Purim: We Have Been Here Before

As we approach the holiday of Purim and find ourselves deep in this year’s bizarre election cycle, I find myself thinking back to different times. The article I wrote below was originally published in a weekly Torah commentary by the URJ back in December 2000 and is archived here.
Four election cycles ago was a different time entirely. On the other hand, we have heard these stories before. Jewish people have risen to positions of prominence and power even as a minority, Joseph and Esther being the two most obvious Biblical examples.
This year, in addition to a woman and a Jewish man seeking the presidency, a new Haman has emerged, a person whose ego makes him a demagogue and whose ability to incite hate makes him terrifying.
While things have changed, the last questions I raised give me pause today: “There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?”
I’m interested in your thoughts, so please tell me what you think in the comments.

Joe and Hadassah Lieberman: Viceroy of Egypt and Queen of Persia

The narratives of the Bible are in many ways archetypal stories of the human condition, repeated throughout history. This year, a Jew, Senator Joe Lieberman, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Who could be more suited for this position in history than two people who bear the same names as our only biblical role models to have achieved levels of prominence in non-Jewish governments, namely, Joseph and Esther (whose Hebrew name was Hadassah)? Let’s explore these two models with regard to some specific issues raised in both the Tanach texts and in this year’s presidential race.


Joe Lieberman tends to refer to God in his speeches. In Parashat Miketz, the biblical Joseph constantly mentions God. When asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph replies: “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare!” (Genesis 41:16), and in the course of the interpretation provided him by God, he mentions God three times. This piety so impresses Pharaoh and his advisers that Pharaoh chooses Joseph to supervise the food reserve (an ironic parallel to the issue of our budgetary surplus) because of Joseph’s relationship with God, and Pharaoh even refers to God twice as Elohim, the same way that Joseph does.

In contrast, God is not mentioned even once in the entire Book of Esther. Mordecai tells her: “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (Esther 4:14), hinting that God directs the course of human events. How different or similar are Esther’s and Joseph’s approaches? Which one do you think is better suited for a politician in the U.S. today?

Family Values

Joe Lieberman was praised for his frank condemnation of President Clinton’s sexual infidelity and dishonesty. In rabbinic literature, Joseph is often referred to as “Joseph the Righteous,” having earned this title for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, who then falsely accused Joseph, resulting in Potiphar’s having him thrown in jail.

There is a parallel story of an attempted rape in the Book of Esther. When Esther revealed to the king Ahasuerus that Haman was plotting to kill the Jews, the king stormed out and returned later only to find “Haman…lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined.” (Esther 7:8) Do these two biblical stories serve to warn us that as Jews in a non-Jewish society, we run the risk of having the core of our identities violated?

Assimilation and Intermarriage

Both Joseph and Esther married non-Jews. Although each of them assimilated into the majority culture, they were both forced to confront their roots. When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, they didn’t recognize him. He swore by Pharaoh’s name (Genesis 42:15) and had called his “firstborn Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget completely…my parental home.'” (Genesis 41:51) Esther, too, hid her Jewish identity, and without Mordecai’s prodding, she would probably not have approached the king. On the other hand, each week parents bless their sons, expressing the hope that they will be like Ephraim and Manasseh, who, rabbinic tradition teaches, embraced Judaism even in Egypt. How does a Jew who has attained a position of prominence in the U.S. today affect the identity of other American Jews?


Finally, we can speculate about how this year’s events might be viewed in the course of Jewish history. There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. The tale of Joseph is a story of such a cycle—from favored son to slave and prisoner to the viceroy of Egypt. While Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, became the site of years of bitter Israelite slavery, it is also the place from which we were redeemed and led out to the Promised Land. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?


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