Purim 2012 begins at sundown this Wednesday, March 7, and all I can say is thank you God! Of course that’s a bit ironic because despite the fact that both this holiday and its story appear in the Hebrew Bible, God is never mentioned. That’s right, among other reasons to love this holiday is that from its very inception, and to this very day, it could be shared by believers and non-believers alike.
Why is that so important? Maybe it’s the fact that each day brings new stories in which faith and/or faithlessness are used by politicians and their proxies to vilify those who don’t share their beliefs. Perhaps it’s because the language of who is evil and who is good are being used more and more to describe conflicts both at home and abroad. Perhaps it’s simply that I cling to the notion that we don’t have to demean those with whom we have genuine disagreements, or even those with whom we may need to do battle - cultural or physical.
Whatever the reasons, and it’s actually a combination of all of the above, Purim reminds us of a key insight --one which doesn’t shrink from difference, or even the need to fight existential foes --and it all comes down to knowing that we are one. Even in a world where people speak of good guys and bad guys, sometimes appropriately so, those same people are part of a single human family. Truly knowing that fact should change how we battle, when we battle, how long we battle, etc., whether with words or with weapons.
It is no accident that Mordechai, the paradigmatic good guy of the Purim story, and Haman, the paradigmatic bad guy in same, are cousins descended from their common forefather Issac and foremother Rebecca -- one through Jacob and the other through Esau. In this story, as in much of life, the good guys and the bad guys, whichever side one chooses, are more related than either side can typically see.
In fact, the Talmudic directive that on Purim we must drink so much that we can no longer distinguish between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman” is more than a measure of one’s blood alcohol content - though as someone who enjoys an occasional drink, I appreciate that aspect of the holiday! No, the Talmud’s teaching is much more than that.
With the right “help” we can help ourselves see what we may otherwise choose to avoid or simply not know. With the right help, we live out another Talmudic insight - “when the wine goes in, the secrets come out.”
The secret, when it comes to Mordechai and Haman, is not simply that they are more related than one might have otherwise assumed. Purim’s bigger “secret” is that we ourselves will fail to distinguish between Mordechai and Haman because both of them lie within each of us. That is why it takes but a few drinks to confuse them. Both of their identities were always within us anyway.
I am not suggesting that there is no difference between Mordechai and Haman, nor am I suggesting that we are all equal measures of each of them. I am simply suggesting that, as with all great dramas, on Purim we are meant to identify with each of the characters in the story and see at least a bit of them in ourselves. Only when we see ourselves and each other in that way can we hope to use the political power and influence, which Purim celebrates, in genuinely ethical ways.
Show me the candidate who operates that way, and they will get my vote. Show me the community that operates that way, and they will get my participation. How about you?