February 27, 2020

Happy Purim, Vlad!

There is a television show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” The show shakes the family trees of various celebrities and then presents them with interesting and bizarre aspects of their family backgrounds. Imagine how Chelsea Handler, who was raised Jewish, felt when she discovered that her maternal grandfather was a Nazi officer. Nischt gut, I would think.

Time to play that game with none other than Haman, Purim’s arch-villain.

What ethnicity was Haman?

Wasn’t he Persian?

No. He is an Agagite – a descendant of King Agag.

And who was King Agag?

King Agag was descended from Amalek, the genocidal desert raider who had attacked the weakest among the Israelites when they left Egypt. The Israelites were commanded to destroy Amalek. King Saul found himself in battle with Agag. He should have killed him — after all, he was a descendant of Amalek. Instead, Saul spares Agag.

Bad career move. As a result of Saul's refusal to kill Agag, the prophet Samuel, who had anointed Saul, tells him that God had changed his mind, and that Saul would lose his kingdom.

Fast forward to the book of Esther. The hero, Mordecai, is of the tribe of Benjamin, and a descendant of King Saul. The villain, Haman, is a descendant of Agag. Purim is basically “Saul vs. Agag — The Final Battle.” (Note to self: great idea for a movie. Schwartznegger as Mordecai. Alan Richman as Haman). 

So, Haman wasn't even Persian?

No. There were many different national groups in ancient Persia, including the Jews – and this ethnic outsider, Haman, became the king’s viceroy – just as Joseph became second to Pharaoh in Egypt, and just as Mordecai will take Haman’s place, and just as Henry Kissinger became Secretary of State.

In his maniacal hunger to wipe out the Jews, Haman was actually saying: “True, I am an Agagite. True, I am an ethnic outsider. I will prove myself to be uber-Persian. I will be more Persian than any other Persian.”

But Haman wasn’t the only ancient or modern tyrant who emerged from outside the people that he wanted to rule. Consider:

  • Alexander the Great, the spreader of Greek culture and conqueror of the ancient known world, was not Greek. He was Macedonian.
  • Napoleone di Buonaparte, aka Napoleon, was born in Corsica, the year after rule over the island was transferred from Genoa to France. As a teenager Napoleon enrolled at a religious school in mainland France to learn French and he attended a French military academy. More than anything, he wanted to be French. He spoke with a Corsican accent for his entire life.
  • Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili was born in Georgia, which was under the rule of the Russian Czar. He wanted to be Russian. He later took the name Joseph Stalin.
  • Adolf Hitler was born in western Austria at Braunau. He was not German.

As Sir Isaiah Berlin noticed, it all goes back to their childhoods. Alexander, Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler came from outside, or at least the edges, of the nation that they led. These men lived on the borders of great empires, and their outsider status turned them into driven men. All three men rose to power through the military or through a political party organ. Each one inspired their countrymen with a fiery vision that, resulted in undisputed authority to lead the nation. Once installed as rulers, all ordered military campaigns to expand their territory and spheres of influence.

And ultimately, each was taken by a fanatical and irrational patriotism which drove them to conquer and dominate other nations and peoples.

That’s Haman — the outsider who strove to become the ultimate insider.

But, back to Purim.

Every time I try to type “Purim” in Word, it auto-corrects to “Putin.” Maybe Word is trying to tell me something.

Some observers have wondered aloud: is Putin “really” Russian? Is Putin an invented name?