Purim: With enemies like these
Diaspora assimilation and anti-Semitism are the greatest dangers of all.
The rising wind of anti-Semitism is once again threatening our people, from the Dubai tennis games to the anti-Israel Durban conference, to the boycotts of Israeli goods in Turkey, to the vandals in Venezuela, to European Jew-battering, to accusations of Jewish responsibility for the global financial crisis.
But can even anti-Semitism have a redeeming quality?
Let us look to Purim for the answer.
Purim is a joyous - but rather anomalous - festival. Yes, it captures the universal seriousness of good triumphing over evil, but for this one day a year, the relatively strict attitudes of Judaism are replaced with a carnival-like atmosphere of parades, drinking and masks. The Talmud even commands us to get so drunk "...that we cannot tell the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai" (B.T. Megilla 7B).
To understand the meaning of this strange directive, as well as to answer our opening question, let's explore the identity of Purim's real hero. Is it the great Jewish beauty who wins the king's heart, and pleads before the one man with the power to save her people?
Or is the hero the king himself who, despite being surrounded by evil men - most notably Haman - is able to rise above their prejudice toward the Jews, who are scattered across his land, keeping their own laws? When he withdraws the edict, the king demonstrates the kind of wisdom that some monarchs have had toward their Jewish subjects throughout the ages.
Or is Mordecai - humble, saintly, self-effacing - the hero whom Divine Providence put in the right place at the right time, allowing him to overhear the assassination plot of two of Ahasuerus's ministers, thereby saving the king's life? Or perhaps he's the hero because he never forgets he is a Jew, refusing to bow to Haman no matter the cost.
To better understand who the real hero might be, we should pay close attention to the talmudic dictum that we drink until we can't tell the difference between cursing Haman or blessing Mordecai.
Shushan, the capital of Ahasuerus's kingdom, was probably like any great melting pot. The Book of Esther describes events that took place between 536 BCE and 516 BCE, after Cyrus permitted the Judeans to return to Israel but before the Second Temple was built. Most of the Jews chose to remain in Persia, where they would not have to face the financial and military insecurity which awaited them in Judea. Indeed, the Scroll of Esther may well be the first work to describe what happens to a Jewish community that chooses to remain in exile.
The Jews were the cream of Shushan society, with PJYs (Persian Jewish Yuppies) showing up everywhere. Indeed, the Scroll of Esther opens with the king's invitation to attend a great feast at his palace - with no mention of kosher caterers. Even intermarriage seems so deeply entrenched that when the niece of the leading religious Jew of the city marries the king, the text only says that "...she was taken" (Esther 2:8). There is no indication that she put up a fight or at least shaved her head in an attempt to make herself ugly when she was supposed to be primping in the king's harem. She doesn't reveal her Jewish lineage - and Ibn Ezra mentions a commentator (whom he rejects) who suspects that she hides her identity to enhance her chances of becoming queen.
Perhaps God's name does not appear because in Shushan these Jews had left no room for Him in their lives. Be that as it may, history teaches us that the ruler of the universe has plans for His people. In effect, God was saying: "Either you will remember that you're Jews on your own, or I'll have to remind you."
And so Haman arises.
The paradigm for the rule of Divine Providence is to be found in the beginning of the Book of Exodus, when the Bible describes the prosperous descendants of Jacob's family in Egypt: "...And the Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed [vayishratzu], multiplied and waxed exceedingly mighty, and the land was filled with them" (Exodus 1:7). The midrash picks up on the verb "to swarm" which includes the root noun sheretz, an impure reptile. The Bible is apparently suggesting that the Hebrews were saturating the cultural landscape of Egypt, swarming into the bars and brothels.
And then what happens? "There arose a new king over Egypt" (Exodus 1:8). The party is over. Edicts begin. Jews are forbidden to socialize with Egyptians. Death is in the air. Male children are drowned in the Nile, or conscripted at the age of eight.
When Jews in the Diaspora forget they are Jews, a gentile will remind them. His name may be Pharaoh, or Haman, or Stalin, or Hitler, or Ahmadinejad.
Let us now return to the Scroll of Esther. Ahasuerus has arbitrarily placed total power in the hands of a new grand vizier - Haman - who loses no time in choosing a day when the Jews of Persia may be murdered as free game. Mordecai, in sackcloth and ashes, appears before the palace gates in a loud demonstration on behalf of his people. He can no longer remain silent - and bids Esther (whose Persian name, which comes from the goddess Astarte, can also mean "hidden") to come "out of the closet" and plead for her people before the king. At that moment, placing her life on the line for her nation, Esther becomes possibly the first ba'alat teshuva (religious penitent). She succeeds in her mission, the Jews are granted the right to defend themselves, and Haman with his offspring are hanged.
The midrash of Esther Rabba says that the son Esther bore Ahasuerus, Darius, allowed the Jews in Judea to complete the Second Temple.
On Purim, we are commanded to drink. Now the reason is beginning to come clear. Without Haman, the tide of assimilation would have continued, resulting in Jewish oblivion. Thus, in a rather twisted way, we owe our continued existence to this archetypal anti-Semite. Yes, it is natural to praise Mordecai, but had it not been for Haman, neither Mordecai nor Esther would have stepped to the plate and emerged as true Jews. And we need to drink in order to blot out the difference between the Jewish patriot and the gentile anti-Semite who activated him. We need the stimulus of wine to celebrate a Jewish victory which has its source in anti-Semitism! If Jews ever think the Diaspora is more secure than their homeland, let the Scroll of Esther remind them that assimilation and anti-Semitism are the greatest dangers of all.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.