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mordechai

The Endless Ages of Purim

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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.

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