FROM PURIM TO PESACH

Some months ago, a prominent British Jewish intellectual called me a sex addict, “like all Italians” on Twitter. It was an excruciating moment: being targeted by racism is never a pleasant experience. But, also, -as any mental health professional knows, the reference was tasteless.

Sex addiction is a severe problem. It causes endless pain. Sex addicts are unable to commit. The more they suffer for their loneliness, the more they try to compensate through casual and degrading relationships, which only makes issues more serious. Sex addicts cause suffering to others and to themselves. They turn people into objects. They deny other people humanity, and they deny their own humanity too.

Despite that authoritative source, I am sure I am not a sex addict. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of Purim and looking forward to Pesach, it’s interesting to muse about sex addiction. That is because the most famous sex addict in the Bible is a character of the Megillah: King Ahashverosh, the Persian Emperor.

Ze’ev Raban — Playing cards

We just read the story, on Purim last week, but let me recap. The story begins when King Ahashverosh orders his wife Vashti to dance naked in front of his guests. When she refuses, he gets rid of her.

Ahashverosh replaces his wife with a harem of beauties selected via competitions held in his kingdom’s cities. Among them, Esther becomes the favourite. But Ahashverosh still continues his relations with these concubines, whose feelings he does not take into consideration. To tell things properly: he rapes these women.

The administration of the kingdom is left to officers and dignitaries, (of which Hamas and Mordechai are the most famous). Apart from banqueting with his guests and raping his concubines, King Ahashverosh does absolutely nothing. This is the behaviour of a sex addict.

The paradox of King Ahashverosh is one of the many funny bits of the Purim story. King Ahashverosh is one of the most powerful men in the world; he can have whatever he wants, do whatever he wants. But he is not free; he is actually a slave of his own sex addiction.

The Talmud (6b)explains, in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, that it is “preferable to connect [one] redemption to [the other] redemption.” I am sure that the most organised among us -like my wife- are already drawing the list of invitations for the Seder. But the connection between Purim and Pesach is not only about the huge amount of time required for preparation. Because both holidays are about freedom.

Freedom is one of the themes of Purim. At the end of the story of Purim, after the massacre has been averted, Jews are again free, free to live and free to practice their religion. And freedom is also the main theme for Pesach, the night when we re-enact the process of our liberation. We open the narration indeed with the famous formula: “Today we are slaves, tomorrow we will be free”.

We are so used to the formula that we do not pay much attention to its wording. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth asking a question. Why do we say that we are slaves? We are not! Slavery is still one of the tragedies of the contemporary world, but we ourselves, sitting comfortably around the Pesach table, are free persons, free men and women, free human beings.

What’s the point, then, to tell us and others that we are still slaves? Slaves of what? To answer such a question, let us think of the story of Purim, of Ahashverosh: he is a free man. And a powerful man. But he is a slave of his own sex addiction. Because of his addiction, he is also easily manipulable, first by Haman ) then -thank God- by Esther, who persuades him to retract the order of extermination.

In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in the story of Pesach, Pharao is affected by a similar addiction, not to sex but to power. Because Pharao wants to keep the Israelites as slaves, God punishes his people and his family with the plagues, one more severe than the other. But Pharao persists in keeping the Israelites slaves, even if members of his own family die. Pharao is a slave to his addiction to power.

Ephraim Lillen — Pharao and the death of firstborns

We have to understand slavery in this way: not as physical constraint and subjugation to taskmasters armed with bullwhips: which is a situation that does not affect, thank God, many of us. In Biblical context, being a slave means being at the service of our own impulses, not being able to control them, not being able to follow morality.

The freedom we are talking about, the freedom we will celebrate on Pesach, is the freedom to behave morally, to choose our own morality, to follow our own laws, to worship our God.

The words of God to Pharaoh, via Moses, which we read in the Biblical intext, and the Haggadah, and in a famous song, are: “Let my people go”. But the text in Exodus continues “to worship Me”, to worship God, What Moses refers to Pharao is not: “Let my people go free”, but rather: “let my people go to worship Me, to become servants of God and not of human beings”.

This is freedom, in the Biblical understanding. The freedom to choose our morality, the freedom to be ourselves and not what others want us to be. The freedom to follow the Jewish moral law and not the law of the non-Jewish majority. Freedom in Biblical terms, the freedom to choose our own morality, is a freedom that must be conquered every day. It requires resistance against the pressures to conform, to be “like the others”, to assimilate.

And here’s the point about Purim. On Purim, we read the story of a Jewish woman who, indeed, refused to assimilate and chose to follow Jewish morality. When the decree of extermination has been issued, Mordechai meets with Esther and tells her “Do not think that you can escape your destiny by denying your connection with the Jewish people; you are pretending you are not Jewish. Because the Jewish people will survive nonetheless, but you won’t be part of it anymore. Therefore do your part. Go, speak to the king on behalf of the people, of your people, and do your best to change the king’s mind and to reverse his decision” [see Esther 4:13] As we know, this is precisely what happens.

Up until that moment, Esther, the king’s concubine, is a “Persian queen of the Jewish religion”. Perhaps she still even prays every day (when Mordechai checks in on her, 2:11). At that moment, she becomes Esther, the Jewish queen. Despite all the pressure from the external world, despite the fact that Jews have been just sentenced to death, Esther embraces the Jewish destiny.

She dares to talk with the king, and in that conversation, she reveals to him not the fact that she professes the Jewish faith (Ahashverosh does not care about religion). She reveals what she is, her ethnicity, her identity, the people to whom she belongs.

This is the moment when Esther chose her morality, Jewish morality. To reconnect with her people. This is the moment when she chooses to become free. It is not a very famous passage of the Megillah, nonetheless, it is crucial, because it is the turning point of the whole story because it introduces in the story the element of freedom, which will be the central point for Pesach.

Over the next weeks, we will prepare for Pesach, cleaning the houses from chametz, leavened food, and cereals. I hope it will also be, following the example of Esther, a time for all of us to reconnect with our people and our community. I hope it will be, for all of us, a true festival of freedom.

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.