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Tetzaveh/Purim 5773 – Digesting Haman

I am thinking about Haman this week. Purim arrives this Saturday night and Jews around the world will be retelling – in various and sundry forms – the tale found in the book of Esther. Haman, as you may remember, serves as villain to the Jews of Shushan in the story and as the archetypical antisemite in our hearts and minds. His dastardly plans are thwarted by our heroes: Mordechai and Esther. In the end Haman swings (from the gallows) and the Jewish community sings (in celebration).

The story evolves as it should – people who value justice, compassion and peace should always stand up to those individuals and institutions who seek to limit, hurt or destroy these values and the people who hold them dear. Such epic confrontations make great stories and teach important ideals. So, why do we first defeat him and then eat him?

The Jews of Shushan defeat Haman and foil his plans. When we tell the story each year we gobble up Hamentaschen – Haman’s Ears. Am I being too literal? Perhaps taking this story and its accompanying snacking a little too seriously? I love a Hamantaschen as much as the next guy (make mine poppy seed, please), but seriously what are we doing? Are we – in a symbolically barbaric manner – signifying our success by eating the spoils of victory or attempting to display our dominance over the defeated foe?

There has got to be more to Haman and his role in the story (and our metaphorical ingesting of his ears). When we read and engage with our sacred texts, we don’t stop on this initial level. I wonder if this story is about Haman and the consummate evil he embodies or if this story more about us and the way we respond to the Hamanesque people and institutions in our lives?

There is part of the story on the book of Esther upon we often do not focus. After Esther confronts Haman and the King agrees to have Haman killed, there is still the small problem of the decree that Haman ordered to destroy the Jews of the kingdom. Since this decree cannot be rescinded, the king puts Mordechai in Haman’s post and gives the Jews permission to bear arms and defend themselves. The ‘defense’ that ensues produces more than 75,000 deaths of those who were foes of the Jews and a ‘pachad hayehudim – fear of the Jews’ – that falls across the kingdom. (Don’t believe me? — Look it up: Esther Chs. 8-10).

After fighting the injustice, hatred and intolerance promoted by Haman … the Jews kill tens of thousands of people. They become feared by their fellow countrymen and women. Was killing and instilling fear the most effective way to confront Haman? Was such a result inevitable in fighting evil? What happened?

Perhaps when we tell the story each year – the whole story; and, when we eat the Hamantaschen each year, the whole Hamentaschen – we have an opportunity to remember the trials, tribulations and pitfalls of fighting the Hamans in our lives. The danger exists that we may end up internalizing (eating, ingesting) what we fight. We might find ourselves, our ideas and even our actions tainted by the methods we choose to defeat that which threatens us.

When we tell this particular story of ours, we are bidden to name and acknowledge the Hamans in our world AND pay attention to how we confront them. Hamans take many forms – they might be corrupt and immoral political leaders; they may also be other important figures in our lives; they may be institutions that have influence over our lives; they may even be physical, emotional or spiritual maladies that threaten our well being. Whatever form these Hamans take — when we confront them just as Esther and Mordechai did – we must remember that how we fight them may be as important as defeating them.

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