An Akhashverosh for Our Time?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
That’s the first amendment to the United States Constitution. Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between church and state.” We Jews love this amendment because it’s a large part of what has made this country a safe haven for minorities. Majority rules, but minority rights are protected. No Federal religion imposes its dogma on us. We’re free to worship as we choose.
There’s a price though for protecting this freedom. As we watch what may very well qualify as the most insane presidential campaign in American history, I am not permitted to mention by name any of the candidates, no matter how infuriated I am by their behavior. Which leaves me with two courses of action. One, to express gratitude that there are non-congregational rabbis out there – like former URJ president Eric Yoffie – who are tearing up the internet with their rants about some of the awfulness that is taking place right now. The other is to talk about these people without talking about them. Which is what I’m going to do right now.
Purim arrives this Wednesday evening. “Star Wars” will be our theme. We’ll have a riotous time. We’ll spoof some of our favorite “Star Wars” characters but we won’t spoof any candidates for national office.
Purim tells the story of King Akhashverosh, who ruled over 127 provinces and was as much a fool as any of our current candidates for president. He banishes his wife for refusing to come to a party. He appoints a homicidal maniac as his royal adviser. And he claims that a king’s edict – in this case, the one to instigate a pogrom against the Jews of Shushan – cannot be reversed so he gives the Jews permission to instigate their own pogrom first.
I imagine that if King Akhashverosh had run for reelection, we might have seen him advocate that climate change is a hoax created by the Assyrians to supress the Persian economy, build a 2000-mile wall along the Babylonian border and ban all Greeks from entering the Persian empire, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants who had illegally entered from Arabia to the south, end the Common Core horsemanship and archery curriculum, put the inter-provincial road system and communication outpost network (known as the Persian internet) up for grabs and forget about homing pigeon net neutrality, repeal Persian health care, and leave it up to each province to decide pregnancy policy. I wonder, if Mordekhai organized a presence of opposition at Akhashverosh’s rallies, would he be denounced, beaten and expelled? King Akhasverosh was an embarassment in Shushan two millennia ago. He’d still be an embarrassment as a political leader today.
I think about that first amendment to the Constitution and what it has meant for virtually every American citizen. At one point or another, most of us – or our relatives who originally brought our families to American shores in the first place – have belonged to a minority or immigrant group. One of America’s greatest virtues has been its willingness to welcome those who are seeking refuge and a better opportunity for themselves and for those they love. To advocate transforming our nation into a xenophobic, racist, misogynist, heterosexist stronghold goes (I think) against the original vision of our founding fathers.
Each year, we retell the Scroll of Esther for fun and entertainment. But it’s a really scary story. Lives are seriously imperiled and the Persian empire came precariously close to committing genocide. Akhashverosh’s government not only ignored the rights of those who depended on him for their safety, but he permitted, or at best declined to prevent, Haman’s rise to power. We’re afforded a happy ending, albeit an incredibly violent one, but we’re left wondering if our own government could one day betray those who rely upon it. And of course, the answer is yes. America still contends with long-embedded racism, sexism, and distrust of “foreigners.” In the current atmosphere of economic disappointment and struggle for so many, the temptation to elect a candidate who promises to dramatically alter the fabric of our lives is appealing to far too many. The rise to power in the House of Representatives of so many who would implement decidedly restrictive and unfair laws, and now presidential candidates who would do the same and more, is no fairy tale. It’s really happening.
The writers of the Purim story were issuing later generations a warning: Not all those who rule are necessarily looking out for everybody’s best interests. So if you happen to live in one of the lucky nations where those who are not in power are still permitted to express opposing points of view without fear of reprisal, do so. Because if we don’t, we may be risking the loss not only of rights for those who have no voice but, eventually, for ourselves as well.
Come Wednesday, we’re going to fire up the Millennium Falcon, don our Stormtrooper helmets, pick up our light sabers and while away the evening with laughter and delight. But let’s not forget how frightened Queen Esther was of King Akhashverosh. With the wave of his scepter, he could have banished her or had her executed. Instead, he took her out for dinner and gave her half his kingdom. Such results do not often come from speaking truth to power. But so long as free elections offer citizens the opportunity to change a nation’s path at the ballot box, each of us must think carefully and deeply about the greater implications of our choices.
Judaism has always taught that the Divine spark resides in each of us. Created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, our tradition teaches that we must ensure that one and all are cared for and are safe. America has historically been one of the greatest homes for the Jewish community because of similar values that have been enshrined in the Constitution. May our children, and their children, wake up each morning to an America of similar constitution. May it forever welcome men and women of all colors, all faiths, all national origins, and all sexual and gender orientations. May God bless America for the same reason that, tomorrow morning, I’ll ask God to bless our Bat Mitzvah, because of the choices we consistently make that are inclusive, life-affirming, and reflective of a passion for caring and for love.
May we live to witness an abundance of happy endings, not just in books and movies, but throughout these United States of America.