Article by: RABBI STEWART WEISS
Sometimes, alas, our enemies get it right. As my colleague Rabbi Daniel Fox pointed out in a recent article, Haman hit the proverbial nail on the head when he described the Jews (Esther 3:8) as a “disjointed, disunified, dispersed” People.
That sense of fragmentation is exactly how the Megila opens. King Ahasuerus throws one wing-ding of a party – a 180-day lollapalooza where the models pose and the booze flows – and he invites the Jews of Persia to attend. In fact, notes the Medrash, he even makes sure to order Glatt kosher food so the Jews can eat their fill without any remorse. Yet at the same time, the king – whose empire is the successor to that of the Babylonians – mocks the Jews by using vessels taken from the Temple years earlier by Nebuchadnezzar.
Mordechai pleads with the Jews to stay away from the raucous revelry; if he was speaking Yiddish (which is altogether possible, since by tradition he was reported to have known 70 languages) he would have said, ”Pas nisht – stay away; this is not for us!” But the people, apparently so proud and grateful to have achieved such an elevated social status in the Persian kingdom, dismiss Mordechai as an out-of-touch, non-progressive staid relic of the past and so they refuse to heed his warning. As a result, they pave the way to their own misfortune.
God, as it were, turns His face away from this ugly scene, for He cannot bear to watch us break into factions and engage in destructive distance from one another. (Perhaps that is one reason why God’s name is conspicuously absent from the Book of Esther). He knows that only in times of crisis do we drop the dissention and rally together, and so Haman, in a sense, comes to the rescue. The Amalekite is given a free hand to usher in his reign of terror against us and plot our demise; Haman’s evil crusade will ironically be the catalyst for our closing ranks and finally banding together. As the Talmud so succinctly points out, the moment when Ahasuerus took off his signet ring and handed it to Haman, it had a greater effect on the Jewish People and engendered more soul-searching and repentance “than the rebuke of forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses who preached to Israel.” But our salvation will not easily be accomplished, for we are left “bereft and bewildered” (3:15) when we learn of Haman’s nefarious decree.
Enter Esther, our sister in the palace. While Mordechai will famously plead for Esther’s intervention in an impassioned speech of the ages – “Who knows if it is not precisely for this moment that you attained your position!” – Esther wisely understands that if she acts alone, she cannot succeed. She insists that the entire community come together not only in prayer, but also in fasting, to atone for that which they ate at the forbidden feast. Not only do her people accede to her wishes, they will later join forces to create perhaps the only Jewish militia ever to be formed in the history of our Diaspora. For even after Haman is hanged, his genocidal plan goes into effect and we are required to organize and fight back in order to vanquish the forces of evil arrayed against us.
In recognition of this stunning reversal of fortune, the rabbis canonized Esther’s story and decreed a number of Mitzvot that are meant to strengthen our sense of camaraderie. These include the giving of charity to the less fortunate in the community, the dispensing of ready-to-eat foods to friends and neighbors, and the Fast of Esther that precedes the reading of the Megila, to help us eternally remember what can happen to us if and when we fall prey to
factionalization. Even the widespread custom of wearing masks and costumes helps us to avoid distancing from others simply because of their looks or style of dress, a syndrome all too common today.
Fast-forward 2500 years. We are now blessed by God with our own country, and a superb military that is sworn to our safety. And yet, that nagging nemesis of disunity still haunts us. We would have thought that Corona would be compelling enough to create common cause, knowing that each one of us is equally vulnerable. We should have unanimously accepted that the way out of the pandemic was to inject, rather than to infect.
And yet, we did not all rise to the challenge nearly as well as we could have. Many stubbornly put their own selfish desires above the needs of the community, even to their own detriment or death. Many so-called leaders spoke in markedly different voices from one another, creating confusion where there should have been clarity. Instead of uniform enforcement, there are endless exceptions. Instead of policy, there is protekzia. I suggest that our ongoing election (not-so)merry-go-round – where over and over again, we fail to reach consensus – is a glaring symbol of our self-polarization.
As we celebrate Purim and hopefully emerge from Corona, we need to bear in mind the stark reality that Haman still lurks dangerously nearby, whether in his familiar neighborhood of Persia or on our very borders in the guise of Hamas or Hezbollah. We need many Esthers and Mordechais to encourage and inspire us to advance the common good rather than go it alone. As Shabbat ends each week – ironically at the Havdala ceremony – we recite the famous verse of the Megila: “And the Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor.” To accomplish that glorious blessing, what we need to have is not Havdala – separation – but Achdut – unity.