On Gefilte Fish and Hamentashen
Some time ago, in what seems already like a long-past lifetime, I was hurt by someone I knew, someone I cared about, and who I thought cared about me. I felt betrayed and embarrassed, I was sad and angry – my being ran the gamut of expected emotions in response to this act.
And my gut told me to respond. To get back. To get even. I wanted her to feel the pain that I had felt. I wanted to bring her down to my level.
Months passed, and, just the other day, I was thinking about this again. And I got so angry again, so hurt again. I felt it all as if it were yesterday. And I decided it was time. I decided it was time for revenge. I’ll show her! I thought. I formulated my plan – a morally sound way of getting even that exposed this “other” as less-than, that showed her flaws to the world and made me feel better about myself in the process. Revenge. Sweet sweet revenge.
We’ve been talking about revenge a lot lately.
Purim, as much as we may hate to remember this part, is all about getting even. Haman tries to kill the Jews and what do we do? We don’t just bake cookies and sing songs, no, we went on a killing spree and murdered him and his sons and all of his tribe! We showed them! We got even! Surely, Purim teaches us a thing or two about the nature of revenge and our right to get even with our aggressors. Get back! Stand up! Fight!
We feel empowered. We feel strong. But do we actually feel any better about ourselves?
Many communities skip the part of the Megillah that mentions this genocidal slaughter, uncomfortable, as they should be, with the moral ramifications of this act. The story leaves us stuck in an endless war with Amalek and his descendants for the rest of history. Perhaps Purim does not provide the right answer. Maybe there’s another way…
We never got even with the Egyptians. They beat us, they enslaved us, they killed us, and we just picked up and left. We packed our bags, took some gold and matza, and wandered away. No “F&^* You” on the way out. The door closed, and we moved on. We don’t forget what they did to us, but we also are able to spend our time thinking about the meaning of freedom, of God’s act of redemption, rather than dwelling on the evil nature of this foreign nation.
And, even though we did nothing, we sat bat and took it and just upped and left, Egypt still got their just reward. They were so brutish, so themselves angry, so short sided, that they came running after us into a sea! Their anger overcame them, they failed to think through their actions, and as a result, they all drowned.
God did not punish the Egyptians. We did not punish the Egyptians. The Egyptians punished themselves.
This particular reading of the story is, admittedly, with its holes, I know. But I want to suggest that there is a significant contrast between Israel’s response to Haman and Israel’s response to Egypt. That that contrast is there on purpose – there to teach us a crucial lesson. That difference allows us to celebrate freedom in one case, and be stuck hating another nation perpetually in the other.
Because revenge sucks. It feels good in the moment. It feels right and just and fitting. But it never really is. Bad people, bad nations, bad ideas, in the end bring themselves down. Let God do the judging. But we’re better off just picking up and leaving, better off not spending our days focussing on what they did to us, what we then did to spite them, but, rather, where we’ve been able to go since, what we did in spite of them. If we spend our days hating in response to their aggression, we risk becoming no better then them. If we move on, if we remember but don’t dwell, we open ourselves to a world of possibilities.
In the end, I set aside my desire to be like Purim, I looked ahead to Pesah, I decided that getting even would do me no good. It was hard – it sucked – but I set aside my revengeful plan. Someone who does bad things will be brought down by their own doing. They have to live with their own morals. I should move on. It’s better for me. Better for my soul. Better for my conscience. Better in every way.
Besides, after all, gefilte fish is much healthier than hamentashen.