Thinking about the story of Esther often leaves me deeply confused and disturbed. Though the holiday of Purim is festive and celebratory with a seemingly happy-ever-after ending, elements of the story give me great pause. There are questions that seem to resurface through Jewish history — big questions. Why does Haman hate the Jews? Why is there anti-Semitism? Why do people choose to hate? If we see Haman on the bully continuum, what does that mean for us and our lives? Are we but steps away from such hatred or is it possible to dream of a day without hate?
Though there are many who choose to consider just about everything in the Book of Esther aside from the very blaring impetus for the story, I agree with you. It really should be a central part of our conversation. Though it is tempting to discuss the heroism of Esther, the perspicacity of Mordechai, the feminism of Vashti and the foolishness of Ahasuerus, who, following his advisor’s advice, gets rid of his wife and then follows his wife’s advice and gets rid of his advisor — I am with you. Time to stare down evil in the face! As the current lingo goes, what’s up with Haman? Where does all this hate come from? As Rodney King might interject, “Can’t we all just get along?”
We have many a sleek technique to our Haman avoidance syndrome. It is discernible in our decided effort to comic-ize Haman. We grogger him with vigor, toss water balloons at him with glee, and energetically costume ourselves in three-cornered hats! We sing about him, jest about him and reduce him to a silly joke of an enemy. We laugh until we cry. It is a complicated abhorrence, quintessentially represented by our son back so long ago when, as a boy of 7, he excitedly dressed up as Haman, diabolical moustache and all — only to discard the garb at the door of the shul with disgust. The reality of his assumed persona hit him as he approached the doors of the holy space. The temptation to embody and thus control the evil was too much for him to bear.
Some might say there are deep roots to this Haman hatred. It is a story that begins with the blessing bestowed upon one son, and denied to the other. As progenitor of Haman, a unique brand of hatred is assigned to Esau by the sages. It is seen as an incomprehensible state of affairs. It is Halachah, almost a law of nature, that Esau hates Jacob. There is but one blessing to be given, and it is not to him. Esau is grandfather to Amalek, those who attack the Israelites on their way out of Egypt and whose King Agag is wrongly spared by King Saul, ancestor of Mordechai. Ironically, here in the Megillah the two powers once again take center stage, pitted against each other. This is not a new conflict.
This chosenness rankles the mobs. There is a sense that the People Israel have some special connection to a transcendent mystery, a national commitment to that which is unseen, yet ever present. We seem to have a staying power larger than life. They are aware of this noble embrace we have of a destiny to be realized by all mankind and our profound acknowledgement of the promise of every soul.
Anti-Semites are not members of an exclusive club. It has been a camaraderie that traverses economic class, religion and social spheres. Hence the wonderment: Why hate the Jews? Whether they be in ghettoes, or assimilated, rich or poor, local or abroad, they are not spared. What is this non-discriminating abhorrence? Perhaps it is a simple case of envy. There is something about the Jews that they just cannot comprehend, that intangible quality that they ironically hunger to taste.
Mordechai refuses to bow to the newly promoted Haman, who then launches his attack to Ahasuerus, and the plot begins to unfold: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profits not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed.”
No matter that he is second to the king, Mordechai’s very being and lack of kowtowing irks Haman into his ultimate downfall.
But why does Haman need the obeisance of others in order to exist? Why does he need a Mordechai to bow to him? Rabbi Solovietchik explains that each of us here in this world must confront our finiteness; our dire existential predicament. We are not here forever. That we are not all-powerful is the challenge each of us must ultimately confront. Getting beyond this truth and navigating life around it is what each of us is about. Though there are a number of redemptive paths to follow, some of us choose to circumnavigate this ornery certainty by avoiding it all together.
There is a lot out there to numb this pain: Drugs, work, shopping, alcohol, entertainment, hedonism and power. Therein lies the rub. For those who are unable to sit with the truth of their existence here on earth, there is many an escape. For the bullies among us, they find their relief in our torment. Their victims most often are the ones who have exactly what their victims do not. Consider a familiar bully: Could be in a class, a synagogue, a community or organization. He despises most the person who has what he lacks. She is tragically drawn to this person and sets out to bring her down.
Haman sought power to offset his deep-feared existential inadequacies. Petrified of his own finiteness, Haman found his only viable way to exist was to bring down the one person who would not tolerate his power grab. Some call this hatred for the sake of hatred.
Though it does not seem to be an envied position, a pious victim of a pogrom reflected that given the choice, he would rather be the person laying on the ground with the boot of the persecutor at this throat, rather than be the persecutor whose boot digs into the neck of a fellow human. Why we are hated may not be as useful of a question as, given our experience of being hated, what can we do to eradicate senseless hate? What can each of us do daily to combat distance between “the other”? What in our gifted finite life can we contribute to helping others realize their God-given potential to do good? How’s that for a Purim riddle!