By: Sarah Mack
A few years ago, a friend, who was a rabbi in Iowa at the time, called me from her cell phone while laughing so hard that I could barely hear her. “You won’t believe what I just passed on the freeway,” she exclaimed. “In the middle of a cornfield, there is a giant billboard that says Haman Jr. for state representative.” We had a good laugh at the expense of this politician’s last name. But the truth is, Purim is all about both Haman’s past and present. Despite the laughter and the fun involved in our celebration of this holiday, Purim has a dark side.
My innocent five-year-old son enacts imaginative games involving “good guys” and “bad guys” with his friends on the playground and sometimes asks me, “Mama, are there bad guys in our world?” I am sad to say that there are. Purim is the Jewish response to these fundamental questions of good and evil.
Our tradition provides a number of powerful antidotes to hateful and destructive forces: humor, giving gifts to the poor, and feasting among them. The Talmud also teaches that we should drink on Purim until we can’t tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” The custom of inebriation aside, the rabbis touch upon a key reality about human nature. What is the difference between Mordechai and Haman? Not much if it only takes a few margaritas to blur the line. As much as we all aspire to be Mordechai, the truth is that we all have a little Haman in us as well. The Hasidic master Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev teaches that we must all struggle with the “bad part called Amalek [Haman is a direct descendent] which lies hidden in our heart.” Purim reminds us of this frightening reality and of our responsibility to strive towards our better selves.
It is only through awareness of our own capacity for evil that we are able to work to obliterate it in our world. Before we can celebrate the defeat of the wicked Haman, we must recognize the hatred that still exists today. When we face our personal Haman, we can look outward and stand up to the Haman Jrs. that plague our world.