Purim: A tale of two families

Purim is filled with so much menace and threat that culminates in so much relief and fun that something really important goes unnoticed. 

Purim is surely a tale about palace intrigue; about evil people high at court (namely Haman) who seek to destroy the Jewish people. It is about Jews, also high at court (like Esther the Queen). It is about diplomacy and Mordecai's wisdom. It is a great story about national and international affairs. However, what is lost  is that at the heart of it Purim is a tale of two families. 

In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai…exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile…by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. -And he nursed (omein) Hadassah, who is Esther…for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai took  her as his own daughter. (Esther 2:5-7)  

Esther was an orphan.  Mordecai adopted her. The Hebrew word for adopting a child is 'omein.' The Hebrew word for taking full responsibility to nurture and to raise and protect a child who is fatherless and motherless is not 'adopt,' it is 'omein,' 'to nurse.'  Hebrew is a wise language. Why this word, 'to nurse,' for 'adopt?'  Isn't it quite amazing that the word omein in this sentence is applied to Mordecai, a man?  Nursing is the most intimate and the most sensual of life giving acts. Nursing is feeding, sustaining, a frail young life that cannot feed or take care of itself  with food of one's very  body. This is the word that the Hebrew language selects to describe the act of taking an orphan and bringing the orphan into one's home and raising the orphan as if it were one's very own child, born of one's  flesh. The Hebrew language and the Hebrew Bible are so moved and so impressed by this act of selfless love that  adopting a child is like a mother  giving of her very life and her very flesh, food and life itself. Purim is the Yom Tov of bringing into one's family children not born out of one's flesh and raising them as if they were one's own children. This is the act of an omein. This is the act of a person who nurses. This is  life-giving. 

There's another family in the Book of Esther. We get to listen to the Haman family meeting. Let's set the scene: Esther learns that Haman is out to destroy the Jewish people. Esther is a master diplomat. She invites the King and Haman to a party. When they get to the party Esther doesn't throw herself at the feet of the king and beg for mercy for her people. No such obvious and easy thing for  a diplomat  like her. She does a high roll of the dice. In order to entrap both of them she invites them to a second party. Listen to Haman's reaction. 

That day Haman went out happy and lighthearted. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the palace gate, and Mordecai did not rise or even stir on his account, Haman was filled with rage at him... He sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh,  Haman boasted of his great wealth and his many sons, and how the King had promoted him and advanced him above the officials and the King's courtiers. "What is more," said Haman, "Queen Esther gave a feast, and besides the King she did not have anyone but me. And tomorrow too I am invited by her along with the King. Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordecai sitting in the palace gate."  Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, "Let a stake be put up…and in the morning ask the king to have Mordecai impaled on it. Then you can go gaily with the king to the feast." The proposal pleased Haman, and he had the stake put up. (Esther 5:9-14)

Haman is a man of hate. That's not a good thing for father a to be. If you're a man of hate you will raise children of hate. Haman and wife  Zeresh boast about their wealth and about their sons. As he's boasting about his position with the King and Queen Esther, he  indulges his hatred. Nothing of this glory means anything to him as long as he sees Mordecai. His lovely wife, a woman of hate, in the presence of their 10 children, proposes that they should make preparations to have Mordecai impaled or hung. 

Compare the unconditional love and the life-giving family of Mordecai as expressed in his "nursing" (a.k.a. adopting) of Esther with the hate family of Haman. This is a family that raised ten sons, each in the image of their father Haman. A hating father raises hating murderous children. The consequence is that on the day that Haman is hung, so are his ten children. 

So, while we're all busy mocking Haman, and a bit unnerved by Haman's threat to annihilate  us, and then thrilled when he fails, let's not  forget one of the grand images in the Book of Esther: the comparison of the Mordechai family grounded in unconditional love, with the Haman family imbued with unrelenting hate. Purim is  tale of two families,  of love and of hate. 

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is rabbinic scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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