This year both Purim and Pesach fall in the Gregorian month of March, either side of Human Rights Day.
One can easily make a connection between Pesach and the issue of human rights — Pesach celebrates the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery and one of the basic human rights is that of physical, intellectual and spiritual freedom. But can one connect the fun-filled, crazy festival of Purim to the serious issue of human rights?
In essence Purim celebrates the successful prevention of a planned genocide of the Jews residing in the Persian Empire. The story of how Queen Esther thwarted Haman’s scheme to exterminate all the Jews in Ahasuerus’ kingdom is well known. The custom of concealing one’s true identity on Purim by wearing fancy dress in order to emulate Esther’s tactic of hiding the fact that she was Jewish is an intrinsic part of the festival. The drowning out of the name of the evil Haman during the reading of the Megillah symbolises the Jew’s task to eradicate all ideas and actions present in the world that are contrary to the life-affirming principles of Torah.
But a closer reading of the story reveals that the fundamental issue dealt with by the Book of Esther is the right of an individual or a community to live and worship as they see fit, provided of course that they do no harm or injury to others. The Megillah informs us that the motive for Haman’s intense hatred for the Jews is the fact that Mordechai refuses to show him reverence by bowing down to him. Haman’s ego is bruised and he resolves not only to deal with Mordechai but to eradicate all members of his ethnic group. Haman does not limit his dislike of Mordechai to him alone but extends his disdain to all who share his ethnicity and religion. Haman’s attitude is racist and bigoted and it leads him to fantasise about the murder of all Jews.
Once he resolves to implement his plan, Haman has no difficulty convincing his liege to permit him to carry it out. He plays on King Ahasuerus’ insecurities by making him believe that the Jews are a threat to his throne. Haman’s pledge to pay ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury is an additional incentive for allowing the slaughter of the Jews. Thus personal enmity, illusions of grandeur, political insecurity and greed prompt Haman and Ahasuerus to deny the Jews the basic human right to life.
The denial to life need not take the drastic form of literally murdering an individual. Merely making someone’s existence uncomfortable through our actions, words or gestures is a denial of the other’s right to life. Blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of the other, the unconscionable exploitation of another’s generosity is a denial of the other’s right to life. Lack of respect for another’s property, possessions and personal space is a denial of the other’s right to life.
One of the most tangible examples of the denial of the other’s right to life in this more subtle manner is our behaviour on the roads. It is deplorable how many South African drivers flagrantly flout all the laws and rules of the road. Purposeful speeding is only one such example. I am astounded at how often motorists drive through red traffic lights and am surprised that I have yet to witness an accident, let alone a fatal one. It is incomprehensible that people would disregard the safety of their fellow citizens simply because they are too impatient to stop at a red light or because they don’t want to use up their break fluid or brake pads by stopping.
The same is true of the refusal of many Capetonians to acknowledge that there is a water crisis and continue to flagrantly disregard the need to conserve water. Reports of individuals continuing to blatantly ignore the water restrictions abound. This selfish abuse of our most essential natural resource denies the right of life. Although we all pay for water, this precious commodity belongs to all of us and it needs to be shared equally so that we can all live.
The Talmud quotes Shemuel who taught the dictum: Dina D’Malchuta Dina, “the law of the kingdom is the law”. The law of the State is binding on all Jews as long as it does not contradict the life-affirming values of halakhah. The laws of the road certainly do conform to Torah values. Indeed they are legislated with the sole aim of preserving and safeguarding the lives and well-being of all road users. The need to value water and not take it for granted is essential to the well-being of all. The Talmudic principle of bal tashchit (“do not destroy”) teaches that it is forbidden to destroy or waste entities that are useful or indispensible to human existence.
So, while we are instructed by the sages to celebrate Purim with frivolity and a drink or three so that we cannot distinguish between Arur Haman and Baruch Mordechai (“Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai”) let us be responsible and refrain from driving while under the influence. Let us commit ourselves to conserving water and being more responsible in the way we use our natural resources. Let us remind ourselves amidst the fancy dress, shouting, eating and drinking that the festival of Purim is more than a mardi gras — it is a festival which warns us of the dire consequences of denying the other the fundamental human right of life.