Today was Purim, the annual celebration of the events of the biblical book of Esther.
The story goes like this: the Persian King Ahasuerus dismisses his queen Vashti for not appearing at his summons. He invites all the women of the kingdom to appear to see who would become the new queen, and a Jewish woman named Esther is selected. Meanwhile, Ahasuerus appoints a minister Haman, who, angry with Esther’s cousin Mordechai for not bowing down to him, sets out a plot to exterminate the Jews. He convinces the king to issue a decree that on a particular day (chosen by lot) the Jews are to be killed. Learning of the plot, Mordechai persuades Esther to use her position to save the Jews, which she does. A counter decree is issued, Haman is executed and a new holiday is established to mark the occasion.
The observance of Purim has a decidedly non-solemn tone: we sing and dance, dress in costume, share jokes and parody, eat and celebrate and make a lot of noise. We do so because of the happiness which comes from a disaster averted and evil foiled. We are happy because we survived, because we won, because a miracle occurred on our behalf.
As part of the celebration we read the megillah (scroll) which contains the book of Esther. A simple story, yet complex at the same time. Like many texts of scripture, the story of Esther can be understood in many different ways. It is a human drama, a story of redemption and at times even a farce.
This year, however, it is hard to not read the book of Esther as a political drama, complete with jockeying for position, manipulation and power plays.
Haman is the main villain of the story. He is hungry for power and influence, he manipulates the king and hatches and implements the plan to exterminate the Jews. And he does so because he is angered by one Jew, Mordechai. Thus he does not hesitate to stir up hatred and blame and punish an entire people for the supposed slight of one person. And he, along with his own Lady Macbeth Zeresh, seeks to kill Mordechai personally.
Ahasuerus the king is also a villain. He is a tyrant, who holds a beauty pageant (read: sexual contest) to find a new queen, is ready to carry out a plan for genocide. He unwilling to rescind his extermination decree in order to save face, and instead issues another decree permitting killing and looting. While he is the one who issued the decree, he blames Haman and executes him. He is easily manipulated because he is eager to please and hold onto power.
And Mordechai, one of the traditional heroes of the story, also is a political manipulator. He positions Esther to gain power, telling her to hide her Jewish background. He informed on two eunuchs who were angry at the king and got them killed. He then uses Esther’s position to not only save the Jews (which is, of course, a good thing) but for political gain–at the end of the story, he winds up with a plum political appointment, second only to the king.
It is hard not to think of the political overtones in this story as we read it during this Presidential election season. For as the primaries and caucuses continue, we will continue to write the narrative with its heroes and villains.While each contest has its heated moments , the emergent “villain” during this election has been Donald Trump. Popular among voters, but disdained by his own party, Trump has also consistently raised the ire of opponents and pundits alike. His anti-Muslim comments, negativity toward immigrants and ad hominem attacks on his opponents have cast Trump as “the one to stop.” His appearance at AIPAC last week even brought protests and walk outs.
At the same time, he is developing a great following. At AIPAC, while some protested and walked out on Trump, many, many more stood and cheered when he spoke, willing to either tacitly accept or outright ignore his problematic stances in exchange for his support of Israel. And he is the Republican frontrunner for the simple reason that he is winning the most elections and the most delegates. If he eventually loses, we will still have his followers who will potentially be a political force to contend with.
In reading the Purim story in light of the election, it would be easy to cast Trump as Haman, the demagogue who cast aspersions on his enemies, condemning whole peoples for the sake of political gain. But Trump is also King Ahasuerus, who is desirous of power and therefore seeks to please all.
And, Trump is also Mordechai, who elevates his own self-interest above all, making decisions based on personal gain at the expense of others.
And Trump is us. We got him to where he is now.
As we move through the primary season, it is not my place to endorse a particular candidate. I simply share that I believe Trump’s rhetoric to be dangerous and hurtful. I have serious concerns about the lasting effects of what he says, and what impact it will have on our civil society.
And while the Book of Esther can be read as a reflection of the political manipulations we see at work today, there is another angle to the story. One of the reasons we dress up on Purim is to enact the idea that things aren’t always what they seem. A theme of the Purim story is that what was planned could fail to materialize, that what was once thought inevitable was not to be. Things are turned around, events unfold in a way that was not intended.
Here too, perhaps things will turn out differently than they seem. Perhaps the hateful speech and the demagoguery will fail to have staying power. It will if we drown it out like we do Haman’s name on Purim. And when harmful rhetoric gives way to words of love and compassion, that, too, will be worthy of celebration.