Rabbi Dev Noily and others on the Book of Esther
A note from Rabbi Lerner: We have been struggling internally about how to deal with the Jewish violence and revenge that is part of the Purim story. Should we boycott this holiday entirely? Is there a way to challenge its hurtful parts without discrediting the legitimate joy our people feels when it is saved from the intended violence against us? These are some of the issues raised in the articles below. They were dealt with beautifully at the Purim celebration held at Urban Adamah March 23, 2016, in Berkeley, in an intro to the last chapters of the Megillah of Esther where the acts of mass killings by Jews against our supposed enemies is recounted with nary a word of regret or sadness that we have at the Passover seder when we dip from the cup of joy when naming the plagues visited on the Egyptians–a symbolic way of saying that we cannot be fully happy when our own liberation comes at the expense of the suffering of others (in that case, including the death of the first born children of Egypt, few of whom had anything to do with the oppression of Israelite slaves). Rabbi Dev Noily presented this very moving introduction to those chapters that momentarily woke up those who had come to “just have fun” with a message that forced everyone to realize that we were talking about Jews involved in mass killing and that that, though it may never have happened as the Book of Esther might only be a novelistic fantasy and not an historical record of some specific historical event, has been used increasingly in the past years as a time to give support to the violence of the Occupation by Israel of the West Bank, under the (false) assumption that it is only that violence which keeps the Palestinian people from rising up and murdering us (a common fantasy that oppressors, slave owners, colonialists, segregationists, etc. use to justify their need to continue to keep their boot on the necks of those they have previously subjugated). So please read Rabbi Dev’s well crafted and valuable words, use them in your own celebrations, next year, but also please read the other essays and poems on this topic contained below.
Rabbi Dev Noily’s introduction to chapter 9 of the Book of Esther:
And now, my friends, here comes the part
that, if you have one, will break your heart.
Na’hafoch na’hafoch, it’s all reversed,
all turned around and gone berserk.
What’s good is bad what’s bad is good,
there’s bloodshed where the hero stood.
Our people are spared, no one kills any Jews
and that, of course, is very good news.
If only the story could stop right here,
we’d offer thanks, we’d raise a cheer!
We’d dance and sing and shout in glee,
we’d be just who we hoped we’d be.
The Jews of Shushan would fall to their knees
with gratitude to the Source of Being.
But no, my friends, we’ll have no such luck.
As the story unfolds, we think, What the F—???
For there is no G-d in the Book of Esther,
no One to thank, so the violence festers.
Na’hafoch na’hafoch, it’s all reversed
all turned around and gone berserk.
What’s good is bad what’s bad is good,
there’s bloodshed where the hero stood.
The Jews run amok, murdering Persians
in place of salvation, now there’s perversion.
Seventy- five thousand, five hundred and ten
were killed that day, by Jewish men.
So when we think, We Jews don’t murder
we better try to investigate further
The secret places deep in our hearts
where hatred lurks, and can tear us apart.
Na’hafoch na’hafoch, it’s all reversed
all turned around and gone berserk
What’s good is bad what’s bad is good,
there’s bloodshed where the hero stood.
And reflections on Purim from Rabbi Michael Lerner, Michael Kagan, and Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Michael Lerner:
Purim, celebrating the victory of Jews over those who sought to destroy us in ancient Persia, was a psychologically healthy occasion for an oppressed people to momentarily envision a world turned upside down, in which the hidden Jewess Queen Esther uses her access to King Ahashueras to stop the evil Haman from carrying out his intention to wipe out the Jewish people. Purim is celebrated this year the evening of March 23rd and all day March 24th.
But what happens when Jews are no longer the powerless, but the powerful, both in the U.S. and in Israel? Then the celebfration may have a different and less valuable meaning, as Jews, now ruling over several million Palestinians in the Middle East, and using our political power in the U.S. to block any UN resolutions challenging Israeli human rights violations and to get the US to give more money to Israel than it gives to any other country in the world, plus military and political cover as Israel continues its Occuaption. In this situation Jews use Purim to re-enact their powerlessness, thereby keeping ourselves from acknowledging that today we have become Haman to another people (as the Pew Research report last week revealed that 48% of Israellis favor expelling or “transferring” all Arabs out of Israel!!).
A right wing settler in the 1990s chose Purim to enter the Hebron mosque and murder 19 Muslims at prayer, seeing them as Amalek (the mythical forbear of Haman and every other Jew-hater including Hitler). And today as West Bank settlers continue to harrass Palestinians, steal their land, cut down their olive treess and trample their gardens, assault Palestinian children, and otherwise do all they can to make Palestinian life difficult, the celebration of Purim is often used as a moment for these Jewish rightwingers to celebrate their arrogance as though it were commanded by Jewish tradition.
The reading of the Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther) concludes with two chapters detailing how Jews managed to kill off our ancient enemies, and the seeming endorsement of violence and power over others seeps into the unconscious of many Jews, making our current activity of domination seem as though it is part of the Jewish tradition. Unable to recognize the difference between Hitler and his massive armed forces on the one hand, and the individual acts of desperation as a handful of Palestinians strike out against random Israelis (deplorable acts of terror that, thank heaven, kill far fewer Israelis than Israeli traffic accidents), Jews now identify Haman with Palestinian resistance to 50 years of brutal occupation. And while Jewish mystics may interpret the traditional command to get so drunk on Purim that one can no longer tell the difference between “blessed Mordecai and cursed Haman” as urging “transcendence of the limited categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ so that we can see the ultimate unity of all being,” there are many other Jews today who are resisting the celebration of Purim, seeing how the so-called transcendence of good and evil may actually just be an effective way for those who live lives of privilege to ignore the suffering that they are imposing on others, a mystical path to ehtical blindness that comforts the comfortable (rather than following A.J. Heschel’s view that the Jewish prophetic path today must be about challenging the comfortable till they wake up to what their system of inequality, materialism and selfishness is doing to others).
Others believe that Jews should continue to read the Book of Esther, but to stop at the point where it celebrates the destrtuction of our enemies and at that point to require that the people so assembled have a serious discussion about how to stop violence rather than to cheer it on. That almost never happens on Purim. And as for those who say, “hey, lighten up,” that too is the response of the people who live a life of privilege, the kind of people who respond to “Black Lives Matter” by saying “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding what it means to be Black in a racist society, and those who avoid what the Jewish people have been doing as we enter the 50th years of the Occupation of the West Bank. We welcome your responses–and stories of how you and your community have dealt with this set of issues. (And if you happen to live in the Bay Area, you are invited to a Shabbat celebration and discussion of these issues with Beyt Tikkun synagogue this Friday night, March 18–details at www.beyttikkun.org. It’s called Shabbat Zachor–the Shabbat in which we are asked to remember our history.)
One way that this issue has been dealt with is described below by Tikkun contributing editor Aryeh Cohen. It takes the occasion of Purim and its tradition of giivng gifts and directs it toward tikkun-ish activities to lighten the burden of those who are suffering in American society. But does this really deal with the pernicious elements of Purim mentioned above? It certainly is a positive reframing of what to do on Purim! Tell us what you think, and what you think our communities can and should do about Purim. But first read the reflections of Israeli spiritual teacher Michael Kagan and the description by Aryeh Cohen of how his community celebrates Purim.
Michael Kagean’s article below helps us remember the Torah’s clear and powerful injunction: “Thou shalt not take revenge.” How does it fit into the Torah command to “Wipe out the memory of Amalek” that is read on the Sabbath before Purim? I read this command in a different way: We should re-understand “wiping out the memory” of what the evil people have done to us in the past means: Dont let the evil done to you remain a guiding principle in your consciousness–wipe out that memory, don’t let it dominate your consciousness, so that you can overcome the human tendency to seek revenge, so that instead you can embody a new logic of “love the stranger.” That is what we should be remembering on Shabbat Zachor. In the past in Tikkun magazine we’ve had articles by progressive Christians making a similar argument for downplaying “Good Friday” and the whole story of the crucifixion of Jesus, suggesting instead that it is not Jesus’ death but his life and teachings that should be the center of Christianity, not the cross. Jews are just beginning to think along similar lines about the way the focus on past suffering may have a distorting impact, undermining our ability to remain faithful to the hopeful and love-oriented message of the Jewish prophetic tradition. What do you think? –Rabbi Michael Lerner RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org
Revenge–the Unconscious Subtext of the Scroll of Purim
by Michael Kagan, Jerusalem
What you’re about to read does not make pleasant reading. It defies the usual acceptance of Purim as the forces of good overcoming the forces of evil, of us against them, of the imminent destruction of the innocent by the wicked. It may appear that what I am about to describe comes from a desire to ruin the Purim spirit in a similar way that post-modern accounts of the Zionist endeavor have undermined the stories that we have grown up with. But my exploration is motivated by three simple questions that arose while listening to the recitation of the Megillah; questions that I had never asked before; questions that arise from thep’shat (literal) meaning of the text; questions that do not rely on imaginative midrash to answer; questions that bother me.
Here they are:
- Why does Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman?
- Why does Haman consequently decide to annihilate the entire Jewish people?
- Why in the final chapter does it emphasize the imposition of taxes?
Simple questions that cut to the heart of the story, questions to which we intuitively know the answers, that come in our mother’s milk (or kindergarten’s milk).
So why did Mordechai not bow down and thereby risk the lives of all his people, men, women, children? Because Jews don’t bow down – to anyone? Because we are a stiff-kneed people who do not like to kneel even on Yom Kippur? But the halacha is very clear: it is permissible, even obligatory, to kneel in front of a king, out of respect and out of concern for the welfare of the people. So what’s going on here? That this is a good, problematic question we know by the fantastical answers that the classical commentators have thought up. For instance: because Haman wore a cloak covered with images of idols and Jews must not, on pain of death, bow to an idol. Could be, but that’s not the direction I wish to pursue.
So what happened?
Before trying to answer this question let’s turn to the second question. What was it that incensed Haman to the point of genocide? The refusal of one man to kneel before him? Isn’t that a bit of an exaggerated response? Note that Haman did not at first even notice that Mordechai remained upright: Now it came to pass, when they (the king’s servants) spoke daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordechai’s words would stand; for he had told them that he was a Jew (3:4).
Was Haman a rabid anti-Semite waiting for the opportunity and now that he was in power he could carry out his desire to rid the world of the Jewish scum? Doesn’t look like it from the story. Was it Mordechai’s refusal to bow before him that set things in motion, that released the innate wickedness of this man towards an innocent people? Clearly Mordechia’s refusal triggered something but I want to suggest another answer.
When Mordechai is introduced into the story it is as: There was a certain Jew in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai the son of Yair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite (2:5). When Haman is introduced it is as: After these things did King Ahashverus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite …(3:1). When Haman hears that someone is not bowing down to him he could have simply ordered his death. That would have been justified according to the law of the land where everyone has to bow to the king or his viceroy. And that’s what he would have done until he heard that this man was not just any man but a Jew. And not just any Jew but a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, of the family of Kish.
My midrash says:
When Haman heard this he began to tremble a great tremble and fell to his knees, lifted up his hands to heaven and cried out: “Thank you, O mighty god, thank you. For now I understand my destiny. It is not by chance that I have been raised to this high and exalted position. It is not for my sake that I am here but it is for the sake of my people. For I am to be their avenger.”
To what is he referring? To the genocide of his people, the Amalekites, of whom Agag was the last king, by King Saul way back when (1 Samuel 15: 1-34). And who was this Saul? Now there was a man of Benjamin, whose name was Kish, … the son of a Benjamite, a mighty man of valor. And he had a son, whose name was Saul, young and goodly… (1 Samuel 9:1-2). In other words, Haman suddenly realizes that this very man, the man who refuses to bow down to him, is of the same people, the same tribe, the same family as the man responsible for slaughtering every man, woman, and child of his people approximately 500 years earlier. Now is the time for revenge. It is not enough just to kill Mordechai, revenge demands quid pro quo, an eye for an eye, a people for a people. So Haman begins to plot for the destruction of the entire Jewish people – man, woman and child. A rightful (sic and sick) act of revenge.
Now let’s go back 500 years or so to a village of the Amalekites. Imagine a woman, say with a little baby, who is warned that the army of the Israelites is approaching. She asks what that has to do with her since soldiers fight wars. She is told that this time it will be different, this time the army of the Israelites is coming to destroy them all. And the woman cried out and said: “But I am innocent and so is my baby. What have we done that is deserving of this punishment?” And this woman cried out to her people and said: “Let us fast for three days. Let us wear sackcloth. Let us pray to our god for mercy and deliverance.” And they did. But it didn’t help and they were slaughtered, every one of them, except the king – Agag.
And if you were to ask a soldier in that Israelite army why he was going to war against this people, he might have answered thus: “Revenge. Revenge for what they did to us when we came out of Egypt 500 years ago. The ancestors of this very same people randomly attacked us in the desert when we came out of slavery. They killed our old people, our weak people, the ones left unguarded, the ones at the back. We remember and never forget.”
Now let’s go back a further 500 years and ask a warrior in the Amalek forces that attacked the Children of Israel in the desert, why he did it? Why did he fall upon these innocent people who had suffered so badly at the hands of the Egyptians, had come out into freedom, had done him no harm? Why? And you might have received the answer: “Revenge!” Revenge? What for? “Revenge for what your ancestor Jacob did to our ancestor Esav about 500 years previous when he cheated and lied and stole the blessing from our common father Isaac. That’s why.”
And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek (Gen 36:12).
Or, alternatively, there’s the answer that the midrash brings to the same dilemma:
Timna was a royal princess. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of the other nation.” From her Amalek descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)
And so it goes on and on and on.
And so Haman plots his revenge against the people that he hates, the same people that he heard talked about as a small child, the same hateful people that killed his people.
But to carry out such a plot he needs permission from the king. This he easily obtains with the promise that his coffers will overflow with the bounty accrued from the dead Jews.
Now back to question No. 1. Why did Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman? Not because Jews don’t bow down, but because Jews do not bow down to their mortal enemies, the descendants of Agag, the king the Amalekites.
And we all know what happened: A daughter of Israel who ‘happened’ to become queen called upon her people to fast for three days, to wear sackcloth and to pray to God for mercy and deliverance. And lo and behold it worked. Miracle of miracles they were saved. [And there are some who say that in the battle the Jews also avenged themselves, as it is said: And the other Jews that were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand–but on the spoil they laid not their hand(9:16).]
So there we have it – intergenerational revenge, perpetuation of hate. And it continues right now, right here. By this I don’t mean that the people of Amalek is still around, I mean that we are caught, still in our generation, in cycles of violence, revenge and hate, and I cannot see the way out.
Ironically the events that engulfed our people in the 20thcentury by an enemy that wished to wipe us out from off the face of the earth was not met with revenge. True, the fledging Mossad hunted down Nazis directly responsible for mass murder but no call was made and no call carried out for revenge against the entire German people, man, woman and child. Perhaps we will have to wait for the 500 year cycle to come round before that happens (God forbid). So if the Germans do not deserve the fury of our revenge, and the Torah forbids revenge, and the Psalms call upon us to leave revenge to Godly justice (O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forthPsalm 94:1) how are we going to stop the bloodshed and suffering that is taking place around us? Perhaps it’s time for Nahafochu – turn things around and break out of the traditional victim/victimizer patterns. How to do that? By stepping down from self-righteousness, by taking responsibility, by seeing the pain and distress of the other, by giving to the poor with open hearts. Do not misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that we should cease celebrating Purim, for we are commanded to celebrate salvation, for it is natural to celebrate redemption, but I am suggesting that remembering the bigger picture should sober us up a bit.
And finally the third question. Why in the tenth and final chapter, a chapter consisting of only three verses, is there mention of a tax that the king imposed on his subjects when the fighting was over? Because, I suggest, after the appointment of Mordechai as viceroy to the king in place of Haman, he gave the king some very wise, Jewish advise: you don’t have to go to war in order to fill the royal coffers – just impose a tax, it’s more efficient and less bloody.
by: Aryeh Cohen on March 6th, 2015 | Comments Off
Yesterday, Purim, at noon, three of us from the Shtibl minyan went to fulfill the orphaned child of the Purim obligations. Starting in the year Shtibl was established (15 years ago) we decided, as a community, that we would put as much effort into matanot la-evyonim/ gifting to the poor as we poured into mishloach manot/exchanging gifts, hearing the megillah, and having a raucous Purim meal. We started with PB&J sandwiches delivered out of a van driving east on Pico Blvd., and gradually built out (with inspiration from The Giving Spirit), making mini-survival packs (tuna packs, energy bars, first aid kits, antibiotic lotion, hand cream and so on) to go with the PB&J. This year in our small community (20-30 members) we put together 144 packs which were delivered on the Santa Monic boardwalk (“home of the homeless” to quote Harry Shearer) and on Skid Row. Three adults and eight kids went west to the boardwalk, while we drove east to skid row.
Los Angeles’ Skid Row (called “the Row” by activists and people who live there) is more or less a 54 square block area of downtown Los Angeles. It is not an official designation, although Waze, the GPS navigation app, told us exactly how to get there when we typed in “skid row.” There are somewhere between 2500 and 5000 homeless people living on the Row, according to counts by the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority and estimates of the Chamber of Commerce. Still, knowing those numbers (I wrote about LA’s homeless population in my book Justice in the City) does not prepare one for the human reality.
As soon as we crossed East Seventh Street, driving north on San Pedro (not far from where a homeless man had been shot by an LAPD officerat the beginning of the week) we started seeing the encampments along the sidewalks. Makeshift tents, actual tents, blankets, people sitting on overturned plastic buckets or on the sidewalk, people leaning against a wall or a chain-link fence. We stopped our van in front of one of the encampments and asked if people could use the food, water, and other stuff we had brought. There was an immediate response and in under ten minutes we distributed at that site the eighty bags we had brought with us. People came from down the block and across the street, some folks making sure that others also got bags. We chatted a bit and pulled away.
This was one encampment. There were one or two such sites on every street. The three of us in the car were shocked and depressed. We should be shocked and depressed. We were trying to drain an ocean with a spoon.
This was, however, ritual. We had no thought that we were going to solve the homeless problem – or any single homeless person’s problem – by delivering survival kits on the street. Hopefully, the stuff we delivered would help people out for a day or two, make their lives a little more livable today. The ritual serves to remind one of the enormity of the problem – of the scandal that in one of the wealthiest cities in the world there are more than 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles. The ritual act of including the homeless in our community by delivering survival kits to them must serve as a goad to political action.
Each year synagogues across the country (and the Jews in those synagogues) expend time and effort producing professional grade spiels, and sending out artisanal, themed mishloach manot. All this is fine and well. What if all these folks took up matanot laevyonim as an equally important mitzvah? Not merely by donating money to a third party organization, but putting together kits, finding out where homeless people live, and distributing the kits on Purim? It is not such a daunting task – but it is one which has an immediate (though slight) impact, and also serves as a rude awakening to the enormity of the problem.
If more communities participated in this type of action, then there might be more indignation and resistance when local governments attempt to legislate against eating, or resting in public – or even feeding people in public. Beyond this, it might shock people into trying to work for solutions to the problem itself. This is not a problem without a solution. Utah, for example,has realized that the solution to homelessness is giving homeless people houses. Who would have thought?
Most importantly, any action which knocks us out of our self-sustaining bubble of comfort is good. Any day on which we question our own privilege, the serendipity of the forces that brought us to this zip code, is a good day.
May we be blessed with many good days.
Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, and Contributing Editor to Tikkun Magazine, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.