This Purim, don’t boo Haman
Purim is back, a year after many of us gathered in person for the last time, with very different masks on.
Jewish communities all over are rising to the challenge of a virtual Purim with wonderful expressions of creativity and care, as we continue to struggle with the challenges of COVID-19, as well as with our increased awareness of other, related, plagues like systemic racism, poverty and climate crises.
Can we use this holiday of transformations to change our public lives and rituals for greater good?
More specifically: What will it take for us to let go of symbols that perpetuate divisions, so that we can build the kind of kinder world we all aspire to?
I write, of course, of the grogger.
I don’t want to be a Purim party pooper. But precisely because of the year of epic proportions we’ve lived through, our Purim could use an adjustment.
Do we really want to continue booing the bad guy?
My 10-year-old kid and I decorated groggers last week, covering the wooden hand-shaped clappers with glittery nail polish. We started talking about why and how we use these things: Every time we hear the name of the bad guy who tried to kill our ancestors, we boo, clap and jeer. We live in a time of growing divides, with violence and bullying an increasing part of what passes as public discourse. It’s worth asking what happens when we so eagerly celebrate the demolition of someone “other” than us — yes, even if they’ve tried to perpetuate grievous crimes against us.
What happens if we dial it down?
The noisemakers we gleefully use to drown out the name of Haman the oppressor represent a wounded side of our collective psyche we may be better off to set aside, at least for now. That’s particularly true as booing Haman is often the most boisterous, most beloved part of Purim celebrations. Why do we focus on booing the bad guy, instead of cheering for the brave queen? What if we flipped the script?
Yes, booing Haman offers a powerful, cathartic outlet for a people who have lived through countless threats and persecutions.
But for the centuries of the practice’s existence — it’s been around since the Middle Ages — there have been no small number of rabbinic voices who have disliked it for various valid reasons.
And outside of rabbinic debates, our booing of Haman has very real consequences.
On Purim, 1994, an Israeli doctor, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinians and wounded many more while they were praying at a sacred site. In his suicide note, Goldstein linked his heinous attack to the command to blot out Haman in every generation. Abhorrently, his grave is today a pilgrimage site revered by many Jews — including some of the current leaders of the Religious Zionist party about to enter the Israeli Knesset. Prejudice is increasingly part of the Israeli and Jewish mainstream. It cannot be disconnected from the simple act of booing.
We must learn from these episodes: Focusing exclusively on those we see as enemies, and creating a culture in which we mock them, only harms us. We should ask again, even when it comes to Haman, what can we do to de-escalate the violence, to start healing wounds, to build bridges?
Refocusing will play into the best of what Jewish tradition has to offer. Our rituals have always evolved and grow towards more moral justice and human dignity. Purim 2021 offers us a needed nod towards our human responsibility.
Instead, each time we hear Queen Esther’s name, let’s cheer her on, honoring the bravery that led her to risk her privilege and safety for the sake of others in need. Let’s celebrate our pride at what and who we are. Let us, like her, take on responsibility and repair, commit to healing, to loving and to fixing what we can, and still have fun. A happy, healthy, hopeful Purim to all.
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founding Spiritual Leader of Lab/Shul NYC.