Tonight the celebration of the holiday of Purim begins. Purim is a Jewish holiday often neglected outside the more religious communities in America and the State of Israel because it commemorates an attempt to exterminate the Jews. And we all know that stopped being a problem long ago.
If Purim had culminated with some smart power diplomacy and a lesson on tolerance, liberal Jews might be more inclined to celebrate it. Unfortunately it ends with a genocidal madman being hung from a tree and the Jews fighting for their lives, winning and slaughtering their enemies.
And instead of feeling guilty about it, their descendants eat pastries, dress up in costumes, and get drunk. At least those of their descendants who believe in survival instead of surrender.
Liberal Jews complain about the difference of values they have with Israeli Jews who insist on survival instead of surrender. They have an even bigger difference of values with the Jews of the Bible. And with Jews throughout history. Not to mention with the religion of the Jewish people.
The more liberal a Jew is, the less likely he is to celebrate the substance of his people’s holidays, as they conflict with his worldview and virtues. Moshe, the Maccabees, and Mordechai don’t seem like role models, not even if you rebrand them as community organizers and claim that they were fighting prejudice. There is something relentlessly bloody-minded about them. They care very little about a sustainable environment or LGBT rights, and instead walk through the corpses of their enemies with no regrets or apologetic winces. They stand up for their own people in a regrettable show of tribalism that perpetuates the cycle of violence instead of preaching about Tikkun Olam.
The story of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, is the story of how Mordechai, the descendant of the first Jewish king of Israel, snubbed the Grand Vizier of a multicultural empire by refusing to bow to him. The obstinate Benjaminite so infuriated the Vizier that he plotted to kill all the Jews.
The smart thing to do would have been to bow to Haman. To invite him to AIPAC and let him give a pre-written speech and then give him a standing ovation. Then the important official might have been willing to help out the struggling Jews of the Second Commonwealth in Israel. Instead the narrow-minded fanatic offended Haman. And the angry Agagite decides to strangle the newly reborn Second Commonwealth of Israel and all the other Jews throughout the Persian Empire.
By refusing to bow to Haman, Mordechai had turned the formerly moderate Haman into an extremist. He had radicalized him. Jewish leaders hurried to reassure Haman that this fanatic was in no way representative of their values of tolerance and appeasement. Hadn’t they attended the feast where the sacred vessels of their own people were used to serve wine and spirits to the mob? Rather than anticipating the return to their land at the end of the prophesied 70 year period of exile, they had cheered the brutish tyrant and made Sushan, his capital, into their new holy city.
A few tens of thousands had gone back to Israel, which the empire had repopulated with other peoples. There they struggled to survive, building half the day and keeping watch with their spears from the time the stars came out until the sun rose. Most Jews however had remained behind in the Persian Empire. The struggling settlements of the Jews under the last of the prophets seemed like a futile proposition. The future belonged to empires, to Babylon, Persia, and Rome.
There was no room anymore for the sort of pride displayed by Mordechai. This was Haman’s hour. Israel was gone and would never return. Rebuilding the Temple was a fool’s dream. Why go off to some place your ancestors had come from, to slave in the hot sun, to choke on dust and sleep with a spear by your side expecting an attack from the nomads that had settled in the land?
In Sushan, the wine is plentiful, the bazaars are never closed, and the empire will never fall.
There is no room for ancient dreams in the new empire. No room for old fables about slavery and freedom. Perhaps in ancient times some deity had liberated them from Egypt, but here in the modern present, it was the fall of the Babylonian Empire which had raised them up out of slavery and given them a place among the subject peoples of a new empire. They bowed to Haman and to the new order. They gave up their dreams and their religion, and drank headily of the wine at the festival of the king. On their couches, they dreamed they saw a new world opening before them.
But Mordechai, narrow-minded fanatic that he was, only saw an old world. And he was determined to fight for it. He wasn’t willing to let the old dreams die. To bow to Haman and to imagine, as so many Jewish leaders have done, that some accommodation with evil could be made on mutually beneficial terms. Mordechai was not a man of the Empire. He was an Ish Yehudi. A Jew.
He saw through the illusion of empires and new ages. He saw what his first ancestor had seen when he looked at the sky. He saw that the only true permanence was G-d. Nations would fall, empires would perish, and even the stars would burn out. Only G-d would endure.
And so he did not bow. And Haman understood what his refusal meant.
Had Mordechai refused to bow out of personal pride, Haman might have had him and his family killed. But Mordechai refused to bow to Haman because he was a Jew. Haman sensed that the old man had seen through him. The emperor was naked. The old man in rags at the gates did not worship power. He might rule, but had no appetite for it. He worshiped only G-d.
Was it personal conviction? Haman investigated and learned that Mordechai was a member of an obscure people. A people who do not worship the empire, but worship G-d.
And so they all had to die. The king was bribed. The letters were sealed and sent. The decree was death. It was all over.
But Mordechai had seen more than the nakedness of Haman, the crawling, insecure lackey, filled with hatred for the Persian ruler, flattering him and craving the ultimate power he could not have. He had seen the nakedness of the empire and the age. His eyes had seen past the horses and palaces, the ranks of scribes penning decrees, the harems, bureaucracies, and armies.
Mordechai knew that all this would pass away. He had seen through the illusion that every age brings with it the end of history, a new age whose achievements break with the past and usher in a boundless future. The shadow crosses the sundial, the walls come crashing down, and the new era of history ends up buried under the rubble of time.
Exile divides the Jewish people into Jews and New Age Jews. Jews wander on their meandering course through history concerning themselves with a past that modern people dismiss as myth and legend, more ancient than that story about Troy, and even more dubious.
The New Age Jews always see the coming of a new era of history, a bright and shining plateau that makes all those old moldy beliefs completely irrelevant. History ends and now a new age of human progress begins. The age of Alexandria, the age of Sushan, the age of Berlin. How, in such a new age, could they be expected to take a few bygone fairy tales retold by barbarians seriously? Such things weren’t for enlightened people who were witnessing the peak of human civilization.
The old Jews know what the New Age Jews do not, that history has not ended, that the past is still with us, and that it has sharp teeth. They know that Man has not changed, that his sophistication is still only a shell, and that sooner or later the shell cracks. If it does not crack from within, then it is cracked from without.
Those who feel time in their bones know the patterns of history, reading ages like constellations, can never lose themselves in one age or fall into the fallacy of a new era. They know that there is nothing new under the sun. Machines may come and go, but the world is a broken place because the hearts of men have not turned from their ways. And so they remember that every age carries within it the seeds of its ruin. They witness the ruin, climb out of the ashes, and move on.
Liberal pieties embrace the new age, fixate on a final transformative era of history at the hands of messiahs who promise hope and change, who will uplift us and inspire us to make the world into a better place. But history never ends. That is the lesson of the Holocaust, of Purim, and of countless other horrifying intrusions of the old into the new. The shining new era that begins with grand public spectacles and displays of the power and might of an empire, ends with corpses and men and women fighting and running for their lives.
Jews like Mordechai understand this. New Age Jews do not.
The confrontation between Mordechai and Haman was a collision between two different conceptions of history. It was a contest for the Jewish soul.
Mordechai defied Haman to remind the Jews, who had abandoned religion and nation for the new age of the Persian Empire, of the ugly and bloody truths under the hollow glories of that new age.
In every age, the Jewish soul is nearly lost and then redeemed. The people seem on the verge of vanishing, but then survive. Mordechai understood that the future of the Jews did not depend on the Persian Empire. It depended on their willingness to remember who they were. And so he defied Haman and brought on a Holocaust. And at the end of it, the Jews fought for their survival.
Purim, a holiday preceded by a fast kept by the men going into battle and their loved ones, is not about forgiving your enemies, progressive taxation, or coming out of the closet. It is about survival. Not mere survival, but the skin of the teeth sense of how close we came, that moment of revelation which pulls back the curtains of the material world and reminds us of the impossibility of our survival under all the ordinary rules of the world that new ages are found on. It reminds us that behind the scenes of the brick and mortar, steel and steam world, is something else entirely. A force that breaks apart the towers of history, that saves us when we should have died, that has entrusted us with a mission. It reminds us of what the world is and reminds us of Itself and of what we are.
When you stand on the edge of death, life is a revelation. It is not our deaths under the Egyptian sun, the blades and bullets of a thousand empires and kingdoms, or the ovens of Dachau that we are obsessed with. It is that moment of survival. The revelation that even amid the horrors of all that we have witnessed and the terrible things that we had to do to survive, we have risen out of the ground, watched the flesh cover our bones and stood alive again upon the earth. Every time we survive, we are reminded of the fragility of the world and of our enemies who, wielding every power and trick, have failed to destroy us. Each time we rise, we transcend the world, in confronting our dead, we confront our immortality.
It is not a purely joyous experience. The day of Purim is preceded by a day of fasting. Before the celebration comes a day of battle as the struggle to survive, the long decline into the abyss, the final desperate hours, suddenly give way to the upheaval of an impossible salvation. We remember the pain, the sense of the grave closing over us, the bodies lying everywhere, the certainty that we will be next. We accept the hopelessness of our situation, and then we walk out of the grave and, praising G-d, sit down to the feast.
This is Jewish history. It is an alien one to the New Age Jew who clings tightly to the new era and its rules, to its pieties and its mores, who scowls at the old ones for refusing to come and join the imperial festivities where the vessels of the temple are used to serve drinks and the mob toasts that the 70 years have come and gone, and still there is no chance of the Jews returning to their Jerusalem and reclaiming the lost history. “The past is the past,” says the New Age Jew. “The past is the present is the future,” says the Jew.
The feast of the New Age is the celebration of the end of history, a golden time when there is an unlimited bounty for all, where the wine and the free health care will never run out, where everyone will live together under one government in perfect brotherhood for all time. Many Jews are drawn to this feast, its golden vessels, its vast bounty, and its glorious ideals. But then enters the Grand Vizier and some of them begin to frown for though he wears rich garments and speaks soothing words, he is a monster. They don’t always know how they know it, but it is a nagging feeling that creeps into them that there is something rotten at the heart of this new age.
Most of them still bow to him, touching their heads to the floor, some even embrace him and celebrate his vision. They assure others that he is our friend, the only man who can realize the promise of this age, a wise and noble leader whose vision of change brings new hope. But one or two stay away from the feast and refuse to bow to him. Instead they look to Jerusalem, to where the battle between good and evil was once fought, and where it will be fought again. They know him for what he is.
The Grand Vizier knows that he must destroy them, must destroy them all, because they have seen through what he is, and they have seen through the shallow trappings of the golden age of fools. They know that there is more to the world than the might of men and the cornucopias of kings. They know that he is not all-powerful and when he looks at them, a scowl wrinkles his face, because he knows it too.
So he casts a lot, random chance in a random world where chance is supreme and the whim of every ruler outweighs the weight of history. The bills are signed, the laws are passed, the decrees go out, the officers from the vast imperial bureaucracy are assigned to inform every citizen that their new age will be inaugurated with blood. A people who are not a proper part of the multicultural empire of laws must be wiped out in a properly democratic fashion. Crowd-sourced genocide.
And then the Grand Vizier ends up dangling from a rope, the tanks break through to Berlin, the chariots fall into the sea, the mustachioed dictator dies in a bedroom in Moscow, his clothes soaked in his own urine — and everything has gone completely wrong.
It’s an old story and a new story. We tell it over and over again because it is always happening. It is our story and the story of the world. It is the story we have accepted from our parents, and it is the story that we will pass on to our children. It is the story of the blood sacrifice of the New Age that goes wrong. The sacrifice survives, bloodied and scarred, the New Age goes down to ruin.
Purim exists because Queen Esther asked the Jews of Israel to write of her for generations. The Persian Empire she had become a part of, the sacrifice she made by leaving the physical stream of Jewish history to be repaid by becoming a vital part of its spiritual history, would fall. Not in her time, but it would. The memory would be carried on by the Jews. Purim is that memory.
Jewish holidays celebrate the interconnection of Jewish survival and productivity with G-d. The Second Commonwealth fell. Israel may fall. A thousand years from now, the world may little resemble anything we can imagine. And yet, somewhere, Jewish children will celebrate Purim as they have for thousands of years. They may even celebrate other holidays, still unimagined, other memories of salvation from horrors yet to come and remembrances of tragedies yet to be experienced. And if we look through history, as Mordechai did through Haman and the Persian Empire, we may be able to see them on the other side, the descendants of those who survived the whips of Egypt, the slave markets of Babylon, the armies of Rome, the sword and the flame, the concentration camp and the suicide bomber, celebrating a million holidays yet to come
[Editor’s note: this article first appeared at Sultan Knish .]