March 6, 2020
This Shabbat, we read from Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), which teaches us about the special clothing for the priesthood. In addition, this is also Shabbat Zachor (Sabbath of Remembrance) which is the special Shabbat before the Festival of Purim. It’s easy to tell a story in which there is a good guy, a bad guy, a beautiful damsel, and a character who adds a bit of mirth to the story. We cheer for the hero and boo at the villain, and we can laugh at the foolish antics of the middle man who adds an element of humor to the story. That’s how we tell the story of Purim. We take great pleasure at booing Haman and pointing an accusing finger at him. Can anyone doubt that he is the bad guy? But there is nothing simple or lighthearted about this story. It is a story about genocide. And it is not always clear who the real villain is.
Some suggest that this is “The untold story of Purim,” because there is a whole piece of this story that we seem to ignore. Haman is not the only villain in the story of Purim. And he may not even be the most dangerous one.
Let’s go back for a moment. King Achashverosh appoints Haman as his number one man on his cabinet. The Megillah says, “The King advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials.” Immediately, the courtiers begin bowing down to Haman, “For such is the King’s order,” they say. Yet, the Megillah never tells us that the people had to bow down to Haman. This was, apparently, their choice. And when Mordechai doesn’t follow the other courtiers, they become angry with him. “Why do you disobey the king’s orders?” they ask.
If I had been Mordechai, I would have told the subservient courtiers who were apparently currying favor with Haman, that no where is it written that they must bow to the vizier of Persia. Instead Mordechai explains that he is a Jew and Jews don’t bow down to others. Angry with Mordechai for not being part of the crowd, the courtiers go to Haman and say, “Mordechai the Jew won’t bow to you. What are you going to do about it?” And it’s only then that Haman decides to get rid of Mordechai by buying off the king and killing all the Jews in Persia.Who’s the real villain in the story of Purim? Is it Haman who attempts to pull the trigger? Or is it the courtiers who incite Haman to violence and turn on Mordechai because he is different? Or is it King Achashverosh, the fool and the bystander, who goes along with Haman quite passively and lets him do as he pleases.
Haman may be the villain but he is not the only bad guy in this story. It may be comforting to us to point a finger at the person who acts on his prejudice and hate, but more often than not, it takes others to get him or her there. It takes people to incite the villain. It takes others to quietly express their bigotry and intolerance in words and actions to inspire others to take another step and move on to violence.
In our religious education program, we have taught our students about the pyramid of hatred. I want you to imagine this pyramid. At the bottom are biased attitudes such as stereotyping, insensitive remarks, and non-inclusive actions. Just above this level in the next stage of the pyramid are acts of bias such as bullying, and name calling. Above this is discrimination, and then bias motivated violence. At the very top of the pyramid is genocide. Genocide doesn’t just happen. It takes attitudes, words, small actions and limited acts of violence to create room for genocide to occur. But it takes something more, as well. The pyramid must be built on a foundation of indifference and apathy. There must be people who just don’t care or who will do whatever is necessary to make an extra dollar.
So, I ask you again, who is the real villain of Purim? Is it Haman ben Hammdata, or is it the courtiers in the palace or is it the indifferent king who is willing to look away for the right price? Haman didn’t just happen. He was created in a cultural and social background.
The people who have been in acts of violence against others didn’t just wake up one day and decide to kill people who were immigrants, Jewish, Muslems, or other minorities. To quote the words of the song from South Pacific,
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Politicians and other leaders don’t simply decide to take aim at Israel out of nowhere. As some of them readily admit, they grew up hearing such prejudice all their lives. They too had to learn to hate.
I don’t remember a period in my lifetime when I was this fearful of anti-Semitism, or a time when Shabbat Zachor seemed so relevant. Every one of our students in our educational programs has now some form of anti-Semitism in school or on the field of competition. I grew up believing anti-Jewish bigotry was a thing of the past. I no longer think so.
But the problem is not ours alone. We are living in a world where non-inclusionary language and hate speech is becoming an every day occurrence, not only against Jews but against all types of people and groups. And if we think we can defend ourselves and ignore the prejudices against others, then we are the ground on which the pyramid of hate is being built. As we celebrate Purim this year, maybe we should do so with a little less joy and more with an awareness that Haman is out there. He is standing along with the courtiers and the indifferent leaders who are willing to pretend that hate is not real. Instead of booing Haman maybe we should stop and silently contemplate where he is; or if Haman is right here with us.