Purim: by telling ourselves stories we can open up a world of choices, or “is it bashert or is it what I do”

The book of Esther, the foundational text for the minor post biblical festival of Purim, is riddled with ambiguities and ambivalences, allusions and opacities, and we are uncomfortably aware that the text is a constant tease of hidden and revealed, covered and discovered, secret and known. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from a Hebrew root that means concealment. Yet Esther is also related to the word for a star, which shines brightly under the right conditions.

The themes of concealment and revelation are constantly played with – God is never mentioned in the book, yet clearly God is at work here – and there are many other examples. Mordechai overhears a plot to kill the king from his hidden place and brings it to official attention;  Esther is constrained in the harem yet is able to influence the royal policy;  Vashti chooses to remain enclosed when ordered to reveal her beauty in public; , Mordechai’s act is recorded at the time but not revealed and rewarded till much later, the almost playful peek-a-boo of now you see it now you don’t is a thread that runs through the story,  our peripheral vision catching it momentarily as it disappears when we try to look straight at it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary “now you see it now you don’t” moment is in the interchange between Mordechai and Esther, carried on through the medium of Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs. Mordechai sends word of everything that has happened with regard to the decree against the Jews, and tells Esther she must go to the king to make supplications on behalf of her people. Esther’s response via Hatach is that everyone knows that to approach the king in the innermost (hidden) courtyard without being invited is to risk certain death, and she has not been called to the king in thirty days.

We are right at the centre of the book – almost exactly at the centre in terms of the number of verses – as Mordechai answer’s Esther’s anxious justification for her inability to help. His answer is three fold. First he reminds her that she will not be safe either, even though she is in the harem. Secondly he tells her that the Jewish people will not be destroyed as help will most certainly come from another source if she continues to be inactive, and finally he asks a rhetorical question of her – could it be that this moment is the moment of destiny her life has been leading up to?

“Then Mordecai asked them to return his answer to Esther: ‘ Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13-14)

It is an extraordinary speech and it raises many questions for us too. The first is a reminder that should we try to keep our heads down and not resist injustice on the grounds that we may survive a toxic political climate by keeping our presence shadowy and not attracting attention to ourselves is a folly and a false position. One need only think of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller castigating the German intellectuals for their silence in the face of rising Nazi power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Or the quotation famously attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing”, reframed by Albert Einstein as “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

The second assertion is a classical theological position that God will never abandon the Jewish people, even though at times it may appear that God is silent, uncaring, absent, or even chas v’chalila apparently allowing Jewish suffering at this time for some particular purpose. This is a deeply problematic area in theology, not least because of the deep suffering during the Shoah, and while the idea of ‘hester panim, the face of God is concealed from us”  may be rooted in the words of such books as the prophet Isaiah, so that the act of God concealing God’s face is understood as a way of God punishing disobedient subjects, by far the prevailing Jewish sentiment is that of Job:  God may appear to be distant and God’s face hidden from us, but as Martin Buber writes, “a hiding God is also a God who can be found”.

So while the Jews were facing a terrible crisis throughout the empire, Mordechai knew and asserted that relief would come, that God would turn towards them and help them, that even if Esther failed to deliver the liberation, the Jewish people would still prevail.  “Relief and deliverance will arise from a different place”.

The third statement is probably the most challenging for us, the question Mordechai asks Esther “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” This is a formulation of the idea of having a destiny, a preordained role in life, something which can be found in expressions of folk religions, but which comes dangerously close to encroaching on our freedom of will, freedom of choice.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” reminding us of our absolute freedom of will and our own absolute responsibility for our actions. We are entirely free to make our own choices, God has no power over this.

So Mordechai questioning Esther with the veiled suggestion that her destiny has led her to be in such a position, able to make a difference to the experience of the Jewish people, is problematic and in need of our attention. Can she have been destined for this moment?

Many of us like to think that there is a plan in the world, that the universe is not random and our existence in it not merely incidental and accidental.  We like to locate ourselves in something that has meaning; we like to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our life and our choices.

Judaism is predicated on the freedom of will, but still our narratives contain hints of ways to try to understand the mind of God. Decision-making involving the casting of lots (goralim) is mentioned 77 times in the biblical narrative:- in the story of the scapegoat, in the allocation of tribal territories  once the people enter the land of Israel, described both before in the book of Numbers and after in the book of Joshua. Lots are cast in the books of Chronicles to divide the priestly work, in Jonah to decide who is responsible for God sending the storm, and are mentioned in both Psalms and Proverbs as well of course of the famous ‘purim’ cast in the book of Esther to decide a favourable date.  One might also argue that the Urim and Thumim found in the breastplate of the High Priest in the book of Exodus were artefacts of divination to understand the will of God (Exodus 28:30), though they did not always seem to give a certainty, as King Saul found (Sam 28:6) and their use seems to have ended by the early days of the monarchy and the advent of the prophetic tradition.

One of the things that makes us human is our need for storytelling. We are generally uncomfortable with an entirely random context, with the idea that only arbitrary luck brought us into being, of there being no framework of meaning supporting our existence. So we tell ourselves stories to support our choices and those stories in turn become our inner dialogue and shape what we think is possible or justifiable.

Whether we frame our stories in quasi-religious or in historical or political language, we hold these narratives dear because they explain us to ourselves.  In the words of the less than conventionally religious Jewish thinker Karl Marx “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”

We make our choices in life, but these choices are shaped by our context, by how we understand ourselves and our history and how we got to be in the place we are. Whether it is because we believe in something to be ‘bashert’ – (our destiny somehow gifted from God), or whether we consider that the decision making is ours alone, we still tell stories around how we come to our choices, we allow our internal narratives to shape us, to help form what we think and to give us the courage to act. Whether because we believe God is guiding us or we believe that history and context have privileged us;  whether we can tell ourselves it will all be alright because somewhere there is a plan, or we can tell ourselves that if we fail it is because of the randomness of luck, each of us holds to the thread of meaning we tell ourselves is our truth.

One of the questions that arises from Mordechai’s question to Esther is one we  might sometimes ask of ourselves. “Do we feel that our lives have been organised to bring us to a moment of critical action or decision making?”  And if so, what are the things we feel ourselves put on the earth to do? Or maybe to change the perspective slightly – do we feel, looking back on our lives so far, that our existence has impacted positively on the world around us in any way, that we have done things of which we are proud, that are something uniquely ours to have achieved?

Mordechai tells Esther that her not acting will not save her, nor will her inaction change the thrust of history into the future – the Jews will be saved by some means or other, and he introduces to her then that the choice of whether she acts or does not act is in the context of a story she can tell herself – that maybe God has put her in this place where she can risk a meeting with the King in order to try to save her people. This is a powerful pivot in the story that speaks also to us. Our choices cannot be made on the basis of trying to survive a hostile power by keeping a low profile. We need to make choices actively, and there will be consequences that are contingent on our choices. Knowing that, what is important is the story we tell ourselves to confirm or justify the choices we make.

What are the stories that we tell ourselves? The narrative of Jewish persecution and survival is a strong one in our tradition, embodied in many of our festivals with the rather tongue in cheek “they tried to kill us off, they failed, let’s eat”.  Yet alongside this celebration is the remembrance of the  pain and the fear of our history – we look around us to see from where an attack may come, worry about our own likely responses.  We see ourselves as modern, western, education, integrated citizens of our countries, at the same time as identifying with an ancient and particular tradition that encourages a different set of perspectives.  We understand that history rolls on, that our actions may affect its particular course but not its ultimate progression. Our internal story telling may give us the courage to act in a particular way, it may allow us to justify ex post facto the choices we made and our actions or inactions, our beliefs shape how we see the world and help us to imagine a different one.  We toy with the dynamic interface between free-will and destiny, and nowhere in bible is that so clear as in Mordechai’s threefold response to Esther. We must act in the world, we must understand that our actions are neither  ultimate or irrevocable, but we are not free to hide away from making those choices.

Our tradition has always given us a helping set of stories so that we can construct a narrative that will support our choices. Be it Hillel haZakein who told us “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” or Rabbi Tarfon who taught “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” we know the imperative is to act to make the world a better place for our being in it.  In the words again of Hillel haZakein, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. go and learn.”

 

 

 

 

 

Vashti: a heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman

The story of Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther. We are introduced to her as she makes a feast for the women in the royal household, paralleling the feast made by the king for the men. There is no description of her feast, unlike the detailed account given of the King’s event where the extravagance of the decorations, the furniture, the utensils and the food and wine are described in all their excessive bling.

After seven days of feasting and drinking, the King decides to show off to the assembled hordes and bring his beautiful wife to his event, and the text does indeed tell us that she was “tovat mar’eh” – good to look at. He sends the seven eunuchs (sarisism) who served him to bring Vashti before him, wearing the crown royal (no other clothing is described leading the commentators to assume she was to appear naked before her husband and his friends). But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command given via his sarisim, and this angered the king greatly.

The King asked his advisors what legal consequences should follow for the Queen Vashti having refused to do the request of the King as relayed by his sarisim.

It is a strange few verses. First we are told that the King said to the wise men who understood the times – but we are not told what he said, instead there is a narrative insertion to tell us that this was his custom before those who knew law and judgment. And what does it mean that the wise men understood the times? That they were political advisors? that they were close to public opinion? Then we are given the names of the seven princes of Persia and Media – are these the wise men or are these a different group? We know that they were sitting right next to the king at the feast, that they were the first/highest in the kingdom; and we know too that they saw the king’s face.

Then comes the question – oddly phrased as a legal enquiry, and in the third person. “’What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done the bidding of the King Ahasuerus by the chamberlains (sarisim)?”

And what is the position of sarisim? Is the request greater or smaller because of their involvement? Why is their presence and role as messengers repeatedly pointed out? Is Vashti offended that the message has come through them? Is she asking for a direct conversation with the King?

It is Memucan, one of the princes of Media who responds. And he exaggerates and inflames the situation in an extraordinary way. “’Vashti the !ueen has not only done wrong to the King, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples that are in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the Queen will become known to all women, [and the effect will be] to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.  It will be said: The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the Queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the Queen say the like to all the King’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.”

Suddenly the Queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s banquet in order for her beauty to be appreciated by his friends is escalated into an insult to all the peoples in the 127 provinces ruled over by the King. Suddenly she is a role model to every woman who will now defy their husbands – or at the least find them contemptible.

It makes you wonder about Memucan, about his own sense of self, his arrogance and his male privilege which seems to mask a very thin skin and a deep fear of women finding him laughable.  If twitter had been around he would surely have tweeted “Vashti is a nasty woman. Disobedient and harmful. Arrogant! Bad!  #nastywoman”

He has a solution to the threat that Vashti’s behaviour might cause if other women heard of it and wanted to emulate it:

“If it please the King, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the King give her royal estate to another that is better than she.”

She is to be banished from ever coming to the King again. She is to be stripped of her title and her possessions. She is to be treated as a bad woman – there will be others who are ‘tovah mimena’ – better than her.

And so Vashti disappears from the story. And just to rub in the reason for her treatment we are told that letters were sent in every language of the empire to remind the people “that every man should bear rule in his own house”

Vashti is a pawn in a game about explicitly retaining and building up male power and privilege. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be callously punished and that punishment held up as an example to anyone else who might think about challenging in the future.

To that extent, she is a foreshadow of the struggle of the Jews in this self-same Empire. She chooses not to kowtow to the servant/sarisim/chamberlain just as Mordechai chooses not to kowtow to that servant of the King – Haman. But unlike him she has no other channel of communication – what does the book of Esther learn from this? That the Jews are going to need a number of routes of communication if they are to survive the experience of living under a petulant dictator with enormous powers at his disposal. They are going to need to build many different and diverse relationships.

The midrashic tradition treats Vashti with great unkindness – seeing the need to denigrate her in order to build up the passive and obedient Esther. Both women become pawns in the game of male power and privilege, and they are set up against each other in a literary fiction in order to heighten the reader’s understanding of which is the right way to respond.

So poor Vashti, whose name means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’ in Persian becomes a cautionary tale in the hands of the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud. They decide there is a connection in her name with the Hebrew verb “shoteh” – drinking, and suggest she was alcoholic and thus her disobedience was done in her cups.

They decide that when the king specifies she must come wearing her crown, that she is supposed to wear nothing else – her immodesty is legendary.  But then the Midrash suggests that she refuses to do so not because she is appalled at the request, but because she has a defect – a skin rash, a tail, leprosy – and the men will find her ugly.

There is a Midrash that she is of much grander ancestry than her husband – she is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazar, while Ahasuerus began life as the servant of her father. The problem – that she never lets him forget that she had a more powerful and higher status ancestry, she was a nagging and bitter wife, the sort of wife who would try to emasculate her husband with every opportunity. Of course she deserved her punishment, the arrogant woman.

And while she was busy trying to oppose her husband, the Midrash posits that she humiliated the other women, in particular those who were powerless, the Jewish maids whom she made work on Shabbat, whom she made work without their clothes – all this because she was called on the seventh day of the feast, and the punishment had to fit the crime, so this extraordinary crime was deduced.

Poor poor Vashti. She is indeed a cautionary tale. Beware of men in power who are scared of mature and confident women.

The story that she could not come and dance naked because she had a defect has an extra layer – that the Angel Gabriel came and fixed upon her not a tail, but a penis. Vashti is the ultimate unfeminine woman, the woman who challenges men on their own terms, the woman who behaves like a man.

You get the feeling that the storytellers who needed to diminish Vashti in this way had their own problems. They feared women who were in control of their lives, who were not dependant and therefore not in a supplicatory position in their relationships.

And you hope that the writers of this aggadic hate-fest are safely in the past. That men no longer fear women routinely, that we can see the stories for what they are – the projections of people who inadequately prepared to relate to others on an equal basis.

But of course we read this story on a yearly basis for a reason. We see that irrational fear of others never leaves the discourse entirely, that be it a woman who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of her husband or a Jew who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of a political force, or a human being who refuses to bow to an ideology of hatred, the battle continues.

Vashti is the bellwether, the indicator that something is deeply wrong in the system that is meant to be delivering good governance. Right now we see a President signing acts against religious groups or a Prime Minister choosing to use vulnerable groups as bargaining chips in their negotiations. Right now we see children and families fleeing from war and terrorism being refused sanctuary in a country which could easily afford to help them if it chose to do so.  Right now we are seeing bellwethers warning us that fascism is on the rise in Europe, that the learning and structures that were set up after the second world war to prevent such horror happening again are being forgotten, being overridden, being despised.  What will happen to our bellwethers if we don’t pay attention to them? Vashti disappears from the Esther narrative in a scant twelve verses. How quickly the world can change and progress and goodness erode into nationalism and hatred, into asserting power over the vulnerable, into anger that burns so fiercely that everything is consumed.

Vashti comes to tell us something important. A feminist icon she may be, but more importantly she brings a reminder that when we act out of fear of the other, out of fear of losing our privilege, a whole world can disintegrate and many people suffer.

Purim: blurring distinctions so that all are valued the same

We will soon be celebrating Purim, a minor, post biblical, and probably Babylonian festival which has been absorbed into Judaism. The book of Esther tells of the evil Haman who is determined to kill the Jews, of Mordechai the Jew who finds favour with the King for having foiled an assassination plot, and of Esther herself, dependant relative of Mordechai, who is married to the King after he has banished the first Queen Vashti, for insufficient respect.  It is a strange festival in so many ways. Probably a fictional retelling of an older myth, it deals with anything but fiction – the recurrent problem of anti-Semitism. Unusually the book does not ever invoke the name or presence of God, and for the first and only time in our texts or our traditions, it takes pleasure in taking revenge on the ones who wanted to destroy the Jews.

Purim is a sort of inverted, upside down and inside out kind of festival. Beginning with the evil Haman wishing for all the Jews to be killed, it ends with the death of Haman and all who seek to do his work. Many of our customs are deliberately subverted – we wear fancy dress costumes to the service, are commanded to drink until we cannot tell the difference between the phrase “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” (Talmud Meg 7b). We create Purim spiels which make fun of the establishment,  make a lot of noise and create a carnival atmosphere where ‘anything goes’, celebrate the marriage of Esther the nice Jewish girl to a non-Jewish potentate with many wives…. Really, nothing is sacred when we think about Purim.

But that said, Jewish values continue to shine through in this strange festival. Purim reminds us not only of the reality of being Jewish amid a world that seems determined to misunderstand us – but it also commands us to care for those who are needy in some way.   The commandments to eat, drink and celebrate this festival are accompanied by the commandment to give tzedekah.   In the Book of Esther, we read, “the same days on which Jews enjoyed relief from their foes, and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief to joy and from mourning to festival – they were to observe them as days of feasting and merry-making, and as an occasion for sending gifts [mishloach manot] and presents to the poor [matanot l’evyonim]” (Esther 9:22).

In our giving matanot l’evyonim on Purim, we are recognizing the need for an inversion in society, a turning upside down of the inequalities we see. By engaging in social action on Purim, we hope to erase the hierarchy of the haves and the have-nots. In this strange carnival time while forgetting our usual inhibitions and turning our usual routines on their heads, we are also reminded that we have the power to transform the lives of those who are suffering, to turn their days of mourning into days of joy.

Giving to the poor on Purim is something intrinsic to the celebration – so much so that even the poor must be given enough welfare from the community in order to be able to give two gifts to the poor themselves. In effect, this law blurs the distinction between rich and poor, so that the perceived gap in wealth is erased. Rather like the Talmudic dictum that one should be so drunk as not to be able to recognise the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman, one should also not notice the distinctions in monetary worth of different people. All are valued the same for this festival, as we experience a kind of ideal world where truly all are equal.

There are all sorts of ways in which you can participate in the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim. Many charities and social projects that are dedicated to improving the lot of the poorer in society. The important thing is that in the spieling and the laughing and the reading and the booing and the whole megillah of Purim activities, that this is one we can do quietly and easily.

Esther on scroll binder

image: collage by Caroline and Naomi of Esther made for scroll binding

From Purim to Pesach – the flavour of slavery as we prepare for the scent of freedoms

By tradition the days from Purim to Pesach have a character all their own – that of mental preparation and of physical hard work. For if tradition tells us that Rosh Chodesh Adar brings with it increasing joy, we know that it also sounds the starting pistol in the race to make everything ready for Pesach.

There are those who search through every book on their shelves, for crumbs fallen as the reader fed their body as well as their mind. There are those who begin at the top of the house and ruthlessly unearth every speck of leaven from the pockets of jackets hanging in wardrobes to the linings of handbags and suitcases put away after earlier outings.

There are some who ruthlessly scrub every surface be it inside or out, regardless of whether food could possibly come into contact or not, and there are those he maniacally turn out pot and pan drawers, cutlery containers and the shelves of artefacts kept unused just in case one might want a fish kettle/ pasta maker/ mousse mould.

From Purim to Pesach the traditionally minded Jewish householder experiences a little of the flavour of slavery our ancestors experienced in Egypt. The injunction for this story of redemption from slavery to become our own personal story is taken quite literally as servitude to the ideal of a sparkling clean leaven free home means sore back muscles, peeling fingernails and a pervasive smell of bleach on the fingers of the zealous leaven hunter.

There is, I know, a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when the work is done, the house a no-go zone for non pesachdik condiments, the shopping done, the Seder table set and the ritual foods ready along with the feast that follows. But alongside the satisfaction is the niggling sense that we need to remember that a clean house and communally enjoyed meal is not the purpose of the exercise. It is only the route towards considering the meaning of freedom.

We are to think ourselves beyond the physical and emotional labour necessary to prepare for it, in order to experience the meaning of the Seder in all its rich complexity. Having a nice meal with extended family, all work done for the moment, is not the point, however enjoyable it may be. We are having Pesach and the Seder meal in order to remember. The event is to memorialise through reliving and retelling a story that must belong to us. It is to remember our past and the formative narrative of our redemption by God. It is to make our memory something that does not simply narrate or contain the past, but something that causes us to be active in the present.

What are we doing when we memorialise, when we ‘remember’ the story of our people as if it is our own experience? We are ‘remembering’ in the sense of putting something together,‘re-membering’. We are putting together the experiences that formed us as a people and thinking about how they are still playing out in the world we live in today – both giving us our own identity as Jews and giving us understanding of all who share the experience of oppression and lack of freedoms. And from this understanding we begin to notice that we are not the only people who have a narrative of pain, we are not the only ones who are looking to be and to stay free.

The most repeated sentence in bible is “Remember you were a slave in Egypt”. Why so? It cannot be simply to remember painful times in order to dwell on them or be grateful that they are gone. It must be because action has to emerge from our remembering. Our remembering of what it was like to be oppressed and burdened has value only if we work to remove such oppression and trouble from the world we inhabit now.

These days we often understand this command to remember our own slavery as being the nudge that should give us empathy towards those who are suffering without freedoms – that we are somehow more likely to care for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised because of our own history and experience. But there is at least one medieval source which tells us almost the opposite – that once we have escaped our own pain it is easier to deny it, to treat others badly as we were once treated in order to  keep our distance from the experience. So the injunction to remember our slavery is repeated so often in our texts precisely because we are more, rather than less likely to ignore the pain of others. There are resonances in modern psychological thought – that we repeat the dysfunction of our childhood experiences in our own families, a vicious cycle that takes mindful and conscious effort to break out from.  If this is so, how much more so does the journey from Purim to Pesach and the climax of the haggadah narrative force us to remember our own suffering in order to help others whose suffering is happening right now.

            The festival of Purim allows us to explore the dark sides of our world and of ourselves. The festival of Pesach does the same. But it gives us something extra – the knowledge that if we work together we can change our world. At the exodus from Egypt not only the Jews escaped slavery – an erev rav  (mixed multitude of people) took the opportunity to escape too.  May our Pesach every year mean that other people reach freedom alongside us, that we are moved to make this happen, that we remember our own stories of oppression and work to ensure that for every person and every people there will be a time when they too will be able to recite their own story as historical narrative rather than present reality.  

 

Zachor: Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world

“Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
-Deuteronomy 25:17- 19

 On the Shabbat before Purim we read an extra portion from another scroll, and the Shabbat takes its name from this reading – Zachor! Remember!  Liturgically this is to remind us that Purim will be celebrated in the coming week, and a genealogical link is made in tradition between the villain of the Purim story, Haman the Agagite and the people known in bible as Amalekites.

 The Amalekites, like Haman, are understood in Jewish tradition to be those people who hate without reason or cause; Bible records them as descendants of Esau, though it is hard to understand either their location or their individuality. Both “Amalek” and “Amalekites” seem to be used to describe a people who are outside the mainstream, people who are on the fringes and who threaten the core. The words come to symbolise meaningless, purposeless evil – an opposite of all that faith in God might bring, and of course in our passage we are told that Amalek did what they did because “they did not fear God”. Because of this, they attacked the vulnerable and weakest of the Israelite society, itself a raggle taggle of ex slaves with little strength to keep going. This was not a group who threatened Amalekite society – the Israelites were attacked simply because it was unlikely they would be able to defend themselves.

 Over the years “Amalek” has come to be a symbol of the other, or the enemy. Our tradition has seen all anti-semitic activity as the manifestation of Amalek, and some have gone further – to see any person or people who challenge Judaism or Israel as descendants of Amalek. The terrible killings perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 where 29 Palestinians were murdered in Hevron and many more injured, came out of extreme and misplaced belief that they were the enemy and therefore they must be Amalek. But Amalek is much more complicated than a way we might use to designate those we think of as “Other”.

 Amalek is more profoundly found not outside ourselves, but inside us, at our own core.  The gematria for Amalek is the same as that for ‘safek’ – doubt, a way of saying that the anti-divine that Amalek represents is something within us, something that we might manifest if we allow ourselves to do so.  While the etymology of the word Amalek is uncertain, it may come from two words – Am Lakak, the people who lick up – the people who selfishly take from all around without any sense of boundary or of compassion for others. Amalek is the trait that takes, that uses up, that does not consider either the other or the context or the future – it is the greed and selfishness we are all prone to as young children, something we have to learn to rein in and control if we are to live with others and create relationships and do good in this world.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (1808 – 1888) and said to be the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, saw the battle between Israel and Amalek in this way. For him the war is between different sets of values – and Israel should strive to be in the category of morality and life affirming activity. In his commentary on Amalek he wrote “We are warned, remember what Amalek did to you, and see to it that we ourselves should not become an Amalek within ourselves. …not to commit deeds of wrong and violence within our personal lives…. Do not forget” this [obligation to wipe out Amalek] – in case there comes a time when you will want to be like Amalek, and like him to deny your [moral] obligation and not to know God, but will only seek opportunities…to exploit your power to harm others.”  

Amalek is not only “the enemy” or “the other” or a symbol of external evil against which we must always be on guard. Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world, and in taking to stop others from having what they need – overriding their vulnerability simply because we can. Our world is full of such behaviours and we have a responsibility to bring them to mind in order to address them. Be it the anxieties over the fate of the vulnerable in our health and social care systems, or the abilities of large organisations to fix opaque and impossible price structures that penalise the unwary or the ignorant or the cash or time-poor; be it the fate of people at the hands of corrupt leaderships or the use of the labour of children or wage slaves to keep prices down, Amalek walks among us and within us. Before we can blot out such behaviour we must become aware and outraged. Remember what Amalek did… you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”

With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.

Parashat Tetzaveh. Shabbat Zachor

 “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17)

            So we read on the Shabbat before Purim, the Shabbat when we remember the gratuitous hatred shown to the Children of Israel as they fled from Egypt, echoing the hatred shown by Haman, said to be descended from the Amalakites, and we remember too the gratuitous hatred shown to Jews ever since.

            It is a text which has come to be something of an emblem for Jews – the act of remembering, so sacred to our tradition, is to be used in this one case to blot out the individuals concerned, to erase their names from history.

            As Jews we fear only one thing – we fear disappearing entirely, so that no trace of us is found.  One thinks of Isaiah’s phrase, poignantly taken up by the holocaust remembrance centre in Israel – “I  will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial (yad v’shem) better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.  (56:5).  Yad v’shem – a hand and a name. 

            Almost everything we do as Jews is in some way about remembering, and what we remember can be linked to two grand themes – Creation and Exodus/Redemption.  All our festivals, whether agricultural in their origins or not, are linked to Creation and to Redemption – think of Pesach, Redemption of our people and Creation of peoplehood.  Shavuot, building on Pesach, brings us the meaning of our Redemption – Torah.  Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the cycle of time, a new start which may yet lead us to Redemption, Yom Kippur helps us leave behind and create again.  Succot is of course Creation led, with the underlying theme that our Redemption can come only from God, Simchat Torah neatly begins with the almost – Redemption of the Jewish people and focuses us again into the Creation story.  Chanukah and Purim, the two post biblical festivals are both about Redemption too, with the possibilities of starting again afresh.

            In our rich and complex Jewish tradition, we constantly and ritually remember the two experiences which mould us – the Creation which we experience newly every day, and the Redemption to which we are committed to work.  We remember where we come from and where we are going to.  That is our most sacred behaviour.  And so it is particularly shocking to be told to remember so as to be sure to erase all memory.

Such an instruction is a creative betrayal of that which we hold most sacred.  Nothing could be more designedly dumbfounding, more completely against our instincts.  Our whole imperative is to remember so as not to lose completely.

            Yet the special reading on Shabbat Zachor, designed to emphasise the response to Purim which will shortly follow, tells us that not everything or everyone should be remembered, that there are certain events the enormity of which means that they must be buried away forever.  They are beyond our capacity to deal with, beyond our ability to create anew or to bring to Redemption.  Few and far between – one thinks inevitably of the go’el who would not marry Ruth for the sake of his descendents, and who is named only Poloni ben Poloni – Mr X – in the text – these events where enforced erasing of the memory of a human being serve to point up the importance of conserving the memory.  Shabbat Zachor says it all – Shabbat Remember! 

            Nowadays we have so much to remember – and extra days have been added to our calendar with Yom ha Shoah, and Yom ha Atzma’ut, the depths and heights of the last century.  We are programmed to remember, to allow history to live again in us.  We just have to ask ourselves what we should be remembering, and how. 

            The text we read as part of Shabbat Zachor begins “And it will be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget”, places the enforced forgetting and erasing in a context – it begins with a future time “It will be”.  This reminds us of one very important lesson – we don’t have to worry yet about what we might erase or forget, that will be for the unspecified future.  Right now our task is to remember and to document and to keep alive, it is not, absolutely not, to do anything else.