TEL AVIV —Yair Lapid, a cultural icon in Israel, was asked which holiday he’d like to see removed from the Jewish calendar.
“I would omit Purim,” he answered without hesitation to that 2007 query. “The story about an anti-Jewish conspiracy that is foiled due to the fact that someone forces his virgin niece into the bed of a womanizing king, and because of this the Jews receive permission to commit genocide against 70,000 people and then they get drunk from happiness, does not bring us much honor.”
His words reflect a common view among secular Jews.
To tell the truth, if you relate only to the literal, superficial meaning of the Book of Esther — in Hebrew, Megillat (Scroll of) Esther — you can’t really blame the guy.
The conclusion of the story might qualify for a war crimes tribunal today: Vashti’s beheading, the hanging of Haman’s children and genocide are not viewed as humane actions worthy of a developed nation, especially in light of the history of the Jewish people.
But Lapid’s summation applies only to the nigleh, the visible side, of the Book of Esther.
For those who missed it, here’s a quick recap of the plot: Haman the Agagite, prime minister of Ahasuerus’ empire, decides to kill the entire Jewish population that is spread throughout the 127 nations in the kingdom. The king happily consents to this request and the decree is issued.
As a result, everyone in the city of Shushan is confused and frightened. But Mordechai and Esther come along and pull off a brilliant maneuver, saving the Jews and putting Haman and his allies to death.
This is only half the tale.
Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, also known as Baal Ha’Sulam for his commentary on the Zohar, makes clear that the Book of Esther is far more than a capricious Hollywood script. He argues, based on the interpretation of Maimonides, that the book is among the most ciphered texts in Scripture.
That, too, is only part of the story. If we read Ashlag’s commentary, 70 years after it was written and as the world is mired in a colossal financial crisis, we can appreciate Purim from a completely different and far more pertinent perspective.
Let’s start from the end. Ashlag explains that the name of the book, Megillah, implies the message it wishes to convey. Megillah derives from the word gilui, meaning revelation, and Esther originates from the word hester, or concealment. In other words, Megillat Esther is about the revelation of the concealed. Understanding the book, he writes, allows us to peep “behind the scenes” of our lives. Our preview begins with the bad guy in the Megillah.
It’s time to refute some of the myths surrounding the story of Esther. Haman, whose name evokes a deafening noise of rattlers, isn’t really what we thought him to be. The Agagite, Ashlag explains, is actually … me! And you, and him, and her. Confused? Don’t be.
Haman symbolizes the self-centered thinking that guides every one of us. It is our natural desire to receive pleasure in life.
Haman, who seeks only his personal benefit, is a control freak and glory hound, and he desires to destroy everything and everyone that opposes him. This is why he’s so hateful of Mordechai, who represents the opposite trait: the
altruistic desire to give to others.
But Haman’s role does not end with the end of his role in the book. He represents an approach toward life where one’s personal benefit is the center of one’s existence, as opposed to caring for the wellbeing of the whole — did somebody say Wall Street?
Mordechai, that old Jew who “sits at the gates of the king” and awaits the opportune moment, represents the purest, cleanest trait — unconditional love for others. This quality, this approach toward life, is what Haman wishes to destroy.
The struggle between the two approaches is the essence not only of the story but of the holiday itself. As for the bewilderment of the people of Shushan, it is the result of the inability to decide in the struggle between these two
Esther represents that hidden need that awakens in us from time to time to not settle for the insane, egoistic pursuit that characterize life in the modern era and demands of us to make a true change in life.
Today that same need is being aroused in more and more people. They are compelled then to search for an alternative to Haman’s selfish ways, which led us to the financial crisis the world is experiencing.
In the beginning of the 21st century, the world has changed beyond the point of no return. The only way for us to fit in with today’s interconnected and globalized world is to hang our inner Haman — our ego — and remain with one overriding ideology: friendship and brotherly love, the path that Mordechai embodies.
Only when we adopt this old but true approach will joy fill Main Street again.
I think even Yair Lapid would agree with this honorable goal.
(Eli Vinokur is a freelance columnist who is completing his doctorate in social sciences and philosophy at Tel Aviv University.)