Purim-What Are We Really Blotting Out?
Posted by BVeg
As we approach the holiday of Purim, we are confronted with the undeniable reality and challenge of the holiday. Amidst a world in which we still see so much pain and suffering, we are told to spend the day in celebration; eating, drinking, and enjoying the pleasures of the day. While the rest of the Jewish year is filled with so many "serious" holidays remembering the sad times in our history, this day is truly a blessing--a time to let go, act silly and celebrate the joys of life.
Yet, as with so much of Jewish tradition, even the holiday of Purim has a deeper side. The story of Purim is at its core a simple story of good and evil. There is the powerful king, the "bad guy" Haman, the heroes of the story, Esther, Mordechai and Vashti. The Jewish people begin the story in suffering, and end with their freedom. It is a story of right and wrong, and the powerful against the weak. Yet what makes the holiday unique is not that the story is just made up of opposites, but it is how we are commanded to remember the good and the evil that gives true meaning to the holiday. On this day we are told that we must hear and "remember" Haman--the representation of evil--and only then can we wave our groggers, boo and stomp our feet to blot out his name. This is one of the most important aspects of the holiday. Ultimately it is a lesson about the very important Jewish understanding of how we must listen in order to make change in the world.
The Shabbat before the holiday of Purim, we read a special section of the Torah, Parshat Zachor. In the reading, we recount the defeat of Amalek, the traditional enemy of the Jewish people, and according to tradition, an ancestor of Haman. Contrasted with the joy of the upcoming holiday, it is actually a somewhat shocking story to recount. The Parsha ends with the commandment to "Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt...You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget" (Deuteronomy 25:17). We are commanded on the one hand to do whatever we can to "blot out" the evil Amalek, yet also must make sure that he is never forgotten. In a world still filled with so much suffering why should we try to remember evil? And why near a holiday of such joy, is the idea of evil so prevalent?
The story of Purim, and the commandment to both remember and blot out the memory of Amalek is trying to tell us something very important. We know that we live in a world that is filled with all too much pain and violence. Wars seem to be fought without end, people still hurt and kill each other and destroy other life on the earth. Society as whole, it could be argued still has a long way to go to make the necessary changes to blot out the "evil", and make the most important acts of tikkun olam to heal the world. But we must still listen.
The answers to these questions about Purim might come from a more allegorical reading of the story. According to many traditional commentators, the story of good and evil which we read during the holiday is also a representation of the good and evil which we all have within ourselves. A number of Hasidic writers see the commandment to blot out the name of Amalek as a symbol of the yetzer hara, the instinct to do evil. Therefore, we can see the fight against the enemy in the Purim story, as not condoning violence as a way of solving problems, but instead as a description of how we must constantly "fight" to rid our minds of the "evil instinct" within ourselves.
The Hasidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev writes that we must all fight with the "bad part called Amalek which lies hidden in our heart". Each of us has the ability to bring good and evil in the world. Each of us has the choice to wake up in the morning and live a life of compassion and connection with all that we experience, or to separate ourselves from the reality that is around us and even bring pain and suffering into the world. Yes, it may be rare (although sadly not impossible) to find in our modern day world people as stereotypically evil as Amalek and Haman. Yet one of the deeper lessons of the Purim story is that the power to bring evil into the world always exists along with the power to do good. To understand this part of ourselves is difficult, but in so many ways is what makes trying to be a good person, to be a mench, so powerful.
It is up to us to make the conscious choice to pay attention and do what we know is right, to be kind to each other, and do our best to bring healing instead of pain to the world. And just like Esther and Mordechai, some of us even see it as our duty to not only pay attention, but take a breath and go against the powerful "kings" that control our society and say that something big needs to change.
Purim and Our Relationship With Animals
What does it take to break away from the world that we live in when we know something is not right? From Queen Vashti who refused to come to the king's banquet naked, to Esther and Mordechai who fought for the rights of their people, the Purim story is really a story of resistance. It is this description of resistance and its relationship to right and wrong that can help inform how we think of the struggle to create more peace among all animals on earth. While it may be questionable whether we should use the term "evil" to describe our use of animals in society, the reality is so undeniably horrible that now more than ever we need to be like the heroes of the Purim story and hold up the values that we know are true.
While most people would say that they believe in compassion and are against violence, the sad reality is that violence is not only part of our lives as humans, but is perpetrated upon non-human animals each and every day. Animals by the millions are tortured and killed every day for our taste for meat, dairy and eggs . The plastic wrapped chunk of flesh on the supermarket shelves, or the cup of milk which we pour into our breakfast cereal, kosher or not, comes from the same factory farmed living, sentient being that we have chosen to call "food". Beyond our food, animals are used for our entertainment , cruelly experimented on, abused and tortured in all parts of our society. This kind of world goes against centuries of Jewish tradition and belief and against basic ethical values. And even if we think we are eating more humanely and treating the animals around us with compassion, we should not sit back and watch this kind of suffering. (For more on Jewish views on animals visit the learning section of ShalomVeg.)
Some of course might say that we should focus first on the "bigger" issues before we worry about the animals, that people need to come before cows and chickens. There are philosophical arguments for this, and our Jewish tradition does make a definite distinction between animal and human life. But we have to understand that we do not live in the same world our ancestors did, and we are confronted with a whole new set of realities which we must deal with in the present. Simply calling something kosher, or saying we "have a right" to eat animals, does not mean it is better for the animals, for the environment or for our society. When nearly every one of the "human" issues of our modern world; social justice, human rights, economic equality, racism, environmental destruction, violence (and the list goes on), is deeply and inherently connected to our eating habits, how can we not make a change?
Our world is structured so that we never have to even be confronted with the truth of where our food comes from; the slaughterhouses are far away, and the individual animals are simply "meat". We have become accustomed to this inherent hypocrisy, in fact it has become part of the core of how the world functions. People pet their cats and dogs, yet kill the cows and chickens. People "love their neighbor" but then look the other way when human rights are being violated in factories and slaughterhouses--even kosher ones. People want to be healthy and continue to eat the very animal products which have been proven to be detrimental to their health. No religious law or way of eating can deny the fact that most of us could never look an animal in the eyes and say that a taste for meat, milk and eggs, is worth the suffering that this choice inherently causes. Jewish tradition commands us to make connections, and not take anything for granted. But above all, it asks us to try to make sense of what is around us, to learn and make the world better. This is our duty as compassionate human beings and as Jews. As Rabbi David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland once said:
Being compassionate toward animal life is not just a matter of being responsible for animal life, which we have very clearly laid down in the Torah, expounded by our sages, but is a matter of imbuing ourselves with the right kind of values. If we are insensitive towards animal life, then we desensitize ourselves as human beings. And therefore a truly sensitive human being, compassionate towards other human beings, should be compassionate towards animals.
We are commanded on Purim to try to wipe away evil in our world. But we are also told that we must first hear, recognize and remember the evil. This is the most difficult challenge of the holiday. While we can hear the name Haman and boo and hiss, the reality of animal exploitation in our society is much harder to bear.
On this holiday of joy and celebration, may we all be blessed with the strength to hear the ways that Haman is still a part of our lives. Just as we must remember the bad to make things better, we must learn the truth about our relationship with animals and let others know. Only when we say the words to others, speaking about the realities of animal exploitation and animal consumption, can we be able to begin the fight to cover up this broken part of our world. It is our duty to listen to the facts, no matter how painful they are, and hold on to the highest of our Jewish values. Only then can we work for a truly compassionate-- and a more joyful--world.
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