Israel vs. Hamas; Esther vs. Haman
A number of years ago, while a member of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, I helped to write the temple’s Purim spiels. (For those not in the know, Purim is a springtime holiday based on the classic Jewish theme of “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” It is celebrated with much merriment, often including a play, or spiel.) I believe I worked on four or five spiels at Beth El. They were musical comedy productions, poking fun at temple tropes while also playing off of the Purim story as detailed in the Book of Esther. Every spiel ended on a high note, of course, with the Jews triumphant, the villain Haman dead, and refreshments in the social hall.
One year, probably the last year I was involved, I was looking for fresh inspiration and decided to read the Book of Esther more closely. Maybe there was a character I’d overlooked who could be incorporated, or some ancient custom I could spoof. What I found shocked me. Towards the end of the Book of Esther, the Jewish Queen has outed Haman as the villain (and herself as a Jew) and asked her husband the King to nullify the edict Haman had convinced him to issue, calling for the death of all Jews. The King replies that an edict bearing his signature cannot be revoked but he agrees to issue a new one, allowing the Jews to defend themselves. The Jews successfully overtake their enemies and are presumably now safe.
But then something happens that doesn’t get discussed or portrayed in Purim spiels very often, if at all. Following the day of carnage, the King asks Esther if she is satisfied. She isn’t. In fact, she asks the King to allow one more day for the Jews to fully conquer their foes. She also requests that Haman’s 10 sons be impaled on poles. He agrees and the Jews go out and slaughter another 75,000 people (Esther 9:11-15).
I found this very interesting and decided to write a scene in the spiel in which Esther displays the blood lust described in the book that bears her name. I made her intentionally over the top so there would be some humor in it but a number of people in the congregation didn’t see it that way. When people found out it was I who had written that scene, I got called a “self-hating Jew” by one and was criticized by another for debasing a great Jewish heroine. A third person asked if there was something wrong with me. I was saddened by the response and asked the Rabbi, Larry Kushner, if I had done a very bad thing. Like a good supporter of the arts and free speech, he told me to ignore the critics; I’d like to think he was impressed that I had read the Book of Esther all the way to the end.
Today, with the count of dead Palestinians at more than 8,500 and growing, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ignoring calls for a ceasefire and launching an even more invasive and destructive attack in Gaza. It feels like Esther all over again. And once again, the people who disagree with me the most are fellow Jews. It’s not lost on me the similarity between the names Haman and Hamas. But I’d like to think we have evolved enough to understand that wholesale eradication is bad policy for both sides.