Purim is serious

In a few weeks — on the evening of March 23 — we will observe Purim.

We’ll read the Book of Esther, whose length gave us the phrase “die gantze Megillah.” There are some comical elements in the story, but mostly it is a story of Jewish vulnerability and the potential for genocide that vulnerability promotes. Haman, the Persian Hitler, threw lots to find the best moment in the calendar to exterminate the Jewish people. The good news in the story is that the date he picked went topsy-turvy on him. The Jewish people were saved and he and his household were executed. But, as the rabbis tell us, even when the Jews of Persia were spared they remained slaves of Achashverosh, a fool of a king who had something Jews could possess only at his whim: Power.

When a nation has no real power of any kind, it can claim clean hands and high morality. It cannot be held responsible for the evil it cannot create or control. But it also has no dignity. The Jewish experience for centuries was one in which every pogrom let every Jewish man know that his life could be forfeit at any time and let every Jewish woman know that her human dignity could be compromised if some pogromchik wanted her.

Today, thank God, Jews have real political and military power. Too often we forget to what extent Jewish dignity has been restored by having a state. Too often misguided Jews, many of whom were not born when the State of Israel came into existence, fail to consider how exposed to the whims of a racist demagogue with political power they would be if there were no Israel. And unfortunately, too many abet that possibility through their ignorance of history and a moral perfectionism that only people with a lack of understanding of the unpleasant and complex workings of the real world possess.

Thank God, we are not slaves of Achashverosh anymore. This means we are free to use power of a kind Jews have not had since the time of David and Solomon. Having that power, however, tests our Jewish values. Do we use our power in consonance with our values, or do we use it as if we were a nation like all other nations? Given our collective historical experience at those nations’ hands, we should think twice and three times about emulating them.

Related to this issue of the use of Jewish power, our sages dictate a strange behavior. On Purim, they ordain that we should drink to such a degree that we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai, the saintly Jewish hero of the Purim story, and Haman, the malevolent genocidal monster. It is a strange demand from our rabbis, whose interest in good and discerning behavior is a defining characteristic.

But this rabbinic directive is not as strange as it seems. Rather, Purim is the day on which we are asked not to be so sure that we are wholly the Mordechais we like to think we are, but also to confront the possibility that we might be Hamans as well.

When we leave Purim’s stupor behind, having confronted our capability to be agents of good and evil behavior, we have a chance at actualizing our goodness and restraining our evil. Lacking that self-knowledge opens us to the possibility of not even knowing that what we might be doing is beyond the pale of the morally acceptable.

Herein lies a special challenge to our Jewish nation-state. Will it forfeit its dignity by using the power it now possesses without a moral compass? As a state that represents so many who have been history’s victims, will it now do what so many victims do: identify with their victimizers and mimic them?

And what of us? We are the most privileged Jewish community in history. Will we use the privileges we possess wisely, for the preservation of our heritage, or will we, like the Persian Jews of the Purim story, throw our countercultural viewpoint to the wind in order to fit in? Will we choose to speak the right and just and actually do it, as authentic Judaism demands? Or will we stand mute before the culture of anger that has shown us the ugly underbelly of racism and jingoism that still subtly and not so subtly informs many Americans’ thinking?

There is a Yiddish ditty about Purim. Its opening words are, “Haint iz Purim, morgen iz ois” — “Today is Purim. Tomorrow it’s gone.” Purim is fleeting. Tomorrow is our steady reality. When tomorrow comes and we look soberly at ourselves, who will we decide to be as individuals, as a collective, and as a nation? Free, proud, and powerful Jews, or those who cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman?

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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