every mention of the name “Haman” is greeted by thunderous noise from a variety of noise-makers, in an attempt to wipe out the villain’s name. In generations past, it was customary to write “Haman” in chalk on two rocks, and bang the rocks together when his name was read in order to literally erase it.

Jewish tradition teaches that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, who attacked the Children of Israel (Exodus 17) from behind when they were wandering in the desert, picking off the weakest of the tribe. The Torah therefore commands us (Deuteronomy 25:19) to “wipe out the memory of Amalek…do not forget.” Hence, we continue to erase the name of Haman, descendant of the hated Amalek.

If we were to fulfill the injunction of wiping out the memory of Amalek, then by definition we would forget it. But by fulfilling the commandment of “never forget,” we have failed to wipe out the memory. Without going into the rabbinical explanations of the oxymoron, suffice to say it is a religious conundrum. But it is where the excessive drinking comes into play.

On Purim we are commanded to drink until we “cannot differentiate between the righteous Mordechai and the evil Haman.” In my yeshiva days years ago, one of my rabbis (a self-described Ebenezer Scrooge of Purim) taught that since Jewish law would never instruct us to completely lose control like that, the way to observe the mitzvah is to drink a bit of booze and feel happy, then take a nap. A sleeping person does not differentiate between Mordechai and Haman.

This same “Rabbi Scrooge” said that too often people take the commandment literally and get so shit-faced drunk (my words, not his) that they have absolutely no control over themselves. And too often the consequences of their actions are devastating. Yesterday my daughter and I were treated to a couple of prime examples. One of the cases was harmless, but annoying as hell. A few guys in their 20s were singing at the top of their lungs on the light rail, and proclaiming loudly that being so wasted was a “kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of God’s name).

Fortunately my daughter had no trouble understanding that their behavior – supposedly under the guise of “religious observance” was in fact a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, and it disgusted her.

The second example could have been more deadly. An ambulance was trying to make its way down the very crowded downtown pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda St. Most people knew enough to get out of the way, but one sloshed jackass jumped in front and waved a blanket of some sort like a cape – and refused to let the ambulance pass. Finally a couple of guys pushed him out of the way and yelled at him. Had I been alone, I too would have shared a few choice words with him, but when you are with your kids you take extra precautions regarding human interactions. I didn’t even need to tell my daughter what was wrong with that guy – she volunteered some of her own thoughts about him.

I know that in the greater scheme of things, what we saw yesterday was pretty minor. I have seen worse, and Rabbi Scrooge gave several far more extreme examples as to why he is not a Purim fan.

But the principle remains the same. In a misguided (IMHO) attempt to reach a spiritual high, many folks lose sight of the holiday’s meaning. We are meant to celebrate the failure, downfall and execution of an enemy who was committed to destroying the Jewish people. An enemy who damn near succeeded thanks in part to what alcohol can do to an otherwise strong person’s (the king) judgment. Yet every year, people commemorate our salvation by making themselves as blind and uncaring as the king was throughout most of the Esther narrative.

In an effort to “wipe out the memory” of our enemies, these well-meaning fellow tribesmen in fact forget who they are, and how to treat themselves and those around them. By doing so, they become the very enemy that threatens us as a people.

I’m not as my rabbi so many years ago described himself. I really do love Purim. I love dressing up, usually as a play on words, and I love helping my kids come up with costumes. I love giving (and receiving) mishloach manot (food gift packages), and I love that one of the day’s mitzvot is to give gifts to the poor. I love the festive meal – when we imbibe and allow ourselves to enjoy life for a bit, and I love sharing that meal, alcohol-assisted jocularity and all, with friends and loved ones.

But we must remember and never forget (even when drunk) that being saved from genocide is never an excuse to hurt ourselves or each other.

I dream of enjoying our people’s holiest city on the day in which we celebrate our survival as a nation and our continued existence.

But for now, as I told my daughter last night when we were almost home, the next time I suggest going to Jerusalem for Shushan Purim, she is to fall back on her favorite expression – “Do ya think…?”

About the Author
Asher Zeiger grew up (well, sort of) in North Carolina and moved to Israel in 1988. He lives in Modi'in with his wife and two daughters, and works as freelance writer, editor and translator. In his spare time, he tries hard at not taking himself or life too seriously (successfully) and at unwrapping himself from around his daughters' little fingers (not so successfully).
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