Countless generations have found it amusing. Some are completely scandalised. The halachah tells us that on Purim one should imbibe “until one does not know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai'”.
Maimonides does not take this too literally but thinks it means that one should drink enough wine to fall asleep. Those who like “gematria” (the calculation of the numerical value of letters) say that “Arur Haman” (“Cursed be Haman”) and “Baruch Mordechai” both add up to the same number, 502.
But there must be more to it than that. A feature of the Pesach Haggadah may indirectly suggest an answer. In the four sons, the wise is followed by the wicked, then by the unsophisticated son and the one who knows not how to ask. All but the wicked are judged by their intellect, the wicked by his ethics. The wise and the wicked are both clever, more or less on a par intellectually, but one is ethical and the other is not. They are reverse images of each other.
Similarly, Haman and Mordechai may be seen as reverse images of each other. They have things in common. Neither is a Persian: Haman is an Agagite and Mordechai is a Jew. Both are elevated to power as a result of events which they more or less engineer. Indeed both enjoy their power; at the end of the Megillah the Jewish people’s praise of Mordechai is muted though the comment that he was “acceptable to most of his brethren” to most, but not all, because some did not approve of what he had become.
But what differentiates Mordechai from Haman is that the latter tries to impose a sameness on the whole kingdom, with zero tolerance for difference and diversity. Mordechai does not insist that everybody give up their individuality. His power is used in order to draw the best out of every citizen.
So Haman and Mordechai are similar, but in what really matters they are world apart. Only when you drink too much and lose touch with reality do you fail to see the difference.
Maybe, for one day only, you are allowed to get merry and show that even good leaders like Mordechai can be laughed at, but by the following day you have to put the right standards back in place.
HEY MAN! – AN ECCENTRIC GUIDE TO THE PURIM CAST.
Now it came to pass in the land of I-ran (such a frenetic place that everyone runs and no-one has time to walk) that there was such A-hush-veh-rush to get to the king’s banquet that the queen’s dress was in the Vash ti-ng (the ancient copper) and all she had on was a birthday suit.
“Off with her head!” said the king and then he needed a new queen and among the candidates the bester was Esther and the king found her, crowned her and gowned her.
Now everything was capital in Shushan but every story has a villain and his name was Hey-man because when he entered the palace he said, “Hey, man! I have to see His Maj!” (a good job it wasn’t a republic or else he would have wanted to enter the Awful Office and say, “Mister Pres, Simon Says, support the sabras, not the Hez!”).
Hey-man had ten sons and he and they played cricket so badly that they were called the Worst Helleven and were such womanisers that they often bowled a maiden over, but when Esther said, “That’s not cricket!” and her cousin Mordy Kaye was rude to Hey-man in the street, Hey-man said, “Those are hanging words!”
He tore Mordy’s tzitzit and said, “You must be a Jew… no more fringe benefits for you!”
But the king liked Mordy, who was a useful intelligence-gatherer, and he said to him, “I’m going to give you a ring!”… which he did, Persian to Persian. So he hung up on Hey-man, gave Mordy a job for the boys, told Esther to write a “ganze megillah”, and the Jews had nouvelle cuisine (“gor nisht mit garnish”).
Fun, fun – as the song says, “havah nar’ishah, rush rush rush!” It was all very Iranic – no, ironic. The Jews were sorry for the king. Such tzores so early in his reign… Poor ‘im!
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com