by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 9, 2001
Perhaps none of the canonical texts so speak to the situation of the modern Jew as Megillat Esther. G-d is not mentioned once in the text. No miracles take place. G-d's presence has to be discerned in the remarkable concantenation of events rather than in the suspension of the laws of nature.
Every year we discover uncanny parallels between the ancient text and our present situation of G-d's hiddenness.
The entire Megillah can be read as one long object lesson in how "a man's pride will bring him low" (Proverbs 29:23). Our Sages identify, Ahashverosh's advisor Memuchan, as Haman. Memuchan was muchan (destined) for punishment, they say, precisely because of his pride. Despite being the last named of the advisors, he pushed himself to the fore and was the first to advise Ahashverosh about what to do with his rebellious queen Vashti.
For his advice, Memuchan-Haman was elevated to be viceroy of the world's dominant empire, and all the king's servants were ordered to prostrate themselves before him. At first glance, then, his effrontery was rewarded with everything his proud heart could desire: honor, wealth, and power.
Yet, as the Midrash says, Haman was raised high only in order that his ultimate fall would be that much greater. His very elevation led to his downfall. He became so full of himself that the sight of even one Jew, Mordechai, not bowing down to him filled him with such rage that he determined to destroy the entire Jewish people. "All this [wealth, fame, and power] is worth nothing," he declares, "so long as I see that Jew Mordechai sitting at the King's gate."
The two-day period in which Haman crashes commences when he enters the Achashverosh's court early in the morning to ask for permission to hang Mordechai from a fifty-foot high tree. Achashverosh asks him what should be done for the man he wants to honor, and Haman naturally thinks to himself, "Whom could the king wish to honor more than me?"
When the one whom Achashverosh seeks to honor turns out to be his archenemy Mordechai, Haman finds himself leading Mordechai, dressed in the king's royal robe and riding the royal steed, around Shushan. Two days later, Haman is hung from the tree prepared for Mordechai, his demise a direct result of his own decision to destroy Mordechai and the entire Jewish people with him.
We have just witnessed the same process of pride bringing low the mighty. A Prime Minister who deliberately encouraged the popular image of him as capable of doing anything - "Peace with the Syrians, peace with the Palestinians, no problem, I'll just announce a time table and everything will fall into place" - found himself thrown out of public life in the most humiliating fashion after only 20 months on center stage.
The lesson that pride goeth before the fall, however, seems to have been lost on our politicians, who showed no hesitation in telling any reporter within earshot, "I'm by far the best candidate for (Defense, Finance . . . ) Minister." They all seem to have convinced themselves that if they fail to attain the desired position the very survival of the state is endangered. "Apres moi le deluge," is no longer a sentiment reserved for kings: in Israel, every two-bit politician thinks that way. If our politicians are any clue, our socialization processes have completed broken down when it comes to teaching a certain reticence about tooting one's own horn.
In addition to the negative lessons to be learned from Haman's downfall, there is an even more important positive lesson for us from the Megillah - the necessity of Jewish unity.
Haman was the greatest master of lashon hara, derogatory but true speech. The Rabbis saw this in his description of the Jewish people to Achashverosh as a "divided and dispersed people among the other nations [of the kingdom]." With that description, Haman highlighted the vulnerability of the Jewish people of his day: their disunity.
Our Sages turn the opening phrase of Haman's accusation, "Yeshno am echad . . . - There is a one nation," to read, "Yashein Echad m'amo - He Who is One is sleeping from His nation." As long as the Jews are divided and dispersed, G-d hides Himself from them and appears to be sleeping.
Without unity, the Jewish people cannot fulfill their mission of proclaiming G-d's unity. Our unity mirrors His. Just as our phylacteries contain the verse, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord, Our G-d, is One," the allegorical phylacteries worn by G-d contain the verse, "Who is like Your people, Israel, one nation on earth?" Only when we are joined by a common will to reveal G-d's presence do we become one nation, G-d's unique people.
The Jews of Persia overcome Haman only when they rediscovered their own unity. The turnabout of their fortunes begins wwith Esther telling Mordechai to gather all the Jews of Shushan to fast for her. Twice in the Megillah, singular verbs are employed in place of the plural. The Jews of Persia are described as gathering to defend themselves in the singular. Later, when they accept upon themselves forever the Purim customs they had already observed in celebration of their deliverance, the verb for accepting is written in the singular.
The obvious parallel is to Sinai, where the Torah employs a singular verb to describe the entire Jewish people encamping opposite Sinai. "As one man, with one heart," comment our Sages. Indeed the Sages described the reaction of Jews of Persia to their salvation as a second acceptance of the Torah.
Recognizing that our deliverance from Haman depended on a refound unity, the Rabbis instituted Purim customs that would perpetuate feelings of love between Jews: special gifts to the poor and presents to one's friends. Those customs are not incidental to the day, but expressions of its very essence.
The Jews of Israel still have a ways to go before we can be described as united by a common mission of revealing G-d's presence in the world. But there has been, in reason months, a quest for national unity and an intuition that without it we will not survive. Opinion polls show four-fifths of the population supporting a national unity government.
May that political unity be a harbinger of a much deeper and more lasting unity of one nation with one heart.
A freilichen Purim.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Purim
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