Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stupid and Bad

Who is the real fiend of the Purim story? I know, I know…but, really, there are—or at least should be—two contenders for the position.

One is a touchy prig of a man capable of seeking the destruction of an entire people because he took offense when one of their countrymen behaved laxly with respect to the honor he took as his due. A craven sort as well, he was not above begging for his own life when things went south. But until that unexpected turn of events takes place he does not seem at all the type likely to beg, least of all while lying prostrate before a woman…and a Jewish woman at that! The portrait of the man in question, the man whose name we drown out in synagogue, is thus both complex and interesting. Arrogant, cruel, self-absorbed, heartless, pompous, touchy, egomaniacal…that’s our Haman!

The other man is depicted equally unappealingly, just with a different set of unpleasant features. Lazy, stupid, unfeeling, childish, rash, and gullible, he is recalled by most as a mostly benign but also incredibly powerful dolt. Like Pharaoh far before him—far before him, that is to say, both in terms of history and also in terms of the book in which they both appear—this other personality too possesses all the trappings of great power. He commands armies, reigns over a palace filled with servile ministers tripping over themselves to do his bidding, rules a nation with the absolute power of the absolute monarch (which is precisely what he is), and appears to be able to act wholly without restraint or limit. And although his portrait is less complex than the first fellow’s (and for that matter also less complex than Pharaoh’s), it is equally interesting. Disrespectful to women in general and capable apparently of being generous with a woman only when he expects a subsequent reward for his trouble, the king of kings is depicted as being essentially a dunce whose fiendish minister manipulates him with the ease of a child training a puppy to fetch a stick. Readers get the sense they are supposed to find his gullibility and, even more to the point, the ease with which he can be maneuvered around by others more amusing than sickening. As a result, he comes across as essentially benign, as a drunk too involved with seeking his own pleasure actually to rule the country over which he reigns. And, indeed, there is no scene in the Megillah in which the king of Persia is actually depicted as governing his country, as doing what kings are theoretically supposed to do with respect to the people they govern. As a result it is he, King Achashveirosh himself, who is remembered as a sot and lecher, while Haman gets to be Hitler.

But how reasonable is that, really? Let’s read along as the plot unfolds. I’ll print the parts I would like to suggest for special consideration in italics. “And so it came to pass. The royal scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month and ordered to write up the edict Haman had prompted the king to have issued, which was then duly transmitted to all the king’s ministers and to the governors of each province, and also to all local officials within the kingdom. Nor were these edicts promulgated solely in Persian. Indeed, different versions of the text were prepared in the languages and alphabets of every province and ethnicity in the kingdom, every single one of which was issued in the name of King Achashveirosh and sealed with the king’s own signet ring. Furthermore, all of these documents were distributed by trained messengers to every province of the kingdom and all made precisely the same announcement: that it was the king’s will that every Jew, including the children and the elderly, even infants and women, were to be annihilated, murdered and exterminated on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, that is of the month of Adar, whereupon their personal possessions would be free for all to plunder. Nor was this a secret plan of any sort. Just the contrary, in fact, was the case: the formal written documents publishing this new law in every province were displayed publicly so that the peoples of those provinces could prepare the pogrom in a timely fashion for the date specified in the edict. Of course, no messengers were needed to promulgate the edict in Shushan itself. And so, as the messengers raced off to bring the document announcing the impending massacre to the provinces in accordance with the king’s order, the edict was also publicly posted locally in Shushan, Persia’s capital city. Indeed, that very night as the king and Haman sat down to get drunk, as they did every evening, the city of Shushan itself was in a state of complete upheaval.”

So we have wily Haman scheming to punish Mordechai’s people for a slight probably not even intended to be taken personally and offering the king an unimaginable sum of money—something like three hundred tons of silver by most estimates—to get the king to agree to act as Haman wishes him to. But, in the end, Haman, for all his preening megalomania, is powerless. He appears to have plenty of money, but no real power…and certainly not the power to condemn an entire people to death. It is the king who has the power, the king (therefore) who must act. And that is just what the Megillah says happens and why the text returns in the passage cited just above again and again to the fact that this was the king’s edict promulgated at the king’s command in the provinces of the king’s empire. Even the copies of the edict intended for the provinces, the text notes in passing, were not merely issued over the king’s name but specifically sealed with his own royal signet ring. The king, therefore, is the “real” author of the Jews’ misery, the promulgator of the edict that threatens to annihilate them. By describing him as gullible and Haman as wicked, but then by stating over and over that the evil but essentially powerless Haman could do nothing on his own and that the edict of annihilation could and did come only from the king, the text is prompting readers to ask themselves which, in the end, is worse: stupid or bad.

It’s not that simple a question to answer and it would clearly be best not to be stupid or bad. But behind the obvious debate such a question could inspire is hiding a different lesson entirely. Haman, acting on his own, could have accomplished nothing. On the other hand, the king, as unintelligent as he is all-powerful, also would have done nothing on his own. It may be possible to be either bad or stupid—and it clearly is possible to be both—but the real lesson to derive from the story as told is that the destruction of Persian Jewry was only plausible once stupid and bad met and aligned their forces to create the kind of malign havoc that could conceivably have led to true catastrophe. So perhaps the lesson behind the Megillah’s exciting story is that the way to protect ourselves is to combat both wickedness and stupidity. Combating wickedness means working vigorously to see to it that the perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts are not just condemned but punished, that Holocaust deniers are not merely chastised but pursued in our country within the criminal justice system just as vigorously they would be in (of all places) Germany, that people who publicly spread lies about Israel and the work of its armed forces be charged with libel and pursued just as would anyone guilty of calumny or libel, and that people who foment hatred of Jews, Jewishness, or Judaism be pursued relentlessly as promoters of hatred and not just ignored or tolerated out of misguided allegiance to the First Amendment. Combating stupidity is harder. Combating stupidity means working to make sure that Israel is represented fairly and honestly in the textbooks our nation’s schoolchildren read, working to guarantee that the lessons of the Shoah are taught widely and correctly, working to be certain that Judaism is presented fairly not just in our nation’s textbooks but also from the pulpits of our nation’s churches and mosques and, in some ways even more challengingly, in the lecture halls of our nation’s universities.

To my way of thinking, the relative benignity of stupid and bad when considered separately and their exponentially greater capacity to do evil when their forces are joined is the lesson that Haman and Achashveirosh teach jointly through the narrative of the Megillah. There’s an old rabbinic midrash about two guards, one blind and one lame, who were once hired to guard a precious vineyard by a king who was more afraid of his own staff pilfering his grapes than he was of outside thieves. Figuring that the blind guard couldn’t see the grapes and the lame one couldn’t run off with them, the king felt secure…but that was only because he forgot to remember that they were only impotent as individuals, but that they were going to be capable of robbing the king blind once the lame guard was seated atop the blind one’s shoulders, which is exactly what happened. In its own way, the moral of the story is the same as the Megillah’s: you can only be fully secure when you defend yourself vigorously even against enemies who, for all they appear unable to do much harm on their own, could wreak true havoc if they ever combined forces. The Jews of Shushan learned that lesson the hard way. May God grant that we learn it the far easier way by sitting back on Purim and listening to the Megillah. And may God protect our people as well, both in Israel and in the lands of our dispersion.

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