Thursday, March 24, 2005

Purim Part II - Attention, WalMart Shoppers!

What is Purim truly about, if not survival? And how do we adapt and survive? Often, through the process of Denial. Sometimes Denial is healthy - the only way to survive impossible times. Sometimes, though, Denial gets control of us, and our whole lives become Purim: the time of opposites. The time when the world gets turned upside-down, inside-out. When day is night, white is black. Evil is Good.

The mitzvot of Purim are societal mitzvot: giving gifts to the poor, sending portions of food to our friends and neighbors, eating a festive communal meal, reading the Megillah in public. "Publicizing the Miracle" is the same as on Chanukah, the other holiday where we celebrate the slaughter of thousands of people. On Purim we celebrate slaughtering Goyim. In the case of Chanukah, we also slaughtered substantial numbers of Jews. The links between the holidays center around two common themes: the Jews slaughtered their enemies, and we got back the Beit HaMikdash. In the case of Chanukah, we get back the BHM immediately - it is the outcome of the holiday. In the case of Purim, the Gemara tells us that Darius, the son of Esther and Achashverosh, sent the Jews back to rebuild the BHM.

As we wrote last time, the Mishna relates that Mordechai officiated in the rebuilt BHM. The Mishna explicitly states that Mordechai (known at the rebuilt BHM as Petachyah - "G-d opens / reveals") was given responsibility for the birds because he knew all seventy languages. The obvious - and generally asked - question is: but Mordechai was a member of the Sanhedrin, so he had to know seventy languages, so why point it out explicitly? Chazal do not throw their words around like a drunken stockbroker handing out hundred-dollar bills. If the Mishna felt the need to state that Mordechai spoke seventy languages, it was either to praise him, or to condemn him.

The Megillah itself states that not all the Jews were in favor of Mordechai's position as Viceroy. Those rabbis who spent their time in learning Torah were dismayed that Mordechai was coming too close to the government, and that his duties would take away from his Torah study. Was he given the vital role in the BHM in recognition of his having saved the Jews - thus enabling the BHM to be rebuilt - and the Mishna thus points out: well, at least we can say of Mordechai that he speaks seventy languages, even if he neglects his Torah study.

Or had the Jews so quickly forgotten Torah that, by the time we returned to rebuild the BHM, there was no one left who qualified to be a member of the Sanhedrin? That it was only Mordechai who had kept the entire tradition, who had maintained his knowledge of seventy languages and his identity as a Jew?

Historically, the emperors of Persia - maybe Xerxes / Achashverosh, maybe not - did not "prevent" the Jews from building the BHM. They permitted the Jews to live under their own system. They required taxes (tribute) but also told the Jews they should feel free to raise additional monies and undertake the construction of the BHM. Our revisionist history - including Rashi, the Gemara and the Jewish Encyclopedia - tells us that the wicked Achashverosh halted the rebuilding of the BHM. The historical reality appears to be more that, faced with the prospect of a massive financial undertaking and a huge long-term construction project, the Jews of Palestine under Persian rule simply said, "I have better things to do." The secular world has always held its appeal for us. The Yiddish phrase Gut bei yenem - "Good by others" - is supposed to mean "That's all right for THEM, but not for us." All too often, though, its sense has come back to haunt us: the feeling among Jews that it is good with the Others.

What is the political message of Purim? The Torah we learn in the Beit Midrash often seems to conflict with reality on the ground. In a famous Midrash, Esther instructs Mordechai to tell all the Jews to fast for her. Mordechai objects that it is forbidden to fast, since it is Pesach. Esther's response is: If there are no more Jews, there will be no more Pesach! Interestingly, the word chosen by the Megillah is: (4:17) "vaya'avor Mordechai..." - "And Mordechai transgressed, and did all that Esther commanded." The Hebrew word means, To cross over, and is explicitly used in the meaning of Sin ('Aveirah - from the same root - the English word "transgress" means, similarly, "To cross over") What could Mordechai's sin be? Violating the mitzvah of eating the Matzot and drinking the four cups on Pesach sounds like a good candidate. And the notion of Sin is embedded in this concept. It is a Mitzvah to Violate shabbat - or Yom Tov - to save a life. The mitzvah is articulated in explicit language: "Violate the sabbath", not merely "do not observe".

When does it become a Mitzvah to do an 'Aveirah?

When, for example, does it become a mitzvah for Esther, who according to the Midrash is married to Mordechai, to also marry Achashverosh? And if her son Dariush is actually the benevolent ruler who returned us to the Land and to the BHM, do we know for a fact that Achashverosh was his father? After all, it appears that he spent half of each year drunk. In any event, Dariush would be Jewish - a fact that Achashverosh may not have picked up on, since he had issued a decree that all Males should be in charge throughout the kingdom. Perhaps Mordechai and Esther thought it best not to rock that boat too. After all, we know who's really in charge...

The most politically telling aspect of the story is the degree to which Achashverosh operates in a cloud of Plausibile Deniability ("PD"). When Haman comes to ask for permission to kill the Jews, he does not explicitly name the people, and Achashverosh does not ask. Haman merely says, "There is a Certain People..." and Achashverosh hands over the ring. Achashverosh, saimilarly, makes a grand gesture and tells Haman to take back the money - a form of bargaining familiar from the story of Abraham and the Cave of Machpelah. Achashverosh, acdcording to Near Eastern custom, actually ended up with the money, but first he had to go through a ritual of publicly declining it.

The high point of this strategy of PD comes at the Moment of Truth when Achashverosh - like Claude Raines in the movie Casablanca telling Humphrey Bogart, "I am shocked, shocked to find gambling in this establishment!" - in total (?!) innocence asks Esther, "Mi hu ze, ve ezeh hu?" Who on earth could possibly have been responsible for the order to slay the Jews? We all know the answer: Achashverosh - it's YOU! But Esther plays him perfectly. It is a moment reminiscent of the lead-up to the Akeidah, where G-d tells Abraham: Your son. Your only one. The one you love. Yitzhak. Here, Esther likewise creates tension: A man, wicked, an enemy - Haman! We all know the outcome.

But what is our outcome? What is the outcome for Jews in the comfort of upper-middle-class suburban / urban America today?

Achashverosh was able to survive and prosper as King, because he kept telling stories. And he told them so often, he came to believe them. Finally, there was no Achashverosh, but only the Story and an endless litaly of Plausible Deniability.

What Stories do we tell ourselves? How do we bring PD into our own lives to shiled us from our role as Jews? This Purim, can we let our masks down for a moment and look at ourselves as we are, without our stories? Without our Plausible Deniability?

What is the legacy of PD in our time? Remember Ronald Regan? "Oliver who?" The man who never heard of Colonel Oliver North blithely led a coup d'etat and, when the facts came to light, sailed through on a Teflon coating of PD. In the story of the Exodus, it is Pharaoh who hardens his heart, who repeatedly retrenches and refuses to let the Hebrews go, even after repeated promises. It is not until Pharaoh has established this pattern that G-d steps in and makes it impossible for Pharaoh to relent. The Ramban says that Pharaoh had made himself so wicked that he was not capable of doing Teshuvah. In a very real sense, G-d does not make things happen, we do. G-d only steps in once we have a clearly established Derech. Once it is clear where we are heading, then G-d comes and helps us on our way. In a sense, though, this only happens to the rare individual who is capable of being completely focused on the goal. Like Pharaoh, who hardened his own heart so purposefully that finally G-d stepped in to ensure that it would always be thus. Like Ronald Regan, perhaps? Who claimed frequently not to know what was being done in his name, and who ended up with Alzheimer's?

WalMart, in agreeing to its recent settlement in a court case involving abusing undocumented aliens (the term "slave labor" springs to mind) stated that they relied on their contractors. They are "shocked" to find that such illegal activities are going on in their own company. Next time you line up with that case of toilet paper and the industrial-sized jar of peanut butter, you might sneak a peek at the dark-skinned woman silently mopping the floor in aisle 16 and hum somthing appropriate. Perhaps "Go down, Moses"? or "We shall overcome"?

Closer (?) to home, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had no idea that officials of his ministry were issuing written "approvals" for illegal Jewish settlements so they could obtain civic services like electricity and water. And military protection. No doubt, the rest of the government were equally amazed when this came to light. No doubt, within the upper reaches of government, someone has promised to Get Right On That.

Like the Story we tell ourselves as Jews. Instead of focusing on Halachah, on Ma'asim Tovim - good acts - and on aggressively bringing social justice into the world, we tell ourselves the Story of Exile. We are Jews, we live in Exile. They did it to us. This is what it means to be a Jew. Galut, Exile, has become our Promised Land. Disaffectedness, the ability to justify our own intolerance of other people, this is our Mantra. We refuse to bring Torah and G-d into the world, but rather use them as a refuge.

In Buddhism, one of the fundamental acts is Seeking Refuge. I always had an intellectual and emotional problem with this, until it was explaned that people constantly seek refuge. Many seek refuge in drugs or alcohol, some in being workaholics, or in self-destructive behavior around their marriage or family life. For Jews, the Way Out has been to seek Refuge in the Torah - usually in our own interpretation of Torah: after all, we don't really want to be told how to behave! - to lock ourselves away and feel superior to the rest of the world.

Oy vey! Where would we be without Exile!

Without Exile, we would have to face the political realities of the Palestinians, both as a people, and as a national movement. Without Exile, we would have to roll up our sleeves and head into the inner cities of New York, Detroit, Chicago, Trenton, Los Angeles, and reach out to people who suffer from inferior education. We would have to cross over the streets and avenues dividing our neighborhood from the next one over and extend the hand of common humanity to our Goyish neighbors - Christians, Moslems, even - G-d forbid! - other Jews whose practice is different from our own!

We would have to Make A Difference.

Without Exile, we would have to camp out on the steps of the White House until the US intervened in Rwanda. Without Exile, we of all people, who in our innermost soul know what it means to be destroyed (Esther 3:13: "... to destroy, to kill, to exterminate all the Jews, from young to old, children and women...") would have to act to bring healing to the African continent which is so ravaged by war, by injustice, by AIDS, by malaria. We would have to do something to address the fact that eight million people die each year from poverty, in one form or another. We would have to raise our voices and protest, at the very least, whenever there is social injustice in the world. Whenever a government - including our own - is acting irrationally, unjustly. When a government is imprisoning people without Due Process. When Congress mobilizes to overturn the entire fabric of the American system of government, creating a Constitutional crisis in order to imprison a brain-dead woman. When governments, or businesses, or our friends and relatives, put money before morality. Put power before identity. If we weren't fixated on telling ourselves the Story of the Exile of the Jewish People ("... how they hate us... they'll never let us live...") why then, we would actually have to Stand Up And Do Something. To change the world.

Thank G-d, we don't have to change the world. Because if you think the Story of Exile is a whopper, you should see the even better story we have made up to convince ourselves that it's OK not to get involved. The Story of Mashiach. Mashiach, who will come one day and Make Everything All Right. And what do we have to do to bring Mashiach? I would have thought that Bringing Mashiach is hard work. That it would entail spending every waking hour doing everything possible to try to make the world as perfect as it can be, all the while struggling to keep mitzvot, to make peace between people, to learn Torah, and to project a positive outlook and a love for G-d and for humanity.

Now I find out that I have it all wrong. Let's face it: it is our actions, not our words, that demonstrate our belief system. It appears that Bringing Mashiach is very much based on Keeping To Ourselves and being grateful that Disasters befall others and not us. Building up our own enclaves, rather than trying to expand our borders to include others. For, if we do not remove our own walls when we have the opportunity, they will surely be torn down by others, and at the worst possible time.

The Rabbis of the Mishna call it Bringing the Torah Into the World. The Dalai Lama (if you prefer) calls it Enlightened Self-Interested Altruism. Pastor Martin Niemoeller, the German War Hero-turned church leader- turned anti-Nazi activist-turned Dachau prisoner, famously said: First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I didn't stand up for the Communists. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I didn't stand up for the Jews. Then they came for the Catholics, but I was not a Catholic, so I did not stand up for them. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to stand up for me.

Surely, charity begins at home. But if it ends there, then it isn't really charity.

Did Mordechai have to sin to ensure the survival of the Jewish people? But is not that sin itself a mitzvah? What are we waiting for? Can't you hear the fires on all sides? If Purim is nothing else, it is a call to social activism, to reaching out to all Jews to affirm who we are. And thence, to reach out to all humanity. We can only be a Light to the Nations if we acknowledge that there are other nations. Oh, and one other thing: For the light to go on, we have to turn the switch. We have to Stand Up For Something.

Or, we can huddle in the dark, shivering in the uncertain cold and drawing close around us the threadbare Stories. The Story of Exile - They hate us... they won't let us... it's not worth it... they're all evil anyway... The Story of Mashiach - It's not up to me... I'm doing the best I can... One day things will be better, you'll see... And we can blame every wrong thing in the world on someone or something else. We can remain angry with the whole world. Including all the other Jews, our families and ourselves. There seems to be a lot of it going around... Oy vey! No wonder we need to get drunk!

Keep the masks in place, my friends, because what's underneath is not pretty.

yours for a better world...

it's up to each of us

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