Purim is hard. The way we usually deal with that is by making it into a children’s holiday and then a frat party for the adults. That way we don’t have to deal with the Purim story and its implications.
If we don’t want to go the children’s party/frat party route there are two adult choices.
On the one hand, the Purim story itself is a dark tale of dubious redemption. As the story ends, Mordecai and Esther have gained the upper hand and slaughtered all their enemies. However, they have only done this at the pleasure of the manipulative and manipulated King Aheuserus. While at the beginning of the story the king gave his ring to Haman with permission to wipe out the Jews, the story ends with the king giving the ring to Mordecai and Esther with permission to wipe out those who might harm the Jews. The rub is that the ring still belongs to the king. It is obvious that sometime in the not too distant future, a new Haman will arise who will seek to destroy the Jews and the king will give him the ring.
The rabbis of the Talmud characterized the Purim story as happening just after the Jews were supposed to be redeemed. Purim is the reckoning with the lack of redemption. For this reason the fourth century Babylonian Rabbi Rava says that one of the obligations of Purim is to get drunk to the point of being unable to distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. In the long arc of history there is no difference as long as Ahaseurus is in charge. We all dance to the same fiddler. We are all caught up in the same system of oppression.
The other choice is found in a little remarked comment in tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud. Sometimes there is a comment which offers a blinding insight after which you are never able to see the same way again. In Tractate Sanhedrin, a list of the worst enemies of the Jewish people is cited (those who destroyed both Temples, those who exiled the people and killed them, and so on). In the middle of the list we find this: “Haman’s descendants taught Torah in Bnei Brak.” In order to understand this statement we have to know that Bnei Brak was one of the main centers of Torah study in Palestine. So teaching Torah in Bnei Brak is being in the heart of the heart of the rabbinic enterprise. We also have to know that Haman was descended from Agag, the king of Amalek. There is a biblical command to destroy Amalek, to literally blot the nation of Amalek from the face of the planet because they attacked the Israelites when they were in a weakened state as they were leaving Egypt (Deut. 25:17-19). So rather than being physically destroyed, according to this rabbinic text, the descendants of Haman were teaching Torah at one of the most important centers for rabbinic learning. How are we to resolve this paradox?
There is a hasidic teaching which says that Haman’s descendants’ teaching Torah in Bnei Brak is the fulfillment of mehiyat Amalek, wiping out Amalek. Sit with that. At some point, rather than killing them, some visionary brought Haman’s children into the bet midrash, the study hall to learn Torah. What was he thinking? Well, perhaps he was thinking that if these haters were able to be in proximity with the object of their hate, and they were given access to the treasures of Jewish culture, then, maybe, they wouldn’t hate anymore. The ideology of Amalek—attacking those who are different (Esther 3:8), those who are weak and marginalized (Deut. 25:18)—would be blotted out because it could be replaced with an ideology of welcome and love. This changes the system. This gives us hope that there is no next scene in which the king gives the ring to Haman—because Haman has been welcomed and is teaching Torah.
In the fierce urgency of now; in this moment of growing antisemitism and racism and xenophobia; it is our urgent task to undo the system and not try to patch it by gaining favor with the powerful. We must be in proximity with other impacted communities, and, yes, also with the haters. However, first we must recognize the system for what it is. The system of white supremacy, the ideology which claims that whites are, and deserve to be, superior to other people, is the cause of myriad evils. Jews are perhaps the main demons of the white supremacy conspiracy theory, since we are seen to be manipulating people of color to replace Europeans (“Jews will not replace us”). Therefore anitsemitism and other forms of racism often sound very different.
The way we defeat white supremacy is first, to be in proximity with other impacted communities. To, in essence, welcome them into our bet midrash/study hall, and go to their batei midrash/study halls. We are each others’ allies in this struggle.
After that, we must also bring the haters, the antisemites and the racists into the bet midrash and wipe out their ideology—”this is the blotting out of Amalek.” I want to be very clear that this second stage can only come once we have secured our primary alliances. However, it must happen.
The rituals of Purim do what rituals do. They perform a possible future. The four rituals are 1. Reading the megillah (the Esther Scroll), 2. Giving gifts to the poor, 3. Giving gifts to our friends, 4. Having a Purim feast.
Giving gifts to the poor brings us outside of our comfort zone and into proximity with the most marginalized populations. (My community usually goes down to Skid Row.) This is not a delusional effort to say that “we are helping the poor/solving the problem of poverty.” This is a reminder that the poor, the homeless, are part of our community and with the scope of our responsibility.
Giving gifts to our friends is a way to reinforce our organizing. This is us. We are all committed to this together. Finally, we have a feast. We create community. We celebrate. We are joyous warriors who are armed with Torah, love, welcome and copious amounts of alchohol. In this moment of transcendence we can say that a different world is possible. Hopefully, it is that moment that we take with us to the streets on the days after Purim.
Yasher ko’ach & wishing you a “yom ke-purim.”
Baruch tihyeh, and thank you!
“Jews are perhaps the main demons of the white supremacy conspiracy theory, since we are seen to be manipulating people of color to replace Europeans (“Jews will not replace us”). Therefore anitsemitism and other forms of racism often sound very different.”
Excellent connection to make.
Thank you Rabbi Aryeh for writing this thoughtful and profound piece.
I led two Purim programs today in my job as Jewish chaplain at a psychiatric hospital. These are patients of many backgrounds and cognitive levels, with the common trait of interest in learning about Judaism.
After we ran through a very simplified shpiel version of the Book of Esther and were eating our cookies, I asked them what lessons can be learned from the story.
One said — that Hashem is behind everything — in the plot against the Jews just as much as in the rescuing of them.
Several said — don’t give up. Persevere. Life is full of scariness, but we can find ways to turn it around and be grateful, even to laugh.
And then one said — that it was to be welcoming of all types of people. I asked where he found that, and he said it was in the king’s response to learning about the plot against the Jews. The king felt kindly enough toward his new wife and her uncle that he was willing to expand that feeling toward all of their community, and want to save them.
This came to mind for me in reading this essay. We overcome our prejudices and isolationism when we get to know people.
Chag sameach, Aryeh
Thank you for sharing this Aviva!
You said above that “[t]here is a hasidic teaching which says that Haman’s descendants’ teaching Torah in Bnei Brak is the fulfillment of mehiyat Amalek, wiping out Amalek.” It seems like a really interesting teaching. Do you happen to know the source where I could find this teaching?