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The Trap of Wanting It All

February 26, 2018 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Status-seeking underlies Haman's intense hatred of the Jews.

Haman, the villain of the Purim story, lived a thousand years after the Torah was written. Yet with timeless vision, the Talmud (Chulin 139b) asks: Where is Haman's name hinted in the Torah?

The Sages cite Genesis 3:11, where God confronts Adam in the Garden: "Did you eat from this (hamin) forbidden tree?"

This is more than just clever wordplay. The deeper connection between Adam and Haman, explains Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (16th century Maharsha) is that both Adam and Haman lacked only one thing and it drove them over the edge.

What was Adam's "one thing"?

Adam was given free reign in the Garden of Eden; the entire world was created for him alone. God designated only the Tree of Knowledge off limits – His way of drawing a line, of making clear to humanity: You are not God. There is only one God.

Adam obsessed about that "one thing." So when the Snake suggested that eating from the Tree would transform "human" into "deity," Adam challenged God and ate from the tree.

Fast forward to Haman, Prime Minister of a 127-country global empire, who fancied himself as a supreme being. Everyone bowed to Haman.

Except for one. Mordechai the Jew.

Haman had power, privilege and prestige – yet his ego required constant validation.

Haman had everything – power, privilege, and prestige. Yet upon seeing Mordechai refusing to kowtow, Haman became enraged. "None of this power means anything to me, as long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king's gate" (Esther 5:13).

Haman's ego was in need of constant validation and he could not bear such rejection. Tormented, he vowed to destroy the Jewish people – every man, woman and child.

What is the root of Haman's vicious reaction?

Ultimately, the single factor impeding every megalomaniac's quest for global domination is God. Mordechai, as leader of the Jewish people – representatives of monotheism – embodied the "one thing" that drove Haman crazy.

To silence this truth, Haman obsessively targeted Mordechai and the Jews. He built a gallows 80 feet high that could be seen throughout all of Shushan. More than simply hanging Mordechai, this was to be the ultimate statement of victory over the Jewish ideal. Then, everyone would acknowledge Haman's unparalleled superiority. His narcissistic ego could accept nothing less.

The Trap of Status-Seeking

Psychologists tell us that every person has a "realistic level" of importance and status – at home, at work, and in the community. Artificially raising that level with delusions of grandeur is unsustainable. Inevitably, reality hits, we fail to live up to that skewed level of importance and our self-esteem plummets.

As with Adam, the first step in emotional health is to know that every human is finite; only God is eternal. The closer relationship one has with God, the more realistic we become about our own fallibility and mortality. Moses was called the "most humble" because when he stood before God he knew his place. The Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship; both push away the presence of God.

The first step in emotional health is to have our relationship with God in perspective.

When a person knows his place and is realistic about his role in the greater scheme of things, his self-esteem is realistic, balanced and healthy.

One who places "self above God" is doomed to failure. It’s no wonder that Haman the megalomaniac was hanged on the very gallows he'd prepared for Mordechai the Jew.

Status: The Currency of Today

The spirit of Amalek is hauntingly relevant for us today. The primary currency of Western society is status, and by our association with various people and things, our status is always rising or falling.

The pursuit of status raises an existential question: Is it better to look good or to be good? We confront this question every time we use social media. Are we sharing a genuine depiction of the reality of our lives, or do we post only those items that gain us status – i.e., an inflated version of "looking good" that we falsely project ourselves to be?

It's a vicious cycle. In order to constantly prop up an inflated ego, we seek adulation in the form of "likes," retweets, and endless stream of validation.

Status-seeking removes a person from the world.

The Talmud (Avot 4:21) asserts that "status-seeking removes a person from the world." When self-esteem depends on adulation from others, linked to external circumstances beyond our control, it is a losing proposition.

Rebbetzin S. Feldbrand explains: When we worry about being accepted by others, we judge ourselves by the opinions of those whose moods, attitudes, and values are constantly changing. We place our happiness in the hands of people who themselves worry about how others judge them.

We constantly invest great amounts of energy into pleasing first one person, then another. We try to be one person in the morning, another during the day, and yet another at night. Sometimes, under pressure from others, we act in opposition to our true inner nature – leaving us empty and degraded.

Inevitably, we can never win this game. Someone will always have more status than us. While physical desires have a saturation point, the desire for honor is based on falsehood and illusion. No amount will ever be fully satisfying. When an honor-seeker lacks the approval just one person, he feels bereft.

So despite all the status and power, as long as Mordechai the Jew refused to bow, Haman was unsatisfied. That is why Haman's wife Zeresh tells him (Esther 6:13): "If that's your attitude, you are destined to fail." You will never have everything, because when it comes to honor, appetite is insatiable.

The Jewish Mission Today

When the battle was finally over, the Jewish nation emerged victorious. It was a time of true Jewish unity, a dramatic reversal of the description Haman used to denounce the Jews as "a nation scattered and split” (Esther 3:8). Jewish division and strife is what fueled Haman's confidence; thus prior to her risky unannounced visit to the king, Esther told Mordechai to "assemble all the Jews” (Esther 4:16) – i.e. we will succeed in counteracting Haman only if the Jews come together in unity.

This idea of a shared destiny was formalized in the Purim traditions (Esther 9:22). We send Mishloach Manot, gifts of food one to another, to engrain in us the message: To prevail, we must unite together.

The primary path to Jewish unity is Torah study, which facilitates the sharing of our unique inspirational message with the world.

Indeed, in wake of the Jewish victory over Haman, the Megillah reports that "the Jews had light" (Esther 8:16). This, the Talmud (Megilla 16b) explains, is the light of Torah, the guidepost for every generation of Jews.

Having witnessed the degradation of Haman – a genocidal madman bent on world domination – the Jews in Persia accepted the Torah anew. They understood with renewed clarity that Torah stands as a bulwark against the corrupt drive for "status at all costs."

Haman's plan was thwarted because Mordechai the Jew would not budge from his stiff-necked loyalty to the monotheistic message. In the process, he saved humanity from barbarism. As it was true and relevant back then, we Jews believe, so it is today.

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