Thursday, February 21, 2013

Being a Servant of Ahashverosh

Purim is a post-Zionist holiday if ever there was one. As the closing credits of the Megillah roll by, Mordechai and Esther stay happily situated in Persia, never batting an eye towards the land of Israel. The Esther story defies the traditional happy end of Biblical Judaism – and of most American tales – of finding redemption in the promised land.
The Book of Esther is belligerently acting outside the traditional Jewish paradigms of Exile vs. Redemption (or Zion vs. Diaspora, Old country vs. New land, dark past vs. bright future). Sure, there are a few throw away lines in the Megillah – traditionally sung to the tune of Eicha – that remind us of the exile tragedy in the background. But Purim offers something much more interesting than the simple dichotomy of Exile/Redemption. Purim is about living with the absurd, or in the language of the Talmud: “Being a servant of Ahashverosh.”
The Talmud in Tractate Megillah is troubled by the fact that Purim does not fit the traditional mold of redemptive Jewish holidays. This is manifested halakhically through the question of whether Hallel, that string of praiseful Psalms said on joyous occasions, should be said on Purim:
Purim commemorates a miracle –
shouldn’t Hallel should be said? […]
Rava said:
On Passover, Hallel can be said, for we recite there “Give praise servants of the Lord” – and not servants of Pharaoh!
On Purim however, can we really recite “Give praise servants of the Lord” – and not servants of Ahashverosh!? Why, now we indeed are servants of Ahashverosh!
Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a and Arakhin 10a

"פורים דאיכא ניסא לימא! [...]
רבא אמר:
בשלמא התם, הללו עבדי ה' - ולא עבדי פרעה,
הכא הללו עבדי ה' - ולא עבדי אחשורוש?
אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן".

תלמוד ערכין י ע"א

As Purim arrives this year, I hear Rava’s statement ringing in my ears. Are we indeed all servants of Ahashverosh?
Rava, might be making a simple claim: living in 4th century Babylonia under Persian Sassanid rule he is indeed a “servant of Ahashverosh” in the full political sense.
Reading this text today however, I can’t help but feel that the idea of being a “servant of Ahashverosh” has an existential edge to it which is ever so relevant. It is Rava’s focusing on Ahashverosh as the truly challenging aspect of Purim that might explain this better.

At first glance, the Purim story is about a face-off between bad-guy-Haman and good-guy Mordechai and Esther on the other. Haman tries to politically maneuver the King and the people to do his self-aggrandizing bidding, and Mordechai politically out-maneuvers him to protect his family and nation. Haman decrees to annihilate the Jewish body, and Esther cunningly using her own Jewish body in response, causing Haman’s to hang. Seemingly, it is the vanquishing of Haman that we are celebrating, a classic moral tale of the conquest of good over evil (The centrality of the body in the Purim story might also be an explanation for the many libations of the body celebrated on Purim, say some commentators).
Yet if Haman is dead and genocide averted, why is Rava not fully rejoicing? What is so terrible about being a “servant of Ahashverosh”?
In one of the most chilling lines of the megillah, Ahashverosh and Haman seem to be in full cahoots: “…the decree (of genocide) was proclaimed in the fortress of Shushan; the king and Haman sat down to drink; and the city of Shushan was dumbfounded(Esther 3:15). It is important however to acknowledge the difference between Haman and Ahashverosh. Haman is the instigator, the depraved mind who masterminds the whole affair. Haman represents radical evil, and the moral of this story is clear: it is up to us to become Mordechai and Esther’s, combating evil wherever we encounter it.
However it is Ahashverosh who is actually the scarier one here, for he is the one who blindly acquiesces to Haman. Ahashverosh is even scarier when he ends up acquiescing to Esther and protects the Jews, for equally random and superficial reasons. True, he is now in the service of “the good guys”, but without any sense of having seen the error of his previous ways. Ahashverosh even refuses to roll back his initial edict to kill the Jews, instead simply “allowing the Jews to defend themselves”. What is the moral of the story if we are to remain servants of Ahashverosh?
Ahashverosh, the giddy king of randomness, is deeply disturbing because he evades the dichotomy of good and bad. Like the devout drunkard on Purim, he makes no real distinction between “Blessed Mordechai and Cursed Haman”. Haman’s radical evil can be redeemed. Ahashverosh however, who acts the same whether in the right or wrong, undermines our hopes of a full redemption. Ahashverosh is the realm of the absurd, where morality has no foothold.

Rava, 1600 years ago or so, claimed he was a “servant of Ahashverosh”. How about today? In many senses, Zionism put an end to Rava’s claim. We are no longer the “court Jews” of Ahashverosh, stooping to debasing tricks of seduction in order to survive. We now have the power to decide our own history. Whether in the Israeli promised land of Zion or in the American promised land of “New Zion”, Jews exercise power as equal members of the national and international community. We are no longer in exile – we have been redeemed!

At the same time, however, who can claim full redemption? The promised lands are far from fulfilling their promise. We have come to a point – call it post-Zionist, post-messianic, or simply post-modern – where we realize that the dichotomy of exile/redemption no longer answers everything. For all of our political power, Ahashverosh is alive and well, and we are his servants: whether in the samsara of life and death, health and vulnerability; or through the constant disconnect between reward and merit. And that is even before we begin to unpack the dysfunction of our systems, the power of corporations or the misguided nature of our leadership structures. Where are the days where we could fight radical evil? The absurd is a much more challenging foe.

Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross,
master of overturned categories
Does Purim also offer a redemptive way to survive being a “servant of Ahashverosh”? I believe it does. Maimonides himself describes Purim as the only holiday to stay relevant in a post-messianic, unredeemed world. True, we cannot say a full-mouthed Hallel, but we can counter the absurd through humor, joy and parody; through disguises and costumes and overturning categories; and through telling history as a tale of meaning rather than as a dark absurdist story.
Most importantly, however, we flourish despite Ahashverosh through cultivating community. The radical evil of Haman is driven out with the arm of Mordechai-ian politics, but we fend off Ahashverosh by small acts of camaraderie. The mitzvoth of Purim bring these to bear: It is a day of sharing food with friends (mishloach manot) and giving money to the poor (matanot la’evyonim). It is those small face-to-face encounters which hold the seeds to redemption. Having gone too deep into the realm of the absurd, perhaps the only way out is by returning to the small – but through small acts of friendship and compassion. It is in those small acts that the greatest meaning can be found. This is where Maimonides leaves off in his “Hilkhot Megillah” in the Mishna Torah:
16. One is obligated to distribute charity to the poor on the day of Purim… We should not be discriminating in selecting the recipients of these Purim gifts. Instead, one should give to whomever stretches out his hand (Jewish or not…). Money given to be distributed on Purim should not be used for other charitable purposes.

17. It is preferable for a person to be generous in his donations to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast or in sending portions to his friends, for there is no greater and more splendid joy than gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts.
One who brings happiness to the hearts of the unfortunate resembles the Divine Presence, who seeks "to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive those with broken hearts."

18. All the books of the Prophets and all the Holy Writings will be nullified in the Messianic era, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, as will the five books of the Torah and the halachot of the Oral Law, which will never be nullified.
Although all memories of the difficulties endured by our people will be nullified… the celebration of the days of Purim will not be nullified, as Esther 9:28 states: "And these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews, nor will their remembrance cease from their seed."

No comments:

Post a Comment