The festival of Purim is around the corner and in Jewish communities everywhere the thoughts of children and adults alike are focused on the upcoming holiday. Mothers are either buying or creating clever costumes that will elicit squeals of delight both from the wearers and their nachat-schepping grandparents or are on food shopping sprees to produce dozens of eye-catching, mouth-watering misloach manot baskets. And the men are eyeing their stash of liquor and alcoholic beverages to ensure that a merry time be had by guests and drop-in bochrim alike.
I was born on the 11th of Adar and thus feel a special connection to Purim, which takes place on the 14th. Because I was a premature twin born to Holocaust survivors, in our own way, we were both walking miracles. Purim, too, is about unexpected survival. The Jewish nation was on the brink of being terminated, when suddenly a divine reprieve kept them from being erased.
Unexpected continued existence from mass destruction is one of the primary lessons to be gleaned from the series of events and “coincidences” that led to the festival of Purim. But on a deeper level, the sobering insight to be internalized from the Purim story is the reality of the human condition – the very real possibility of a reversal of fortune, both for good and for bad.
Purim teaches us that life is like a Ferris wheel – one moment you can be on top, and suddenly you are at the bottom. Likewise, a person can be at the lowest depth and then out of nowhere be “elevated” and on top of the world.
The Jews of Persia were valued enough citizens that they were invited, en masse, to participate in the king’s lavish, over-the-top feasts. Yet, from their lofty positions in the social and economic fabric of the empire, they were reduced to being hapless targets of total genocide.
No doubt, as they partied at the king’s invitation, they would have scoffed and laughed if someone had suggested that soon there would be a royal decree that they be hunted to extinction.
Perhaps Yosef, as he languished for years in an Egyptian dungeon would also have been skeptical that one day he would be the second highest ranking official in the Egyptian empire, second only to Pharaoh. On the same note, years earlier, he would have rolled his eyes at the notion that as a favored son of Yaakov, a highly regarded man of wealth and influence, he would one day be a slave and a despised criminal.
One need only look at the Super Bowl championship game that took place just a few weeks ago to see the Ferris wheel effect. Well into the game, Atlanta was way ahead of the Patriots, the score being a lop-sided 28-3. I did not watch the game, but when I happened to hear the score, I thought it would be boring for the millions of fans glued to their TV screens. One team was so far ahead in touchdowns that this match would not be a “nail-biter” whose outcome could not be predicted.
Yet in a clear reversal of fortune, the team that viewers of the game had logically written off, the Patriots, won the coveted Super Bowl! They were the champions and the team that seemed to have nailed it did not.
Purim clearly is about the unpredictable wheel of life, and contains an underlying life-enhancing message to the Jewish people: Don’t be arrogant, or full of yourself; don’t belittle or look down on someone because you may have more money, are pretty or you are the boss. Your world can come crashing down and the person you sneered at, bullied, or denigrated will rise above you – and perhaps treat you with the same disdain or lack of respect that you gave them.
There is no justification for a person being haughty, or thinking and acting as if he or she is better than others, because literally at the end of the day, the mighty can fall and the downtrodden can be elevated.
Haman, in a matter of seconds, went from being the king’s BFF – the king had even given Haman his signet ring allowing him to enact-legally binding decrees – to being hanged on the gallows he had had built for Mordechai’s demise. He went from being a very wealthy man with 10 sons, to having said wealth transferred to Mordechai, and his 10 sons, like him, hanged.
Haman’s extreme conceit and haughtiness caused his downfall. His hatred for Mordechai the Jew was ignited by Mordechai’s refusal to bow to him! How dare this “nobody” not bend his knee to the superior being Haman believed himself to be!
Unfortunately, inflated self-importance and close-mindedness are traits that inflict many people, even those in the frum world, sadly causing a lack of respect and disdain for those whose choices are different.
I kept an article written many years ago by Rabbi Raphael Grossman in his “Thinking Aloud” column in The Jewish Press because of its message. In it Rabbi Grossman describes a late night call from an old friend begging him to find a frum psychiatrist for a young family member who was having mental health issues. He wanted one outside of New York’s yeshiva community because it could undermine future shidduch prospects. Rabbi Grossman referred his friend to a frum psychiatrist who, he felt, could help this family.
After a year of treatment and therapy the family member was doing much better and the man called to express his deep gratitude. Writes Rabbi Grossman, “We both said, Baruch Hashem, but I kept my pain and disappointment to myself.”
He explains, “Many years ago, this very same friend engaged me in a heated argument. In Israel he had met a brilliant young man whom I had sent to a yeshiva for a year of study. The young man told him that he was planning on going to medical school when he finished his year in Israel. My friend piously argued and insisted that he instead spend his life studying Torah. ‘But who,’ the young man asked, ‘would practice medicine?’ ‘Non-Jews,’ was my friend’s reply.
The man told Rabbi Grossman how misguided the young man was.” Writes Rabbi Grossman, “To this day, my friend doesn’t know that the doctor he praises and blesses is the same person he actually ridiculed and demeaned many years earlier.”
Every Jew is royalty, the son or daughter of a king, and every human being is made b’zelem Elokim – in Hashem’s image. How could one not show respect to another even if his/her choices are in your eyes questionable? As different as we may be on different social or financial or religious levels, we are still equal in Hashem’s eyes. Why not in ours?
Being rude or mean or bullying someone you perceive as being “less” than you can backfire. The chubby classmate with the nerdy clothes whom you teased and mocked might reject your daughter as a shidduch suggested to her “catch” of a son because of the cruelty you inflicted on her.
Hillel wisely taught that one should treat others in the manner one would want to be treated. Anyone riding the Ferris wheel of life should heed his words.