I’m willing to lay odds that this Purim there will be a fair share of Jewish commentators claiming that history is repeating itself in Shushan – that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the contemporary Haman come back to life to once again threaten the Jewish people with genocide. I’m also fairly sure that some of these pundits will even recommend that we should emulate the Jews of ancient Persia in the Purim story (see Esther 9:1-16) and launch a preemptive military strike against Iran to avert the coming cataclysm.
Don’t buy it.
While reading the Book of Esther gives us a great way to celebrate the holiday of Purim, it makes for lousy analysis of contemporary geo-politics. That we might be tempted to compare our current world situation to a decidedly absurdist and satirical Biblical text shows just how far down the rabbit hole we may have fallen.
It feels odd to have to write these words, but here goes: don’t take the Book of Esther so seriously. It’s a wacked-out tale for a wacked-out holiday. On this one cathartic day, we allow ourselves to live in a topsy-turvy world, in which up is down, blessing is curse, and victim is victor. Megillat Esther is at its core a collective Jewish revenge fantasy in which every imaginable power dynamic (male/female, Gentile/Jew, Oppressor/Oppressed) is joyfully subverted. Purim gives us the chance to let our “Jewish Id” run amok – to indulge our darker fantasies in this one cathartic moment, perhaps so that they might have less of a hold over us during the rest of the year.
We would also do well to bear in mind that the Book of Esther has for centuries been chanted by a victimized Jewish nation that has dreamed for centuries about turning the tables on their oppressors. But we must admit to ourselves that 21st century Jewish nation bears little resemblance to the cowering, sackcloth-wearing masses of the Purim story. It’s probably a sign of how much we have internalized our victimization that we might even be tempted to draw parallels between the Book of Esther and our fear of genocide at the hands of the current Iranian regime.
Whether we want to admit it our not, we Jews currently live in an age of unprecedented Jewish empowerment. Whether or not we are willing to say it out loud, there are relatively few oppressed Jewish communities in the Diaspora any more and the State of Israel is a strong and vigorous nation (one, by the way, that has the capability to literally wipe out Iran with the push of a button.) To compare our lot to the victims of Shushan is, quite frankly, chuzpah of truly Purim-dik proportions.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for catharsis. By all means let’s tip a few this Purim. But let’s also keep absurdity in its place. After we’ve nursed our hangovers, we’ll still have to find a better way through the real-life story that is currently unfolding in present day Shushan.