Purim Approaches With Complexity…And Humor

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

(based on Sefaria’s source sheets)

As a rabbi, I have been making good use of the online Jewish resource, Sefaria, since its website was established not so long ago. Its content virtually (no pun intended!) spans an immense compilation of Judaic resources formerly available only in Hebrew or Hebrew-Aramaic texts  — like the Talmud. Now this vast treasure is translated into English and available with the click of a mouse. The vast amount of sheer vision, work, intelligence, and technological skill that went into producing this site is indeed remarkable.

Recently Sefaria sent me a complex source sheet for a “Pro-Mordechai Purim Shpiel” (supporting Mordechai as the hero of this story – that’s the way the story is traditionally told — about a failed anti-Semitic attempt to kill all the Jews in Persia).  In this version, the villain is Haman, and in the retelling of the story, we greet his name with hisses and noisemakers (graggers). In case Haman’s virulent antisemitism sounds alarmingly familiar  — and even current — it’s helpful to know that the Purim/Esther/Mordechai/Haman story happened a long time ago. It is recorded in the Megillah, a scroll dated to the fourth century B.C., which Jews refer to as a very long story indeed! Fortunately, there’s lots of humor in it (biblical scholar Adele Berlin refers to it as a comedy, even a burlesque, with its never-ending banquets), as well as tragedy fortunately prevented. So through the centuries, Purim has continued to be a happy, if somewhat bittersweet, tale of survival. For many Jews, the Purim celebration has served as a needed break from tsouris, a safety valve from tension.

Believed to have been redacted by the Sages of the Great Assembly from an original text by Mordechai, Megillat Esther was the last of the 24 books of the Tenakh to be canonized. The rabbis of that time were concerned about whether 14-year old Esther, chosen for her beauty to be Persian King Ahasuerus’ queen, was eating kosher food when she attended the Persian banquets. They decided that, as a good Jewish (her religion hidden) girl, she either ate vegetarian foods only or she ate before the banquets. The rabbis also excused/whitewashed her acceptance of sexual intercourse with the king, albeit to save the Jewish people from harm, on the grounds that she remained passive; she didn’t allow herself to enjoy it. Hmmm?

At any rate, it’s a great story, a very teachable one. Now  teaching through storytelling is a well-established educational and favored Judaic method. In fact, approximately one-third of the Babylonian Talmud (one of the earliest and most honored commentaries on the Torah) consists of stories. Some are legalistic, and some are not. Talmudic aggadic (moral and ethical but not legalistic) stories are not fussy about time and place. So the fact that the central rabbis involved in this Purim shpiel – Rava and Zeira – lived mainly in different centuries (3rd C.E. for Rava and 4th C.E. for Zeira) and different countries (Babylonia and Israel) doesn’t matter. They might have crossed paths here and there. After all, they were both Amoraim — rabbinic scholars whose commentary on the Mishna, the first part of the Talmud (in Hebrew), created the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud (largely in Aramaic). And they both lived after the destruction of the Second Temple when it became increasingly difficult to call your address Israel, which Zeira chose to do.

But as this Purim story begins, Rabbis Rava (who lives in Babylon) and Zeira (who lives in Israel) are planning to go to the big Purim feast in Persian Shushan together. Got it? So what does the Megillah say?

In Megillah 7b:7-8, Rava explains that we should always get so intoxicated on Purim that we can’t tell the difference between our friends (Mordechai) and our enemies (the wicked courtier, Haman). Unfortunately, following his own dictum, Rava got so drunk that he killed his friend, Rabbi Zeira. The next day, a horrified Rava prayed with such remorse that a merciful God allowed a miracle to take place, and Rava was able to revive Rabbi Zeira.  However, when Purim came around the next year, and Rava actually suggested that he and Zeira prepare the Purim feast together, small wonder that Rabbi Zeira declined. “Miracles don’t happen each and every hour,” he said firmly.

Up to this point, if you take this story literally, it raises several questions, as Sefaria suggests: 1) Why did Rava kill his friend? 2) How was Rava able to bring him back from the dead? 3) Since Rava taught that being intoxicated on Purim was a good thing — because a drunken state erased the differences between people — why would the story portray him as being so out-of-control he killed his friend? Why would the Talmud’s editors include this anonymous story anyway?

Keep in mind that Talmudic stories usually have many levels of meaning to unravel: First of all, Rava had conflicting views about alcohol. He quoted the Bible (Proverbs 23:31) as teaching can that even looking at wine [red like blood] can lead to bloodshed, and, in Rava’s case, it certainly did. On the other hand, “wine and good scents make me wise,” he said. He thought alcohol helped people be more intuitive in their judgements.

However, Rava had a Machiavellian goal in promoting alcohol consumption at Purim. He wanted to use alcohol as a political tool in persuading people to understand that Mordechai the Jew was not the hero he is usually considered: When Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman (a man of noble lineage placed in a high position by King Ahasuerus, who favored him), Mordechai actually did the wrong thing, Rava insisted. He  endangered all the Jews in Persia.

But Zeira countered that it was idolatry to bow down to Haman, and “the merciful Torah does not hold someone liable for worshipping idolatry under coercion.” According to Sefaria, “Rabbi Zeira, like Rava, held a minority position that it is permissible to [i.e., pretend to] worship idolatry under coercion.” While they both held the same “ideological framework for suggesting that Mordechai made the wrong choice in refusing to bow to Haman,” Rava went too far by using alcohol to persuade people to their point of view.

And Rava also made a big thing out of the fact that Zeira did not have faith in a second miracle happening (many Jews at that time believed that only miracles could save them). And he turned on Rabbi Zeira. Did Rabbi Zeira lack faith? Why didn’t the current generation believe in miracles when previous generations did?

Against this background of uncertainty, two other rabbis enter the picture – most of the actors in aggadic dramas are rabbis! Now Rav Pappa asks Abaye, a rabbi constantly in ideological conflict with Rava in Talmudic disputes, what is different about the current generation, why they don’t believe in miracles. And Abaye replies: “The previous generations would martyr themselves for the sanctification of God’s name, while we do not martyr ourselves for the sanctification of God’s name….[In other words], “Jews [of the new generation] are not willing to die to sanctify God’s name. This is precisely what those who view Mordechai as a hero think that Mordechai did.” Mordechai was willing to risk the penalties that would come from refusing to bow to Haman. For me, that’s a hero.

It is speculated that Abaye (often in opposition to Rava’s thinking in the Talmud) was actually the anonymous rabbi who wrote this story. Worshipping Haman through fear, he asserted, was not an argument that scripture supported. On the other hand, he also believed that Mordechai should probably not have antagonized him.

Esther (Esther, Megillah 9:26), the heroine of the story, pops up at this point to support her Uncle Mordechai’s position. “What did Mordechai see that made him incite Haman?” she cried. “Because of this,” she says, referring to the fact that Haman had made himself a human idol to be worshipped, “the miracle occurred.” It happened because Mordechai refused to bow down to him. Miracles occur because of rightful actions like this.

There was also another deep-seated reason for the antagonism between Mordechai and Haman. Mordechai came from good stock, from powerful people. On his father’s side, he was a Benjaminite, descended through the generations from Kish. And who was Kish but the father of Saul, the first Jewish king? On Mordechai’s mother’s side, he was descended from generations of Judeans, and King David was the king of Judah who went on to unite all of Israel.

Now Haman also came from powerful people, the Amalekites. He was descended from the King of Agag, who, you will remember, Saul was ordered by God to kill when he conquered the Amalekites. But Saul spared him in return for keeping some of the spoils. As a result, the prophet Samuel made sure that Saul lost his throne to David.

Jews are supposed to remember to forget Amalek, the warrior who attacked the weak, the sick, the helpless – and never to have anything to do with the Amalekites. So you can see that Mordechai and Haman might still have retained considerable residual anger from their ancestors. And that is why, at Purim, we Jews shake our noise-makers and stamp our feet whenever we hear Haman’s name mentioned in the Purim shpiels. By the way, a Purim shpiel is a satiric play, yes, even a burlesque. Despite recounting a history that teetered on the edge of tragedy, it’s a lot of fun.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved