Sermon: Dual Loyalty

2019 March 24
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

 

The Purim story recounted in the Book of Esther contains a speech by the villain Haman that may be the most chilling, infamous speech in the Hebrew Bible. Haman is the right hand man of the Persian King Ahasveros and wants to rid Persia of their Jewish refugees. His speech to the king has echoed down through the ages because some version of this speech has been spoken by every anti-Semite that ever lived. He says to the king, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the nations in all the provinces of your kingdom, who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws. It is not in the king’s interest to tolerate them.”

 

In the case of the Purim story, it’s not true that the Jewish people don’t follow the laws of the king. In fact, it’s the Jew Mordechai who alerts the authorities about the plot against the king’s life and saves the king. But Haman is right when he says that “their customs are not like those of other people.” They keep themselves a little bit separate, and proudly so. Haman’s accusation has deep resonance. It’s the timeless accusation that Jews living outside of Israel in the diaspora have dual loyalty. They are not full citizens of the country in which they live but are secretly working on behalf of their foreign civilization.

 

This concept of “dual loyalty” has been in the news recently. This exact insinuation touched a nerve when Representatives Illan Omar and Rashida Tlaib suggested that Jews in positions of power were putting Israeli interests over American interests. They were raising fair points about a real problem. But their statements had painful echoes because over the generations, the charge of dual loyalty has been used to justify the murder of Jews from the Spanish Inquisition to the Russian pogroms to the holocaust.

 

And today we know that it’s not just Jews who are accused of dual loyalty. Muslims around the world are so accused. Catholics have been so accused. Immigrants of all religions are targets of hatred because of exactly this. The Purim story is an archetypal story of the way that minorities can be mistrusted and othered by the dominant culture. Some version of Haman’s speech has been uttered by every tyrant, every white nationalist, by every shooter who walks into a mosque or a black church and commits an atrocity against people at prayer. The Haman figure in whatever specific form says, “These people are not real Americans. These people are not real New Zealanders. These people are not like us. They look different, they smell different, their customs are different. They refuse to assimilate. They don’t speak the language. They’re bringing drugs across our border and sending the money back home. They’re going to destroy us if we don’t keep them out. They’re going to destroy us if we don’t destroy them first.” The suffering caused by this ancient trope to this day is immeasurable.

 

So in the Purim story we can all agree to deplore Haman’s speech with all its historical echoes. We can agree that it unjustly calls for violence against Jews for nefarious intent that they simply don’t have. And we can point out that the Jews are good citizens and they’re not harming the Persian empire in any way. That’s all true. But we can’t honestly say that they don’t have dual loyalty. They do. That’s the whole point of the story. It’s precisely the dual loyalty of the heroes that makes them heroes. We celebrate Vashti, Mordechai, and Esther because each one faces a conflict between their loyalties – they wrestle with it, agonize over it, and even knowing they may pay a price, they choose loyalty to an ideal over loyalty to the secular state.

 

Queen Vashti’s conflict of loyalties comes when she finds herself in the crosshairs of patriarchy itself. Her husband, King Ahashveros, has thrown a lavish, boozy party where, the text says, “the rule for the drinking was, ‘No restrictions!’ For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes.” In the midst of this party, the king orders Vashti to come dance for all his leering, drunken friends wearing only her crown. The narrative doesn’t describe Vashti’s internal struggle when she hears this. It simply says, “Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.”

 

But we can imagine what that moment must be like for her. She has reached the highest position in the Persian empire that any woman could possibly dream of. She is queen over a territory that covers 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia. She is loyal to her husband, loyal to the institution of the palace and the empire and her place in it. And she knows who she’s married to. She knows what he expects and how disobedience is punished in his court. And yet this order goes against every fiber of her being. It’s a betrayal. It’s a humiliation designed to sexualize her for the pleasure of powerful men. She would have to give up her dignity, her power – even her humanity. Yes, she is loyal to the king, but in the end she chooses in favor of her loyalty to herself.

 

Mordechai’s conflict of loyalties comes when being a good citizen of Persia crashes into being a good Jew. The king has just promoted Haman and decreed that everyone must kneel or bow down low when they see him. But when Mordechai comes across Haman outside the palace gates, Mordechai refuses to bow. When the courtiers ask why on earth he’s not bowing like the king said he should, Mordechai explains that he is a Jew. What he’s talking about is a deep spiritual tradition in Judaism that you only bow down to God. It’s one of the Ten Commandments that you should not make idols and bow down and serve them. To bow down to a person is to make that person an idol.

 

Mordechai knows the deal. He knows that Jews are already mistrusted in Persia, already second-class citizens. They’re not seen as full members of Persian society. He is eager to prove that they belong. He wants to say, “We’re just like you! We are good, law abiding, tax-paying, monarchy-honoring contributors. We’re normal!” But as with the order that Vashti received, this order to bow to Haman is a demand for submission. And that’s the one thing he can’t do. Yes, he is loyal to the Persian state, but in the end he chooses in favor of his loyalty to God.

 

Each of these defiant acts, Vashti’s and Mordechai’s, provokes rage on the part of the power establishment. The text describes the king’s blinding fury at Vashti’s defiance and Haman’s wrath at Mordechai’s defiance. This rage is also archetypal – think Brett Kavanaugh, for example. And in the Purim story, as today, the rage has devastating consequences. Vashti is made an example of – she is stripped of her crown and banished from the land. She loses everything. And we can only guess what might happen to a beautiful woman, alone, banished from her land in the 3rd century BCE. As for Mordechai, Haman’s hatred of him is so intense, it becomes the basis of Haman’s decision to kill, not just him, but all the Jews in Persia.

 

The violent reaction of those in power to these small acts of personal autonomy is the backdrop of the main drama of the story. It is in this context that Esther faces her agonizing conflict of loyalties. She is now queen of Persia, with all the glory that Vashti used to have, queen over 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia. But it’s under false pretenses. She’s passing. In the ultimate act of self-submersion, she has changed her name from the Hebrew name “Hadassah” to the Persian name “Esther.” She has been living an epic fairy tale – someone who was an orphaned Jewish refugee hiding her identity, hiding her past, rises to become basically first lady of the world. But the fairytale comes crashing down when her uncle Mordechai frantically sends word to her about the impending genocide of her people.

 

Unlike in the cases of Vashti and Mordechai, in Hadassah’s case, the text shows us her anguished decision-making. Mordechai is begging her to take off her disguise and use her sway with the king to advocate for her people. Not only is she terrified of what will happen if she reveals her true colors to the king; not only does she know it’s a terrible idea to cast aspersions on Haman; no one is allowed to even approach the king to begin with unless they are summoned. The penalty for showing up unsummoned is death. In the face of her fear and hesitation, Mordechai delivers what is another famous speech in the Hebrew Bible. He says:

 

Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

 

In other words – who knows? Perhaps the whole divine purpose of Esther becoming queen of Persia, why she was given a dual identity and a dual loyalty was for this very moment – when her people would be in danger and she would be in a position to act on their behalf. It’s a profound statement about the responsibility that comes along with privilege and power. Who knows? Perhaps the whole reason why any of us are given whatever privileges we have is to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. And whatever power we have is to be used in service of those with less power. To use our gifts in these ways is to answer our calling. To fail to use our gifts in these ways is to fail the test of dual loyalty.

 

The heroine of the Purim story is loyal to the king and the court and her new place in the world as Esther. But in the end, she chooses in favor of her loyalty to her people and her faith, to her integrity and her place in the world as Hadassah. She does go to the king, unsummoned, after asking the entire Jewish people to fast and pray with her in preparation, saying, “If I perish, I perish.” And the king does not have her executed. He listens as she reveals her identity, as she accuses Haman of plotting to kill her people. He listens as she implores him to save them. And she prevails. The Jews survive and thrive. Mordechai becomes the king’s right-hand man. And a new kind of fairytale emerges – one based in each person’s authenticity and in honoring our dual loyalties.

 

The Purim story teaches that until we are finally living at peace with one another and all the creatures of the earth, we need dual loyalty. It is a spiritual imperative. Yes, we should be loyal to the secular state in which we live, act as good citizens, and respect its civic laws as long as those laws are good and just. But when the dominant culture and its laws violate our principles, or when they require us to be someone other than who we are, we need to answer the call of a higher loyalty – a loyalty to whatever we call holy. Our world is hurting right now and needs us, each of us, with all our hyphenated identities, and fresh outsider eyes, and as much bravery as we can muster. Who knows? Perhaps we’ve each been given all the blessings that we have for just such a time as this.

 

 

 

 

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