In Jewish schools across the world, students learn about the glorious history of the Jewish People, how we have suffered through tragedy after tragedy, oppression after oppression, and yet have always come out on the other side intact, and that much stronger and wiser.
For almost all of the past 2,000 years, we were a people in exile, a vulnerable people existing at the whims of the ruling class of whatever land we happened to occupy at the time. And even before that, before the fall of the Second Temple and our exile at the hands of the Romans, we often found ourselves facing existential threats.
Yet here we are today, over 70 years after the Jewish return to the land of Israel, a strong and prosperous nation with a strong and prosperous nation- state. We no longer need to operate from a scarcity mindset, thinking only of our own survival. Now we can operate from a point of view of growth and magnanimity, an expansive mindset that reflects the better angels of our nature.
Our standing in the world is perhaps more safe and secure than it has ever been. Which means it’s high time to expand our point of view and start looking at the Jewish narrative from the other side, to paint a comprehensive and more objective picture of the story of the people of Israel. It’s high time to take responsibility for people other than ourselves. It’s high time that we start teaching our students how to humanize… that’s right, you know who I’m talking about… yes, the villains from the Jewish holidays!
I mean, think about it. Passover is coming up soon, and we like to pretend it’s a story about the universal right to freedom. But here’s the thing. Jews still kept slaves after Exodus. The Torah still talks about slaves after Exodus. It’s not really a story about the immorality of slavery, but about the power of the Jewish God. Pharaoh was just a man of his time, profiting off slavery like everyone else. Back then, might equalled right. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to keep the Jews in Egypt so He would have a weaker opponent against whom He could display his almighty power. So in the end, Pharaoh lost because he took a pagan religion to a monotheistic god fight, and that is the lesson of Passover. Pharaoh wasn’t a bad guy. Just a weak guy.
And don’t get me started on Purim! Look at it from Haman’s perspective. You’re a Grand Vizier to a powerful emperor, taking your daily stroll through the marketplace or whatever, lording it over the underlings who profess their ultimate worship of you and your empire and everything it represents.
And then here’s this one man, he calls himself a Jew, and he defies your authority! Refuses to respect your sovereignty! And not only that, but he says all of his people are the same! What’s a Grand Vizier to do? Just accept the presence of a highly seditious people in his ranks? Of course not. Any loyal and competent Grand Vizier in the ancient times would surely use whatever means necessary to remove those people and protect the integrity of his empire. Yet Haman ended up taking the fall and dying gruesomely in the end. And he’s the villain?
For Hanukkah, it’s the same deal with the Maccabees and Antiochus. It’s always the pesky Jews who want to do things their own way, who believe they’re entitled to equal rights, to self-actualization as a people. But, news flash!: the world didn’t work that way back then. We shouldn’t blame the villains in the Jewish stories for acting out the norms of their times. How were they supposed to know any better?
The one saving grace from all these underdog narratives is that, now that we are the ones who rule in our own land, we’ll be certain to respect and protect the individual freedoms of everyone under our control. Millennia of experience have taught us the injustice of oppression, which means that now, we surely know better. There is no other side that we have to humanize, because we already look at everyone with equal humanity.