Trump and Haman and Ahasuerus..and Mordechai

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.

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Donald Trump at AIPAC. Photo from Tablet Magazine.
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.

Blotting Out (And Putting Back In)

Last week I spoke about writing, this week too I’ll reflect on writing. Last week it was memoir authors, this week it is Torah scribes.

Last Tuesday we had a rare treat at TBH, a sofer—a Torah scribe—came to TBH. He was there to inspect and appraise our Torah scrolls, something which we haven’t had done in over 10 years. Our scribe, Rabbi Gedaliah Druin, is associated with a Miami-based company called Sofer on Site and travels all over the country visiting communities teaching and working on Torah scrolls. Rabbi Druin had a trip to the Northwest planned, and we arranged to have a spot on his tour.

Because of his tight schedule, we did not have the opportunity to organize a class or formal presentation. Rabbi Druin did meet with several folks throughout the day, however. I brought my SPSCC class to meet him, the Senior Schmoozers had a chance to interact, and we did have an open hour during his work during which he received visitors. And I did get the chance to talk to him off and on throughout the day.

A Torah scroll is a unique object, it is a book, a scroll, a text to be read. And at the same time it is sacred, to be handled with care and caution and created in the most deliberate way (handwritten on parchment).  There are certain guidelines one must follow in its creation and handling. An expert—the sofer—is learned in the skills of writing and repairing scrolls. As with any object a Torah scroll, especially since it is constructed of panels of animal-hide parchment sown together and sewn onto wooden poles, is subject to wear and tear, fading and damage. These need to be taken care of. And in order to be fit for ritual use (“kosher”) the Torah has to be fully legible. And in fact, one of our scrolls had some illegible letters, so the sofer fixed them by rewriting them.

[One of the fascinating aspects of watching him work is that he kept saying, as he was inspecting, “this is your scroll, not my scroll.” Meaning it belonged to us at TBH and not to him. Meaning the legibility factor has to be to our standard and not to his. As an expert, he can see things that I may not see, or could fine tune something that for me may be acceptable. So as long as it was legible to me—even if he might fix it if he had his druthers—the scroll was fine and kosher. In fact he asked me a few times what certain letters were, not to test my Hebrew knowledge, but to see if to my eyes it is legible enough.]

As we draw towards Purim this coming weekend, we can think of another scroll, the Megillah. The Megillah (literally, “scroll”) is the term applied to the handwritten book of Esther that is read on the festival. It is created in the same way as a Torah scroll, handwritten on parchment.

One main difference between the Torah and the Megillah is the latter does not contain the name of God. It is unique in the Tanakh (Bible) in this respect, and so serves as a training ground for scribes, who will write a full Megillah before writing a full Torah. Because the work is so exact and holy, and writing the name of God is the most important and sacred part of this work, one must be sure to have the necessary skills and intention. To be able to write a sacred scroll without the fear of making a mistake while writing the name of God (and Rabbi Druin used the term “fear” a lot when referring how he does—and how one should—approach a Torah scroll), is a way to deepen one’s expertise in sofrut (the scribal arts). Rabbi Druin spoke of a sofer he knew who wrote 12 megillot before he wrote his first Torah scroll.

The reading of the Megillah on Purim is not a passive exercise, it is interactive. The main source of interaction is the making of noise when we say the name of that great antagonist, Haman, the counselor to the king of Persia who wished to exterminate the Jews. We use graggers or other noise makers to “blot out” his name from our hearing.

Our tradition links Haman through ancestry to another enemy of Israel, Amalek. In the Torah the story is told of Amalek, a king who attacked the Israelites as they travelled on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. But Amalek didn’t just attack the Israelites, the text says how he specifically attacked the rear of the pack, thus targeting the ill, or infirm or aged who brought up the rear. By preying on the most vulnerable, Amalek is singled out for derision, and the Torah says that we must blot out his name:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.  Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

This passage is read on the Shabbat before Purim as an addition to the regular Torah reading. It has always had its interesting challenges. How does one “blot out” the memory of Amalek? And what does it mean to “remember” Amalek and “blot” him out at the same time?

This term “blotting out” itself is also interesting. It shows up at various times throughout the Torah. After the episode of the Golden Calf, considered the greatest sin of the Israelites because of their turning away from God towards idolatry, God says, “One who has sinned against Me, only he will I blot out from My book.” (Exodus 32:33) The idea here is the same as with Amalek—when we sin, we are erased from God’s consciousness. We have distanced ourselves from God. Amalek and Haman sinned against us, so we erase them from our record.

But not really. Amalek’s name is still recorded in our Torah, it is still a part of our sacred text. How do we “blot it out” when he is still a part of us? The same is true with Haman. Though we drown out his name, we still read it year after year. We blot out their names but yet remember them at the same time. In fact, the act of “blotting out” is an act of remembrance. Indeed, it is more important that we do remember rather than forget—the memory of our enemies and the enemies of humanity should stay in our consciousnesses so as to be able to remember their evil deeds and therefore protect, rather than prey on, the most vulnerable.

And we don’t get blotted out either. With the possibility of teshuvah, of repentance, we always have the opportunity to turn away from our transgressions and to draw back near to the divine. We have the possibility to be rewritten into God’s book.

When Rabbi Druin was working on the scrolls, I got to see an incredible repair. In addition to our three scrolls, Rabbi Druin also inspected the scrolls from Congregation Beth Israel in Aberdeen, a small and active community that I have the privilege of visiting on a regular basis. One of their scrolls had a major tear stretching from one of the rollers through the first column of text, bisecting several words. In order to fix it, Rabbi Druin had to untie the scroll from the roller, and attach patches along the back. To fix the words he had to literally cut out the words that were severed, attach another patch, and rewrite the words. With the cutting out of the words, I saw what it means to “blot out” or “erase”—the words are literally removed from the scroll.

But again, not really. For just as quickly as they are removed they are restored. One bit of wisdom from the sofer: if a scroll is missing a letter, it doesn’t work. Every letter needs to be present and intact. So too with the parts we wish to excise and forget. They are still part of the story. Just not the whole of it.

We remember to blot out in order to remember. And it is in this way we rewrite the story. It is in this way the story works.