THE WHOLE MEGILLAH Rabbi Elliot Strom • March 9, 2012Last week, Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic Magazine interviewed President Obama about what was then the upcoming AIPAC conference and his one-on-one meetings between Mr. Netanyahu in Washington DC. It was a fascinating interview, probing the President’s views on the Israel-US relationship, the state of affairs in the Middle East and, most particularly, the clear and growing Iranian nuclear threat. It is recommended reading for everyone of us who cares deeply about Israel, about the Middle East and about the start of war and peace in our world – as everyone of us should and must be.
In a separate article reprinted in the Inquirer this morning, the same Jeffrey Goldberg tells of how Mr. Netanyahu brought a special gift to his meetings with Mr. Obama this week – as visiting heads of state always do. Bibi’s gift was apparently a megillah, a scroll of Esther. On one level, suggests Goldberg, this was because of the holiday of Purim observed at the time of their discussions. But, on a more important level, it was meant to remind the American President of what happened the last time there was an existential threat to the Jewish people in the land of Iran, or Persia as it was then known.
Through this megillah, the Prime Minister, in not so subtle fashion, had a message for the President: we Jews know how to respond when we feel our future is in jeopardy. We take measures to save ourselves, whatever the risks, whatever the costs. That’s what we did in ancient Persia in the days of Achashverosh; that’s what we will do today, Mr. Netanyahu was saying with this megillah. Or so says Jeffrey Goldberg.
So what happened in their meeting this week? Not surprisingly, Mr. Netanyahu stressed Israel’s right to defend itself against hostile plots. And the president expressed complete sympathy for Israel’s situation in his personal response and in his speech to AIPAC that one-time Israeli PM, Shimon Peres, called the “most pro-Israel speech a US president has ever given.”
But one thing Mr. Obama did NOT do was encourage Israel to go ahead and attack. In fact, while expressing his unreserved solidarity with the Jewish state, while saying clearly he “had Israel’s back,” he also counseled patience and forbearance. He asked Mr. Netanyahu to trust in American support and to allow time for the increasingly tough international sanctions to take hold, thus inducing Iran to enter into discussions to give up their pursuit of nuclear arms.And what was Mr. Netanyahu’s response. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, whereas before the summit, he felt certain Mr. Netanyahu would acquiesce and allow more time for sanctions to bite, he now believes the Prime Minister, with his explicit comparisons of the current situation with the Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe in 1944, is ready to act. As Goldberg writes: “Netanyahu has backed himself into a corner. If Iran is Nazi Germany, then no argument is going to keep (him) from his destiny…Either Netanyahu is the world’s greatest bluffer, or he is on course to prevent a second Holocaust.” In the end, Goldberg says, “with Netanyahu the megillah was the message.”
But tonight, I want to suggest that if what Netanyahu sees in the megillah is a message to bomb Iran, risks and consequences be damned, then he has learned a very tragic, very dangerous and very wrong-headed message.
So tonight, let’s take a look at the megillah, at the ‘whole megillah,’ and see if we can figure out the real meaning of the Purim story. Because the megillah is Jewish history as opera bouffe, as comic opera. Not meant to be taken seriously, it is a classic tale of topsy-turvy, of role reversal, of comically evil villains in black, three-sided hats and good guys in white. It is a world of villains ‘hoist on their own petard’ (in the words of the Bard), of plots undone and virtue rewarded. It is a perfect drama for the season – a time and a reason for release, silliness and even a little bad behavior. But it is not – and never was – meant to be taken seriously, it was never to be taken as a telling of real history nor a warrant for Jewish behavior.
I mean, take a look! What do we have here? The king is comically stupid and inept, an emperor without clothes. The villain is all ego and greed and arrogance, comically evil, to be booed and hissed at the mere mention of his name. The hero is a low-level retainer in the King’s retinue, the heroine a member of the harem, married to a Gentile king. And the story (according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow in his blog post this week) is one built around two comic reversals, where an individual’s intent is stood on its head as what he was originally seeking comes around to an exact reversal of his intent.
In one plot line (pun intended), the wicked Haman’s question to the king: “What should be done to the man the king wishes to honor?” ends up with the horse, the parade, the honors and power accruing to Mordecai and the gallows Haman erects to hang Mordecai becomes the instrument of his own undoing. In the second, the King’s attempt to maintain control in the palace by sacking the rebellious Vashti and engaging the more tractable Esther ends not with him as unquestioned authority but in him meekly doing the will of his new queen. I believe these reversals are the true meaning of the story. They were designed for humor and fun and silliness. They were the story that gave rise to the costumes, the revelry, the zaniness of the day. If there is any SERIOUS message to the story it is: beware what you instigate, beware what events you set in motion, because whatever your intent may be at the first, you have no idea where the story will end up, perhaps the complete undoing of your original goals. So it was for king Achaschverosh. So it was for Haman.
And, my friends, so I fear it may be (God forbid a thousand times!) with Israel. If Mr. Netanyahu goes ahead, taking the fate of his nation into his hands in this way, eschewing the risks and potentially disastrous consequences, if he overrules the advice of the great majority of his military and diplomatic advisors, and sends Israeli fighter jets to Iran, I fear all of his intentions will be turned topsy-turvy.
I believe the mission will not only fail on its own terms but will also set in a motion an unpredictable course of reprisals against Israel, against America, against the West which are almost too fearsome to contemplate. Here is what we know. We know Israel does not possess the military means to do anything more than slow down the Iranian march toward nuclear arms, that the best Israel can hope to accomplish is a one to two-year slowdown in Iran’s efforts, and that when they do rebuild their facilities they will build them even deeper in the ground so that they will be completely inaccessible to any attack the next time. We know that any Israeli attack -- at a time when the Iranian people is feeling the pinch of sanctions and blaming it on their leaders -- will draw them together in support around their leaders, giving additional strength to Ahmedinejad and the mullahs. We know that Iran will undoubtedly respond by attempting to close off the straits of Hormuz to world shipping, thus threatening the free flow of oil, choking off the current world economic recovery at one stroke.
We know that Iran will undoubtedly respond with missiles – their own, those of their puppets, Hezbollah and Hamas – in a shower of firepower upon Israel, no part of which will now be immune to attack. We know that Iran will undoubtedly launch a wave of terrorist attacks against Israeli, Jewish, American and Western European targets throughout the Middle East and throughout the world.
And we know that Iran will certainly emerge from their current pariah status to become the darlings of the world, righteous innocents victimized by American imperialism, gaining the world’s sympathies as we lose all the leverage and support which this country has been patiently building throughout these last months.
So, in the end, just like the Purim story, an action launched to achieve a set of understandable, even laudable goals, would be turned completely on its head, ending up by rewarding Iran, undoing Israel, America and, in the process, the entire world at one fell swoop. This, my friends, is a terrifying vision indeed. It is one that keeps me awake at night. It is a nightmare too terrible to contemplate.
So if it was Mr. Netanyahu’s intent –through his gift of a megillah -- to signal his willingness to strike Iran now, if it was the Prime Minister’s idea to suggest that Israel has learned the lessons of the Purim story and stands ready to act to defend itself without regard to the risks or consequences, I want to suggest that he has dangerously misread the Purim story and drawn all the wrong lessons. The lesson of the megillah is, in fact, beware of acting precipitously since you never know where it will all end up. You never know when the consequences will be the exact opposite, the complete undoing of your original intent. This, my friends, is the true meaning of the megillah, one Mr. Netanyahu and all of us should bear in mind in these terrifying and tumultuous days in which we live.
And that, my friends, THAT is the whole megillah. AMEN