Celebrating Purim With a Vengeance

Its often said that Purim is the Jewish Halloween, but some Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn in New York City must have taken that a little too seriously.

When most people think of Purim, they think about funny parties, weird costumes, drinking a lot, and giving gifts to each others. The Jews who put up these Purim decorations decided that wasn’t enough. They decided the Purim symbol they wanted people to remember was t the hanging death of Haman and his sons. The recreated the scene by stringing up a line of eleven manequins on a wire stretched across the street.

There is a medieval tradition of parading with a hanging figure of Haman and then burning the figure up in effigy. Symbolicly burning is a way of wiping something out. Psychologically burning is a form of purification. One might imagine that burning Haman in effigy is a symbolic way of purifying ourselves from the effects of evil, i.e. symbolically ridding ourselves of self-defeating anger, learned fear, anxiety responses and all the other ways suffering and trauma can bend the human soul out of shape. But hanging 11 fake corpses in a row to stare at all day is nothing more than gloating.

Jews aren’t supposed to rejoice in death. The Talmud says that a generation that puts one man to death is a blood thirsty generation. We talk about the effect of death,. For example, wiping out the name of someone and their descendents is a way of saying that they have been completely vanquished and can never cause trouble anymore. However, we don’t rejoice in death itself, nor in the suffering that leads up to it.

Jews believe in respecting dead bodies. According to Jewish tradition even the hung body of a criminal should be taken down before nightfall. Even if the human being who inhabits the body is evil, the human form is in the image of God. To leave it hanging disrespects not just human dignity, but also God.

Jewish tradition teaches that even our enemies deserve a degree of empathy and respect. Each Pesach we dip our finger in our glass of wine and remove ten drops. According to one well known explanation, we diminish our own joy at liberation because our freedom came at a price paid by others.

Judaism believes that the ability to stand up for oneself and the ability to have compassion for one’s enemy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true. The failure to have compassion destroys the ability to protect oneself. Pharoah was a strong leader, yet he is described as having a hardened heart. Each plague in one way or another was meant to provoke empathy and compassion. For many, shared suffering can soften even the hardest of hearts, but this was not the case for Pharoah. He couldn’t even muster compassion for his own people, let alone the Hebrews in his care. Plague after plague Pharoah refused to let the Jews go, even though his own people suffered the price of his stubbornness. Even when he lost his own son he could not feel empathy and compassion for all the Jewish children he had killed during the years he forbid the Jews to reproduce. He could not acknowlege their suffering. Eventually his hard heart killed him. He drowned in the Red Sea pursuing the people he had no compassion for.

Haman too lacked empathy. He was consumed with his need for power and respect. When Haman refused to bow down to him, he began persecuting Mordachai and everything associated with him, including the entire Jewish people. Had he been capable of empathy he would have understood that Mordachai’s refusal to bow was an expression of integrity and not a threat to Haman’s power. Had he been capable of empathy he would have accepted the kings need to honor Mordachai as the person who saved his life. Instead of empathy for the king’s need, Mordachai entertained still more hatred and resentment against Mordachai. Eventually, his self-absorption and lack of empathy sealed his doom: seeking to save his own life he threw himself at Esther with the intent of begging her for his life. He gave little thought to how this might look to the king. Whn the king came in from the garden, he saw Haman attacking Esther. This was the final straw and the king ordered Haman’s death.

Even the Jewish notion of God affirms the compatibility of empathy and honor. God in Judaism is portrayed as a strong warrior, but also as One filled with compassion.

We lower ourselves to the level of Haman if we think that celebrating salvation requires gloating over the death and suffering of others, even long dead fictional others. There’s a reason mischloch manot, tzedakah, and a meal are the Purim mitzvot: they are about sustaining life.

Categories: Building a Better Judaism | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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