March 22, 2024 admin

If only the Megillah were less relevant

Two verses from the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, which we read this Saturday night and Sunday, give me strength and hope.

But first to the story. How I wish it was irrelevant. But beneath its smiling surface, Esther’s charm and King Achashverosh’s fickle favour, it’s vicious.

In two verses Haman, the villain, encapsulates antisemitism’s every trope: the Jews are everywhere, follow rules of their own, won’t mix and have lots of money.

He carries a long history of hating. He’s an Agagite, from the royal line of Amalek who ambushed the Israelites in the desert, slaughtering the weary and weak. In the Torah, Amalek is the embodiment of cruelty, against which God is eternally at war. But, it’s essential to understand this, the Talmud makes it clear that Amalek long ago ceased to exist. No one today is literally Amalek.

Haman’s hatred doesn’t come from nowhere. His ancestor, the first Amalek, is Esau’s grandchild. A shrewd legend has grandfather tell grandson: ‘I couldn’t take revenge on Jacob for cheating me; killing him would have made my father Isaac die of grief. I bequeath to you the duty of vengeance.’ Mordechai’s ‘great and bitter cry’ when he hears Haman’s plan to kill the Jews echoes exactly Esau’s ‘bitter cry’ a thousand years earlier, when he finds Jacob has taken his blessing. Haman no doubt sees himself as the true victim. Hurts don’t go nowhere.

But the Jews of Persia are victims indeed, exiled from their land when Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, forced to court favour, subject to both royal and popular whim.

So the story depicts a horrible ‘concurrence victimaire’ , in the recently coined French phrase. No one feels secure, even King Achashverosh, who amorally plays Agagite and Jew against each other, with the sole aim of self-preservation.

The tables turn and the Jews forcefully defend themselves, killing thousands, egged on by Achashverosh who wants all Haman’s followers dealt with, but in such a way that he can lay the blame, should it subsequently prove necessary, on those Jews. Here the Megillah ends. But we can guess the next turn of the screw.

So much of today’s pain is here. What was done to Israel by Hamas with such calculated brutality is unspeakably horrific. The ongoing trauma, especially of the families of hostages and those wounded or killed, is shattering. The hatred unleashed against Jews worldwide is appalling. The starving misery of hundreds of thousands of Gazan civilians, into whose wretched fate Hamas has cynically drawn us, so that we too are implicated, is utterly terrible. 

Thus heavy in heart, I turn to my two verses for guidance.

The first is Mordechai’s message when he begs Esther to petition the king to save their people: ‘If you stay silent now…’ I hear those words whenever the world confronts us with cruelty and wrong. They’re not an invitation to join the social media racket. They’re a command to do what we can, whatever our capacity, to make life better for someone somewhere. We’re not allowed to do nothing, and that imbues us with purpose.

The second is Mordechai and Esther’s instruction: ‘Each to their neighbour and gifts to the needy.’ It’s why we send presents of food on Purim. But the words mean more: ‘Be there for your fellow human beings.’ We need the companionship of our own people. But we must also go further, reach out hands, whenever we can, with members of other faiths. We must listen to their pain, and they to ours, so that together we can uphold each other’s humanity and re-open doors and hearts.

Only thus will we move beyond prejudice and hatred toward ‘the words of peace’ with which the Megillah closes.

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