Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Sobering Purim

According to tradition, on the Shabbat before Purim we read the words: “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Amalek is Israel’s mythic nemesis. Haman is described as a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite king executed by Samuel in the haftarah that we read on the Shabbat before Purim. The theme of utter annihilation that we read in regard to Amalek is repeated in the story of King Saul, and again in Megillat Esther.

Nowadays, we sometimes cringe when we read about the Jews of ancient Persia slaughtering tens of thousands of their enemies, and we remind ourselves that the Megillah isn’t history. We soothe our troubled conscience with the explanation that the Megillah is a farce. As one of my teachers, Professor H.L. Ginsberg wrote:

“If the book is read in the spirit in which it is written, all misgivings – on the scores of both credibility and spirituality – will be dissipated, the very extravagances and historical improbabilities will be relished, and the ingenuity of the plot will be admired.”

But still it makes many of us uncomfortable. How can Jews be gleeful at being given permission that “if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and to plunder their possessions”?

And when the killing spree is over, and the Jews have killed seventy-five thousand of their enemies, what do they request of the king? “If it please your majesty, let the Jews in Shushan be permitted to act tomorrow also as they did today.” In other words, we are not tired of killing yet. We need another day!

Ginsberg writes: “This shocks us, since it is hard to understand how it could be necessary, seeing that the first decree had not permitted the non-Jews to slaughter Jews on the fourteenth and that the enemies of the Jews were already terrified by their losses on the thirteenth. But there does not seem to be any substitute for a sense of humour.”

I am not laughing.

Who could write such a story, even as a comedy?

I imagine that it could be written only by someone who wished he could do it. It is the product of someone frustrated by utter powerlessness. It is the anguished cry of hopeless victims. It is black comedy. It is gallows humour.

I can picture frightened Jews in a ghetto rejoicing at the tale of how Mordecai and Esther turned the tables on Haman. I can see them eagerly awaiting the hanging of Haman and his ten sons. But I’m afraid that I have a hard time relating to that glee.

For a person who is powerless, the idea of revenge is sweet. The thought of punishing one’s enemies brings pleasure. He can savour the thought of bashing an enemy’s head against the wall. It’s a fantasy that can safely be enjoyed.

When you are powerless, you needn’t worry about the morality of your exercise of power. Your imagination can run wild unfettered by conscience. With power comes responsibility. Suddenly you are burdened by the moral weight of your decisions.

Perhaps that is why we now find the Megillah less palatable than did past generations. It’s not that we are more sensitive. It’s not that we are more politically correct. It’s that for us, living in a sovereign Jewish state, with an army of its own, the idea of exacting merciless revenge is something that we can imagine. It is something that we could actually do if we lost control of ourselves.

When you own nothing, or when you lack the means to protect what is yours, you are free of the fear of the consequences of your actions. You can dream. You can dispense advice glibly, and moralize endlessly. When you have property, and have the power to defend it, you are faced with hard questions and real consequences.

Living in Israel, we are often confronted with those questions and consequences on a national scale. I sometimes refer to the phenomenon as the moral burden of sovereignty. It is a burden that cannot be understood in the abstract. It is something that you cannot appreciate from afar.

It is that burden that causes us to identify with the Megillah in a way that no other Jews in history could have experienced or imagined. Unlike our ancestors, we can put faces on the characters in the Megillah.

We are not more sensitive than our ancestors. We may not be better than other Jews. But we have a unique perspective. While our ancestors could identify with Mordecai and Esther only as victims, we can identify with them as victors.

For generations, Jews covered their faces with masks of Mordecai and Esther and briefly experienced the jubilation of imagined power. We put our faces on Mordecai and Esther, and sense the overwhelming moral yoke that real power brings. For the first time in history, the drunken revelry of Purim has become a sobering experience.

Avinoam Sharon