Tikkun Magazine, January/February 1998
Purim: The Limits of Control
By Karen van Hoek
Purim is often perceived as simply a celebration of a triumph over anti-Semitism, a straightforward story often thought of as "Good guys versus bad guys, and thank God the good guys won - this time." But while Jewish survival is unarguably an important theme, reducing the holiday to just that causes us to miss an opportunity to confront the more complex issues lurking just beneath the surface: questions about the nature of authority and control, and the power dynamics of Self and Other. Underneath the theme of anti-Semitism, the Book of Esther tells a more subtle story about addiction to control and the consequences that follow.
Imagine having complete control over everyone and everything in the world. It would be a secure existence, but a lonely one: other people would exist only as projections of your own ego, with no independent will of their own. You would have no possibility for intimate contact with others, since intimacy requires that there be two independent beings choosing to interrelate. A world under complete control would be safe, predictable, and unbearably empty.
The Jewish mystical tradition tells us that God confronted this dilemma, and chose to give up control. The first step in the creation of the world was the tzimtzum, the contraction of God's own Self in order to open a space in which other beings could exercise free will. Were God to undo the tzimtzum, we would be overwhelmed, absorbed back into the Divine consciousness and no longer able to exist as separate selves. The fact that the Universe endures and that we continue to exist as independent beings is testimony to God's decision that the possibility of intimacy with an Other is worth letting go of control.
We humans, created in the Image of God, are also confronted with the conflict between exercising control and holding open the space for an Other. Although we cannot truly get complete control over other people, we have the potential to treat people as extensions of our own egos, trying by manipulation and intimidation to force them to play out the roles we assign to them. We can even treat parts of ourselves as Other and as objects to be controlled, keeping ourselves under observation and attempting to make ourselves conform to rigid standards of behavior.
Much of modern Western society is caught up in an idolatrous cult of control. The rational mind is exalted for its alleged ability to exercise control, and we are trained to repress or deny the "messy" parts of ourselves, the parts which threaten to get out of control: emotions, sexuality, bodily functions, and all experiences and perceptions which don't fit the narrow standards of approved rational thought. As Michael J. Bader points out in his essay on the current fashionability of cynicism (TIKKUN, May/June 1996), the cultural demand for self-control requires never letting down one's guard by displaying vulnerability, hopefulness, or openness to connection with other human beings.
A spiritual path which offers healing for individuals and society has to make us aware of the limitations and pitfalls of control. Judaism does this in part through the cycle of the holidays. At Passover we re-enact letting go of everything to make a dash for freedom. At Shavuot we celebrate the overwhelming encounter with an Other at Sinai. At Sukkot we deepen our awareness of vulnerability and of the fragility of the structures we create to protect ourselves from the world. And starting off the cycle of holidays in the spring is Purim, when we directly confront the desire to get everything under control - and laugh at it.
The Book of Esther opens with King Ahashverus's attempt to coerce obedience from his wife, Vashti. After she is banished or killed (the text doesn't specify) for refusing to submit to his demands, the king passes a law that all wives must obey their husbands. Shortly thereafter, the king's courtier Haman is drawn into a battle of wills with the Jew Mordechai, who refuses to bow down to him. Haman requests that the king order the annihilation of the Jews. His choice of words is telling: "There is a certain people who follow their own laws, and do not follow the king's laws. It is not in the king's interest to tolerate them." In Haman's mind, the logic is perfectly clear: these people will not submit to control, therefore they must be destroyed.
Women and Jews are given remarkably parallel treatment in the story, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow has noted. Both are seen as Other by the dominant members of society, non-Jewish men. Both have had to suffer the consequences of being identified with the shadow side of the self: the irrational, emotional, uncontrollable aspects of self, the aspects which must be repressed and denied if the illusion of control is to be maintained. It is no accident that Nazism, which idolized power and the fantasy of invulnerability, was not only anti-Semitic but also profoundly anti-female.
In the story of Purim, Haman's ambitions are thwarted by someone who is both a woman and a Jew, thus doubly identified with the Other. Queen Esther puts a stop to the madness by refusing to comply with the denial of self which absolute control requires. She identifies herself to the king and to Haman as a Jew. Haman's downfall swiftly follows, and the Jews in the kingdom successfully defend themselves against their enemies.
Framed in this way, Purim is more complex than simply a celebration of the defeat of one anti-Semitic thug. Purim - a word which means 'lots' - is about the ways that people respond to the chaotic, uncontrollable elements in life. To the extent that we demonize Haman, declaring his violence utterly alien and incomprehensible to us, we miss much of the power of the story. While it may be hard to identify with the urge to commit genocide, we all have experience with the fear of giving up control.
Jewish tradition underscores this point with the teaching that one is obligated to drink on Purim ad d'lo yada, "Until you don't know the difference between 'Cursed be Haman' and 'Blessed be Mordechai.'" Mordechai was drawn into the power struggle with Haman when he refused to bow down, that is, to give up control. While we can easily distinguish between Mordechai's reasonable self-assertion and Haman's pathological need for control, the custom of temporarily blurring the distinction suggests that often things aren't so clear. The need to exercise control over one's circumstances forms a continuum with the urge to claim power over others, and it is often hard for us to be sure where one leaves off and the other begins.
The costume-ball aspect of Purim further emphasizes the point that the good guys aren't always so obviously different from the bad guys. While the carnival-like revelry is a way of letting go of control and celebrating the chaos and craziness of life, the custom of wearing masks may also be a reminder of the ease with which we play out all the different roles in real life. It is not always so simple to be sure whether we are exercising healthy self-assertion or whether we have overstepped those bounds into unreasonable efforts to control others and ourselves. And yet the hilarity of Purim suggests that maybe our best response is not to take ourselves too seriously, but to step back and laugh at the whole dilemma.
The tradition teaches that while the other holidays will end with the coming of the Messiah, "the days of Purim will never cease." Perhaps this is because the delicate balance between surrender and control is woven into the fabric of Creation, from the moment when God first contracted God's own Self to allow for the possibility of intimacy with an Other. We will live in the tension between the two extremes for as long as the world endures.
Karen van Hoek teaches cognitive linguistics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Hoek, Karen van. 1998. Purim: The Limits of Control. Tikkun 13(1): 47.