Monday, March 10, 2014

Purim and Panem


At the Presidential Palace in Shushan (Panem)
I recently saw Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games film, which depicts a world in which a vibrant, rich, ostentatious capitol survives by enslaving and oppressing surrounding regions which must support and supply its largesse. During the movie, the two main characters find themselves at a magnificent party at the President's palace. Encouraged to eat yet another treat, Peeta explains that he cannot eat another bite. To this he is offered a glass of liquid in a fancy goblet. When he asks about the liquid he is told that the liquid makes you throw up, so you can then continue eating. "How else can you taste everything here?"
That's the world of the Capitol: A life of fancy television programs; of fantasy and fashion on the surface, firmly rooted in and dependant on oppression, torture and murder. Beauty in the Capitol literally is only skin deep, as an entire society justifies the systematic murder of children as ultimately in the long-term best interest of society.

Then it came to me. Panem is Shushan. Where else would a king demand that his queen appear "in all her glory" for everyone to see, but a place that values externality and excess over substance. Where else would you find a "feast for all his princes and his servants; the army of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him; when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty, many days, even a hundred and fourscore days"? (1,3-4) The Megillah takes pains to describe, in painful detail, the emphasis on the external, the beautiful, the magnificent.
There were hangings of white, fine cotton, and blue, bordered with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; the couches were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble.  And they gave them drink in vessels of gold--the vessels being diverse one from another--and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king. (1,6-7)

Before the maidens could be brought before the king for their night-long "examination", they had to undergo extensive preparations:
Now when the turn of every maiden was come to go in to king Ahasuerus, after that it had been done to her according to the law for the women, twelve months--for so were the days of their anointing accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six month with sweet odours, and with other ointments of the women... (Esther 2,12)
And when the king wishes to give honor to an unnamed favorite, what advice does Haman give? 
Let royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and on whose head a crown royal is set; and let the apparel and the horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king's most noble princes, that they may array the man therewith whom the king delighteth to honour, and cause him to ride on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him: Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour.' (Esther 6,8-9)

How about a better job? A raise? Greater responsibility? Nope. Those things don't seem to cross Haman's mind. All that matters is external glory: to be "seen" in the king's garb, riding the king's horse. Haman is totally tapped into the Shushan vibe: You want to honor me? I want to look even better than I already do. What can the king give a man who spent his days and nights with the king himself? What better than to dress like the king?

The facts themselves aren't that interesting. Rather, more interesting is the external emphasis as described in such numbing detail in the Megillah. Who cares that each maiden spent six months sitting in myrrh oil and six months sitting in other sweet scents? But that's precisely the point. They cared. In Shushan, not only were these details important. They were the most important details. A girl wouldn't dream of appearing before the king without the "right" clothes, having the "right" stylist.

This, the Megillah teaches us, is how we recognize that a society has rotted to its core. When style trumps substance, and success is measured in terms of popularity and style - to the exclusion of any other consideration. It is at this point that society is primed for moral indifference. Genocide is fine, as long as it puts on a pretty face.

Purim is all about opposites. ונהפוך הוא. Left is right, up is down. Ahashveirosh rules the world, yet he cannot even remove a law he dislikes. Haman, armed with the signet of the king is all-powerful, until the moment of truth arrives, and he finds himself groveling on the ground for his life. Esther is the meek, moldable queen, until she reveals that she has been masterminding the story all-along. Finally, Mordechai, the lowly and degraded Jew, shows the world what happens when a Jew refuses to prostrate himself, and stands up for his pride and his people.
Our celebration of Purim reflects this inverted reality.
On Purim, we "dress up", wear masks and pretend to be someone other than ourselves, until we drink enough that we can no longer conceal our inner secrets. נכנס יין, יצא סוד. – "When wine enters, secrets emerge."
Purim is about peeling back the layers of the onion; peeling off the rotten external shell, to find vibrant, sharp and powerful layers lying deep beneath the surface. Purim forces us to confront stark truths and to wonder whether we aren't just fooling everyone else, but ourselves as well.

Where do we live? Do our lives revolve around internal truths, guided and grounded by firm moral and spiritual principles? Or do we live in the Capitol of Panem/Shushan, where externalism, fashion and show matter most, and carry the day? Purim isn't just a day of costumes and revelry. Rather, on the day that we put on our play masks, we take off our real masks as well.