Tzav / Purim – Choices
The story of Purim is one with a message that continues to reverberate with great relevance today. Rabbi Wein points out that in ancient Persia the Jews faced similar circumstances to Jews in the modern world. Many were convinced that they would never restore their national sovereignty in their homeland – they were in Persia to stay.
Faced with that outlook of the future the Jews had to make choices, choices of how to balance their traditions with the culture of their host country. Persia was a pagan culture, with many practices foreign to Jewish life and in conflict with Jewish values and beliefs. Immediately at the start of the story the royal feast presented the first dilemma. Would they attend the king’s banquet, mingle with the general population and rub shoulders with the ministers? Or would they avoid the banquet and risk the appearance of snubbing the royal celebration? The Midrash teaches that there were kosher tables to accommodate the Jews’ dietary needs. It was a multicultural, pluralistic affair. Mordecai warned the Jews that they must not attend. Most, however, ignored Mordecai’s warning and participated in the banquet with the rationale that they must have civil and political engagement to demonstrate their loyalty. To be different, they felt, would encourage anti-Semitism. Only by being like everybody else would they be accepted. Of course history has shown that this is not true; Assimilation has not slowed anti-Semitism in the slightest.
After the rise of Haman to stewardship of the kingdom a decree was passed that all must pay homage to Haman and bow as he passed by. Again, many Jews felt that they must accommodate to this decree despite Mordecai’s warning and admonition. Mordecai himself refused to bow, incurring the wrath of Haman. A close reading of the Megilla indicates that it was Mordecai’s obstinacy that triggered Haman’s hatred and designs to annihilate the Jews. One can imagine the resentment felt at the time toward Mordecai. We tend to see Haman as the villain of the story, and he certainly was. He was evil through and through, an egomaniac who sought to destroy the Jewish people to bolster his own self image. But what about Mordecai? He taunted Haman, he deliberately ignored Haman while everyone else stopped what they were doing to bow as he passed. Haman wanted to take revenge by wiping out all the Jews, and surely that did not go unnoticed by other Jews! How many Jews at the time pointed their finger at Mordecai as the villain, wanting to shoot the messenger?
When Haman requested permission from the king to commit this genocide he described the Jews in poor light, but his description was likely accurate. “There is a certain nation, scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are different from all people; and they don’t observe the king’s laws: therefore it is of no benefit to the king to suffer them.”
Haman portrayed a people of confused priorities. They were straddling the fence, trying to hold onto their traditions on the one hand, and adopting the culture around them on the other. They were scattered and dispersed – neither here nor there. Against this confusion Mordecai took a firm stand. He recognized that people were facing difficult choices and they needed clear leadership to set an example of the appropriate choices to make.
Often there is no good option but we have to choose one option or another. Almost all choices we face are of great significance. Rabbi Simcha Wasserman once said that it doesn’t take much wisdom to distinguish between the important and unimportant. It takes great wisdom, however, to distinguish between what is important and what is more important. What to do? Do we bow to Haman in violation of our values or do we resist and risk consequences? Do we attend the royal banquet in order to appear the same as everybody else or do we follow the advice of our generation’s sages? These are choices Jews were faced with.
And these are the same choices we continue to be faced with. Do we put quality of life above observance of traditions of thousands of years?
Where we decide live is a choice.
With whom we live is a choice.
When we take holidays, and to where, is a choice.
How we allocate our time is a choice.
Putting sports before Shabbat observance, the luxury of a home garden and view over living close to Jewish centers, these are choices we make.
Of course Jewish observance is important to us. None of us would dispute that. But how important is it when it clashes with other things which are important to us? What price are we willing to pay for our traditions? What other values do we cede to our observance of tradition? How much “quality of life” do we sacrifice for the sake of living a true Jewish life?
If Mordecai were here today would we see him as a beacon and example of how we should live? Or is he a token Jew, to whom we give our nod of approval for keeping the tradition alive while we make our reservations at the opera house?