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Who’s the Real Villain of Purim? (Shabbat Zachor – Tetzaveh – 03/07/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Who’s the Real Villain of Purim?
Parshat Zachor, an extra aliyah from Deuteronomy that we read right before Purim, exhorts us to mindful of our enemies. Normally, this Parsha is not a favorite of mine, for I don’t like to dwell on negativity. What good does it do us to harbor age-old resentments? This year though, as we hired armed guards for the High Holidays and now keep our synagogue locked 24/7, I’m a little more mindful of the threats to our safety, and Parshat Zachor seems appropriate to read.
Zachor is the story of the nation of Amalek that wantonly attacked us in the desert after we escaped Egyptian slavery. It connects to Purim, for Haman, our arch-nemesis, was a descendent of Amalek.
In the Amalek attack and Haman’s plotting, the enemies are clear. We relish mocking Haman with our noisemakers and pointing an accusing finger at him. Yet, is he the only villain in the Megillah? King Achashverosh appoints Haman as his number one man on his cabinet. The Megillah says, “The King advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials.” When the courtiers begin bowing down to Haman, “For such is the King’s order,” the courtiers are the ones who ask Mordechai, “Why do you disobey the king’s orders?”
Angry with Mordechai for standing apart, the courtiers go to Haman and say, “Mordechai the Jew won’t bow to you. What are you going to do about it?” It’s only then that Haman notices Mordechai’s disobedience and decides to get rid of Mordechai by buying off the king and killing all the Jews in Persia.
So who is the real villain in the story of Purim? Is it Haman who attempts to pull the trigger? Or is it the courtiers who incite Haman to violence and turn on Mordechai because he is different? Or is it King Achashverosh, the fool and the bystander, who goes along with Haman quite passively and lets him do as he pleases?
Haman may be our main enemy, but he is not the only bad guy in this story. It takes others to express their bigotry and intolerance in words and actions to inspire others to take another step and move on to violence.
Likewise in America today, who is to blame? Is it the person who killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, or the shooters in Pittsburgh and Poway? Is it Steve Bannon for creating a voice for the Alt-right, or President Trump for appointing him Chief Strategist in his Cabinet?
As NYT journalist Bari Weiss writes in her recent book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, “When a man with this history says of the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” white supremacists notice. When a man with this history says after fifty-one Muslims were murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white supremacist, “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess,” the alt-right perks up at his minimization. Given the constant apologias that regularly issue forth from his minions—what he said after Charlottesville was “darn near perfection,” declared the shameless Kellyanne Conway—is it any surprise that the far-right sees an ally in this president and in the Republican Party, which Donald Trump has remade in his own image?[1]
On the other hand, I firmly believe that Trump loves Ivanka and Jared and their Jewish family as well as the State of Israel. Likewise, Achashverosh wasn’t a Jew hater either for he gladly elevated Mordechai after deposing Haman, yet that doesn’t exonerate them either.
Most of us never guessed that anti-Semitism from Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists would be a problem in America in the 21st Century. Yet this age-old scourge has raised its head again.
This year when we read the Megillah, let’s remember that there are numerous players in the story just as there are numerous players in American anti-Semitism. As distasteful as it is, the exhortation of the Torah, Zachor, be mindful of our enemies, is something relevant once more.
May we be worthy of experiencing not only our prophets’ warnings but also their predictions of world peace and harmony.
Rabbi Neil
P.S.  As the threat of the Coronavirus hangs over our heads, all of us at MHJC are committed to minimizing the spread and guarding our health. We wish you a Happy Purim and the blessings of good health.
[1] Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism (p. 62). Crown. Kindle Edition.

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