Michael Kagan
Michael Kagan

The Unmasking of Purim

We all love Purim. Of all the festivals it is the one that elicits the most photographs of our children all dressed in their crazy, outrageous costumes. They’re so cute. Whenever my grown-up kids open the family albums (remember those?) it is the Purim snaps that create the most excitement; “remember when I dressed up as…?” Little Esthers, little Hamans, little Princess Leias; little Darth Vaders. This year I’m sure that we’re going to see many cute and beautiful Princess Ivankas and little Trumps (or is that an oxymoron?).

Purim is the festival that celebrates the latest cultural fads. Archeologists will one day be able to reconstruct anthropological behavior and cultural evolution by piecing together the remains of Purim customs and masks. From new-born babies to old Hasidim, we all revel in the celebration of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, of the good versus the bad, of the righteous versus the wicked, of the Semite versus the anti-Semite, of the God-fearing versus the godless. I mean, how many times before 1948 have we come out on top from being almost crushed, been victorious, seen our enemies scattered by our own hand? Chanukah and Purim. And Purim probably didn’t even happen!

There are many insights given to the inner meanings of Purim: the hidden (hesder/Esther) hand of God that moves behind the scenes revealing (l’galot/megillah) itself in mysteriously ways; synchronicity versus the illusion of coincidence (pur means lottery); the elevation of chaos as a spiritual practice to balance the seder (order) of Pesach; the insecurity of galut (exile) – a particularly relevant topic this year; the juxtaposition between Purim and Kippurim (Yom Kippur being ‘like’ Purim); Purim being a tikkun (remedy) for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Haman is hung on a tree, which tree? The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil); and on the psychological plane, Purim is the opportunity to act out hidden fantasies, to dress up, to wear a mask or unwear a mask, to be someone else, to come out, to be your true self.

But there’s one aspect of Purim that most catches my attention. A few years ago I saw a short animation posted on YouTube. It showed Haman as a Nazi parading up and down scheming how best to kill all the Jews in the known world – men women and children – all of them – finally. And there was Mordechai the righteous Jew, humble, God-fearing, refusing to bow down no matter what. And then…well, you know the rest of the story.

Something disturbed me about this message. Of course there was a certain level of humor in the storytelling and certainly there are parallels between Haman’s desire to annihilate all the Jews, the venomous propaganda that he spread, the lies that he told, the enthusiastic cooperation of the local populations in the fulfillment of his plan etc., to that of Nazi Germany in the 20th Century. A title for a Purim spiel could be ‘The Rise and Fall of The Two Hs’.

What disturbed me is that the Megilah does not introduce Haman as a raving maniac who rose to power on a far-right (read: alt-right) platform. It says:

After these things did King Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him. (Esther 3:1)

So what happened? What turned Haman into such a monster desiring to exterminate a whole people but ending up destroying himself and all his family? Such hatred is not born out of the blue. The seeds were there, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. What triggered their germination? We read:

And all the King’s servants, that were in the King’s gate, bowed down, and prostrated themselves before Haman; for the King had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him.

That’s it? One Jew refuses to bow down and that’s enough to tip Haman over the edge? The Megillah is very clear: third party provocateurs are stirring the pot by informing Haman, by whispering in his ear, that the one that refuses to bow down is a Jew, yes, a Jew. But what is this seed in the heart of Haman or, using different Biblical/Harry Potter imagery, the snake that had lain there dormant for so many centuries in the pit of his stomach? The traditional answer is Amalek! Haman is the descendent of Agag, and Agag was the king of the Amalekites spared by King Saul but eventually killed by Samuel the Prophet (1 Samuel chap 15). And Amalek, unprovoked, attacked Israel as they left Egypt (Exodus 17:8). Amalek is the root of all evil, the nemesis of Israel for all time.

I suggest a different reading – that of intergenerational revenge. I suggest that the Megillah satirically and deliberately sets up this drama by introducing Mordechai (which means: ‘servant of the Marduk’ – the Iranian god of war) as the son of Yair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite, and Haman as the son of Hammedatha the Agagite. Over the course of 500 years both sides – the descendants of Saul, the Benjamite and the descendants of Agag, the Amalekite have kept alive their stories, their narratives about the other. Saul lost his crown and eventually his family because of Agag. Agag lost his life and the lives of all his people because of Saul and his people. And why? Because 500 years previous, Amalek, that godless tribe of coincidence-believers, attacked Israel at the moment of their greatest joy and greatest vulnerability, that moment when they were finally free from slavery but defenseless with no Haganah to protect them.

And why did Amalek attack?

Regurgitating Amalek as the root of all evil doesn’t quite do it for me nor for our Sages, for they too are troubled by this long shelf-life phenomenon. There is an opinion that the primal cause was the midrashic rejection of Timna’s request for conversion 500 years earlier during the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. This rejection hurt, hurt deeply enough that her attraction turned to repulsion and she decided to combine with Esau as his concubine, and their offspring was none other than – yes, you guessed it – Amalek, a child born from hurt and revenge.

And perhaps it goes back even further, to the machinations of a dysfunctional family where mother loves one child and father loves the other; where both siblings experience rejection; where one lies and cheats and the other threatens to kill. In other words – the story starts at home. It’s all in the family.

And what is the cure to this malaise? How can we end these incessant cycles of hate where the other is accused of being Amalek? Purim! The celebration of Purim is the answer. Giving presents to our neighbors is an answer. Caring for the other is an answer. Rising above our judgmental selves to the point of ‘not knowing (ad sh’lo yada)’ by booze or other soon-to-be-legalized means, if necessary is an answer. By stopping to take ourselves so seriously and making fools of ourselves instead – that is an answer. By turning our accepted ways of seeing the world upside down (nafokhu). By admitting that we are also the other. By blotting out the name of Haman and remembering it afresh each year lest we forget what they did to us and what we did to them. By reuniting our families in forgiveness and gratitude. By fulfilling the command of the second letter sent out by Esther and Mordechai to spread “words of peace and truth”. By being in joy, holy joy. And finally by handing over our need for revenge to God (the Pesach Haggadah).

Happy Purim!

About the Author
Michael Kagan is the author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim), God’s Prayer (Albion-Andalus) and The King’s Messenger (Albion-Andalus Books). He is a scientist, entrepreneur, film-maker and teacher of Holistic Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.
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