Purim is coming! This joyous holiday—which we will celebrate at Temple Beth Or on Sunday the 12th—commemorates how the Jews of ancient Persia narrowly escaped Haman and his wicked plan to kill them. An entire tractate of the Talmud (aptly named ‘Tractate Megilah’) focuses on the specifics of how, when, and why one should read the Megilah and celebrate Purim. It also provides a wide range of interpretations (midrashim) of biblical verses which can help us gain a deeper appreciation of the holiday. Two famous talmudic rabbis, Reish Lakish and Rabbi Joseph, have a discussion of such midrashim while trying to find the “real” meaning of Proverbs 28:15:
אֲרִי-נֹהֵם וְדֹב שׁוֹקֵק, מוֹשֵׁל רָשָׁע עַל עַם-דָּל.
As a roaring lion and a ravenous bear, so is a wicked ruler over a poor people.
Rabbi Joseph believed the “ravenous bear” referred to the ancient Persians because he thought they ate and drank like bears, wore furs to look bear-like, were hairy, and were restless. The wicked ruler, then, he interpreted as Haman. Who, then, did that make the “poor people” over whom this Haman ruled? Of course, the answer was the Jews. However, Rabbi Joseph did not suggest that the “poorness” was their plight itself (as in, “those poor Jews!”); instead, he stated that it referred to how they were poor in the keeping of commandments.
The implication of this midrash is rather striking. It would appear that Rabbi Joseph’s meaning is that it was a result of our incomplete commitment to the mitzvoth that we were subjected to the wicked rule of Haman. On the one hand, I cannot help but wince as I think of this as an egregious example of victim-blaming. Are we really to fault the irreligiosity of the Jews of Persia for Haman’s evil ways? Nevertheless, if we can suspend such objections (at least for a moment), I think that there is an important lesson to be learned from Rabbi Joseph and his midrash.
As Jews, we are members of a nation that often strives to merit the title “or l’goyim,” a “light unto the nations.” However, it is fallacious to think that we are not also a nation that is tied up in the world that we help to create. Even as we may strive to make the world a better place for others, we are also subject to the results of the world take part in forming. To use the “light unto the nations” metaphor: Even if our primary ambition is to provide light for others, we need it too!
As Jews of the 21st century, “poverty in keeping the commandments” may look rather different to us than it did to Rabbi Joseph nearly 2,000 years ago. However, the ability of the Jewish people to flourish—and its ability to effectively be an or l’goyim—is prefigured by the way in which we make a sincere effort to bring the wisdom and ethical value of our tradition to bear in our modern world. If we do not make a point of following the ethical teachings of our tradition, we are raising the likelihood that we too will inhabit a less just world.
As we head into Purim, I would like to exhort each of us to be proactive in the fashion by which we consider the way our behavior may or may not be rooted in Judaism. Are we living a life which only is nominally Jewish, one to which we retroject and append Jewish ideas? Or, instead, are we—as Rabbi Joseph would encourage—ensuring that our behavior is fully guided by the mitzvoth? I am hopeful that we can gravitate more toward the latter of these possibilities. I think that it is a way by which we can more fully be a light in the world- both for the nations and for ourselves.
Rabbi Ari Ballaban