March 2019, Purim

Dear friends,

A few weeks ago I was asked by my son’s kinder teacher to talk to his class about Purim. Shamefully, I realised that my hesitations with this festival would not translate very well to the minds of a three-year-olds and instead proceeded to sing mishe mishe and Chag Purim to their great delight.

I think it’s important for me to explain why I have had some issues reconciling parts of this festival and also the realisations I have come to just this week following the tragic events in Christchurch and responses to it.

Purim is a Jewish festival that requires nothing but gifts, food, drink, and party. How could I be ambivalent? I hear voices screaming out. I say that I am shamefully ambivalent because as some people know, I am not averse to a good party.

Let me ask the question – what is the reason we celebrate? There was a baddy named Haman who wanted us all dead because Mordechai, the Jew, wouldn’t bow down to him. He nearly pulled it off because the Persian king had his mind entirely focussed on sex, drugs, and rock n roll. The favourite Jewish Queen Esther, who initially was going to sit idly by, comes along and saves the day. Instead of a Jewish holocaust, the enemies of the Jews were wiped out. Haman and his ten sons were hanged, and the fear of Jews befell the rest of the population some, in fact, converting or at least becoming Judaphiles, depending on one’s interpretation of the word ‘mityahadim’ found in the Megillah.

How any of this has to do with dressing up, please don’t ask because I’ve never heard an explanation I’m comfortable with. But there are deeper issues too. The misogyny of the times is apparent in every detail of the story. Right at the start Queen Vashti ignores her husband’s drunken demand for entertainment which she pays for with her life, with the explicit rationale to teach every woman to be subservient and allow every husband to reign supreme in the home.

To cheer up the spoilt and hungover king, every beautiful woman in the empire was collected and objectified in the hope Achashverosh might fall in love with her over all the others, in some sort of mix between the Bachelor and Married at First Sight Persian style circa 500BCE. Esther was, of course, the most beautiful and she was, in due course, added to his harem.

Then, Mordechai overhears a plot to assassinate the king. He dobs them in and they are instead killed. Now with a king like Achashverosh, perhaps his removal is not such a bad thing. At any rate, it is hard to see the heroic nature in Mordechai.

Enter Haman. Clearly the narcissist with very low self-esteem who needs everyone to bow down to him at all times. At any rate, Mordechai refuses. Yet again, not clear his heroism there.

Haman proceeds to hatch his plan of destroying all Jews because of Mordechai. Esther initially put her head in the sand until coaxed into action by Mordechai. She ends up cooking a whole lot of meals and using her beauty, her charm, and cunning, to denounce Haman to Achashverosh. All the negative female stereotypes in one serving. And it works. Haman and his associates are killed. Jew-haters are purged and this is why we celebrate Purim.

Hopefully, by now my ambivalence is somewhat explained.

But the truth about Purim is beyond what I’ve outlined just now. Purim is a festival with the most profound teaching which resonates today most traumatically. Cutting through all the above nonsense we need only pay attention to Haman’s winning argument to Achashverosh as to why he should make law Haman’s genocidal ambitions. ‘There is a certain people, scattered amongst all the nations yet distinct to them all. Their religion is different to everyone else. They don’t respect the laws and values of the land, and the king has no value in their preservation.’

The fact is, Haman’s observations were almost entirely true. The Jews were scattered, distinct, unique, and a minority whose extinction would bear little consequence should Achashverosh decide to kill them. But he insidiously inserts a line which is the most evocative and the rallying cry of all who follow in his footsteps. ‘They don’t respect the laws and norms of the land’. Haman confused his egotistical need for everyone to bow down to him with the values and laws of the Persian Empire.

Only last week in Christchurch we saw the most tragic manifestation of Haman’s logic. Muslims, like Jews, are a people scattered amongst the nations of the world, yet distinct. Their religion is indeed very different – just like ours. And, since they are a scattered minority, their preservation, like ours, can be easily overlooked. This is, in fact, why we now know that investment by our intelligence agencies have been focussed entirely on them as a threat and not on threats to them, though they have been sounding the alarm for years.

And, like Haman’s argument, the argument against Muslims is that they don’t respect Australia / New Zealand and Western values. To be sure, there are those who are Muslims who don’t. One might even go on to say that there are a lot of them. ISIS, Syrian regime, Hezbollah, and plenty of others. But there are 1.6 billion Muslims and those groups do not reflect the whole! Besides, the people who have sought refuge amongst us are running away from those very sources of evil.

The message of Purim is about the eradication of narrow-minded self-glorifying bigotry. In the same way that the Jews who didn’t bow to Haman were not enemies of the state, those amongst us who bow five times a day are not enemies of the values we hold so dear.

Perhaps this is why we do get dressed up. To show that dress, routines, religion, and skin colour are external facts about us and underneath we are all feeling human beings, capable and deserving of love and respect.

With hope and prayer that Purim can shed light onto the inner workings of bigotry and that from this great tragedy a spiritual awakening will take hold on us all in which we realise that despite our differences, we are all the same.

Purim Sameach,
Rabbi Shneur