Celebrating Purim with Eyes Wide Open
Elad Arnon, Director of Educational Programs
Purim is a happy holiday. There’s no doubt about that. The holiday traditions are based on a carnival of blurring identity and a loss of consciousness in the commandment to drink “until you do not know”. What are we celebrating on Purim? What is this festival about? The Book of Esther describes a great rescue from a holocaust that might have happened hundreds of years before the one that actually succeeded in Europe.
The terrible disaster did not take place; the opposite occurred. The Jews of the Persian Empire were saved, and the decree of annihilation was directed at their enemies. The idea of “opposite” or “upside down” is central to the holiday and the reason for the celebrations. Haman sought to destroy the Jews, but Esther convinced the king otherwise and the Jews, with the support of the king’s soldiers, did the same to their enemies.
One might say that this perspective ruins the holiday. Leave us and let us enjoy the day. Or one could make the persuasive claim that you may kill someone who seeks to kill you. That seems to be the story. Haman is descended from Amalek, the same remote people described in the Torah as a persecutor who waited at the edge of the desert for the Israelites, who followed Moses, the man of God, to the Promised Land. Amalek did all they could to hurt, loot, and destroy the Israelites. Hence the Biblical commandment to wipe out all memory of Amalek, men and women and children and even property. Extermination in order to erase all memory. What he tried to do to you, you will do to him.
Quite a few enemies rose up against the people of Israel to hurt, sabotage and try to erase their memory, including Pharaoh, Sisera, Haman, Antiochus, European Christianity during the Inquisition and the Crusades, the Islamic Jihad that accompanies us to this day, and the Holocaust, the worst of them all.
What does this history of destruction tell us about human nature? Are there evil people and righteous people? Is there such a thing as a nation that is all evil in its agreement to commitment genocide against a righteous people, stricken by fate and marked as the target of extermination? If we dare to descend from the margins of tradition and think critically, we will discover there are many more shades of gray.
Genocide is built on a social consensus that takes place between the top echelon of the regime and the people on the street. A system of propaganda moves it forward, incitement based on intimidation and terror, as if the people who are destined for destruction belong to a dangerous race plotting to destroy the others. In Pharaoh’s statement, “let us be wise about the people”, he believes there is a plot by the Hebrews against him. Haman is furious at the Jewish contempt for him. “There is a people among the nations that does not observe the king’s religion.” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion use historical events into a baseless and unfounded conspiracy.
Today there is Jewish sovereignty. The State of Israel has control over its own security and the legitimacy to use its power at any given moment if there is a threat to its citizens. In the event of an enemy uprising, the Jewish army would be able to fly even as far as Uganda to save its sons and daughters. A centuries-old celebration in the Persian Empire enables our security forces today to strike any terrorist or terrorist organization or Palestinian girl who wields a knife at our soldiers.
There is a real need for defense and there is joy in knowing that our sovereignty prevents pogroms, incitement and the destruction of the children of Israel. But the joy at someone else’s destruction and the expectation of wiping out the memory of the evil person – these prevent us from escaping the cycle of terror.
I do not want to turn the Purim celebrations into another day of national soul-searching; we have more than enough. And we also deserve to celebrate. Perhaps, though, instead of “the opposite”, we can focus on the joy of rescue. Instead of celebrating the hanging, let’s loudly rejoice at Esther’s wisdom at realizing that she can prevent the incitement against the Jews. Let’s educate our children to rejoice at our successes and to cease from celebrating the pain of others. Even if they hated Jews.
We should not celebrate anyone’s “erasure”. I suggest we celebrate the first part of the Book of Esther, just as we did when we were naïve children, and rejoice and dress up. And we should also accept that the second half of the book, which describes the Jews’ revenge against their enemies, should be read without celebration, with open eyes. As a sovereign people in our own country, we have the privilege of revisiting the tradition and rethinking it.