When my son Toby was seven or eight years old, we watched the Revenge of the Sith, the third of the Star Wars “prequel” movies—the one that tells the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader (spoiler alert, I guess—but, really?). In the climactic scene, as Anakin is about to battle his master Obi-Wan Kenobi, his eyes are yellow with rage. He has been overtaken by anger. He shouts at Obi-Wan, “I hate you!” At this, Toby turned to me and said—in the way that only a sweet 8-year old who goes to a school with a strong social-emotional curriculum can—”Ooh, hate is such a strong word!”

It may sound trite to say, but I think it’s actually remarkable that, in my 47 years, I have been blessed not to experience hateful rage very much. The vast, vast majority of my experiences have been characterized by emotions and states that are peaceful, nonviolent, and even loving. But perhaps because of that, I can vividly remember the moments when rage has been present—both the rage of others that I’ve witnessed and rage that has arisen in me and caused me to lose control. In the former case, they are generally moments that have caused pain in me even through the mere fact of observing them; in the latter, they are, uniformly, the moments in my life I most regret.

We think of Purim as a happy holiday, filled with costumes and yummy things to eat. But the truth is, at the beating heart of this holiday is a story of rage, hatred, fear, generally poor emotional regulation, and the consequences those strong negative emotions can have when channeled into violent, state-sanctioned power.

The word heima, rage, forms a throughline of the Purim story. It appears six times in Esther: When the king becomes angry that Vashti won’t come (1:12) and when that rage finally subsides (2:1); when Haman sees that Mordechai won’t bow to him (3:5 and again at 5:9); when Esther reveals Haman is out to destroy her and her people (7:7) and when his rage subsides after Haman is hanged (7:10). In each of these cases, a powerful man experiences something that upsets him—something that seems to undermine his sense of control and self-worth, perhaps—and he is unable to control his anger. There is something childlike and petulant about these incidents, something reminiscent of that young Anakin Skywalker who can’t manage the strong sensations of pride, feeling wronged and unloved (and, in Anakin’s case, probably abandoned as well).

And like Anakin Skywalker, in each case in Esther, the powerful man, whether Achashverosh or Haman, flies off the handle into a literally murderous rage and then codifies that rage into state-sanctioned violence: killing the queen (and then, grotesquely, effectively kidnapping and imprisoning the young women of the empire until he found the one who most pleased him—all under cover of law); ordering a massive, state-authorized pogrom on the Jews and constructing a state-authorized gallows for Mordechai; killing Haman by the lawful order of the king. In case my point isn’t already clear: this is not a children’s story.

Instead, I think it is at least in part a story that comes to help us reflect on questions about rage and power (and gender: see Rabbi Jericho Vincent’s incredible new rendering of the Megillah for more). Such questions are, of course, always present, whether we are aware of them or not, whether we like to acknowledge them or not. One of our key developmental tasks in childhood and adolescence is learning how to modulate the strong negative feelings we can experience that might impel us toward anger, rage, and violence, and instead make calmer, wiser, more peaceful choices. And the Megillah is even astute enough to layer in the ways in which the experience or threat of violence can itself have traumatic impacts on a collective group, which can then lead to their own imagined or enacted revenge fantasies (this is the story of chapter 8).

Jewish mindfulness practice is all about disrupting this escalator of reactivity and instead increasing the space between stimulus and response. It is about cultivating da’at, attentive awareness, as evidenced in the pivotal line Mordechai writes to Esther: mi yodeah im la’et kazot higaat lamalchut, who knows—who has da’at, is mindfully aware—but perhaps it was precisely for this moment that you attained the throne!

Esther, of course, is the character who has the most to fear—”if I perish, I perish.” Through what I take to be a practice of mindfulness—what is she doing for those three days of fasting and praying if not creating more space between stimulus and response?—she overcomes that fear to make an enormously courageous, history-altering choice. Unlike her husband the king, she does not seek to dull her pain through drinking, partying, and carousing. Unlike Haman, she is not so conceited that she can only think of herself. As her name implies, she is, perhaps, concealed even from herself, but she ultimately emerges as an exemplar of mindful self-awareness that grounds her courageous speech and action.

This Purim, when so many of us are living with fear and trauma; when our media ecosystem thrives on prompting our most reactive behaviors; when too many are acting in ways that seem anything but mindful, wise, or courageous—may we renew our commitment to our spiritual practice for the sake of reducing suffering, healing pain, and fostering peace.

Josh’s Friday Reflections

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

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