Zelenskyy, Putin and Purim

Since Russian military forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, people all around the world have been inundated with news of the latest developments in this terrible war. Each side is doing its utmost to frame its position in the conflict in righteousness while characterizing the other position in wickedness, duplicity and aggression. Truth is difficult if not impossible to find and propaganda rules the airwaves. If you want reasons why you should support President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians, you won’t have far to go for almost all of the legacy or mainstream media has thrown its support on that side. However, if you want to probe the question a little more deeply and examine reasons why you might want to support President Vladimir Putin and the Russians, you may find that a little harder, but if you read some of the alternative news sources that haven’t been censored (yet), you can find reasons why the Russians may seem to be acting in the right.

War is messy. It is not clean and it is not clear cut. General William Tecumseh Sherman, who served in the Union Army during the War Between the States/American Civil War, said, “War is at best barbarism…Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

All sides of a war conduct atrocities and commit heinous crimes and acts of brutality. We just like to think that “our side” never does such things. It is only the “other side” that acts barbarically and cruelly. But stop and think for a moment. Why did most Americans or Canadians or Brits support the Allies during World War II? And why did most Germans or Japanese support the Axis? Was it because everyone was thinking and acting rationally and logically, arriving at their conclusions through sound mental and emotional maturity? The odds of that happening on such a massive scale are frighteningly miniscule. Or may we be closer to the truth to suggest that most people supported their nation because they were part of that nation. Usually, it’s not much more complicated than that. This is the same reason why most Christians come from Christian families and why most Hindus come from Hindu families and so on. Objectivity has little to do with it. To step off the main road and start thinking for yourself…well, as you can imagine or as you know, that can cause lots of problems.

So who is really on the side of righteousness in this latest round of the more encompassing Russo-Ukrainian War that has been raging (mostly off the radar of most people) since 2014. To answer that question, let us consider Purim. Yes, really.

As we know, there are a lot of very beautiful mitzvot for Purim, giving food portions to our friends, giving charity to the needy and reading Megillat Esther. However, perhaps even greater than these, Purim is framed within a central idea, to reach the level where we can no longer distinguish between Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai. What a strange halachah. And the odd fact that both of these expressions have the same gematria of 502 seems to be either a strange anomaly or an irrelevant tidbit. What’s the point? What’s really going on here?

In the Western world at least, most of us grew up with apparently clear ideas of right and wrong. Most all of Western culture is permeated with a clearly dichotomous worldview. Think about it. We were taught that the cowboys were the good guys and the Indians were the bad guys, that the cops are the good guys and the robbers are the bad guys, that the Allies were the good guys and the Axis were the bad guys. But then, we grew up somewhere along the line and, if we were fortunate, began to look more objectively at history and began to realize that this nice neat packaging of the world is exceptionally artificial, limiting, and just plain incorrect.

Let us take this idea a little farther. What if you actually lived through the events recorded in Megillat Esther, and it wasn’t just a historical story for you, but rather a personal episode in your own life and in your family’s life? Is it so hard to imagine? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the Jewish people did, in fact, live through a very similar space-time period, i.e. Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. So now ask yourself a question: What if the halachah said that we need to reach the level where we can no longer distinguish between Cursed be Hitler and Blessed be Mordechai? Would you think that such a halachah would be so fun to strive toward? Would you even want to reach that level? Do you think Haman was better than Hitler yimach shemo?

We have now arrived at the point of understanding the halachah and the question we asked about the Russo-Ukrainian War. What have we been doing all of our days since childhood? We have been picking sides, assigning one side to good and righteousness and the other to bad and wickedness. It’s neat and clean that way. It may make life easier to live, but only if you want to keep your head in the sand.

Hashem told Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, but he didn’t listen and he ate. And we have been eating ever since. What is this tree? It is the tree of choosing sides. It is the tree of seeing a polarized world, a world where there are good guys and bad guys. Haman is clearly the bad guy, and Mordechai is clearly the good guy, right? But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of reaching the level where we can no longer tell the difference? What is this level? This is the level of realizing that there is no difference, not really. When we eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, we see Mordechai as blessed and Haman as cursed. We see good guys and bad guys. But there is another tree. And eating from this tree allows us to see the unity of everything, i.e. that everything is from Hashem, even things that we currently cannot even imagine could possibly be from Hashem.

That’s reaching the level of not knowing Cursed be Haman from Blessed be Mordechai. To be able to say, Blessed be Haman with as much enthusiasm as we say Blessed be Mordechai! That’s reaching a very high level, and that’s why Purim is such an exalted holiday—because through joy and song and dance and giving, we can achieve so much easier what it takes a lot of work to achieve on even Yom haKippurim (The Day that is like Purim).

This then is the answer to our question about Zelenskyy and Putin. Who is right? Who is wrong? These are not practically useful questions. When we ask these questions, we demonstrate that we are still eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, always trying to find the good guys and the bad guys so we may side with the one against the other. After all, if one side is bad then the other side must be good, right?

But could it be that both sides may have committed atrocities? Probably. War is messy, brutal and barbaric. So should we conclude that both sides are cursed? No, that’s not the point either. The point is to see both sides emanating from Hashem, i.e. that He makes peace and creates evil. It’s all for our good, every last second of history and current events. It’s all for our good. If we can achieve this level, then we will merit being able to bless Hashem for the good as well as for the bad, because then and only then will we have reached the level of eating only from the tree of life and no longer from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.

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