The Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins tonight, is a joyous time of celebration. The story of the Book of Esther is familiar: In the 4th century BCE, the Persian King Ahasuerus fell under the influence of his evil prime minister Haman, who resented the Jews who refused to bow down to him. In revenge, Haman persuaded the King to issue a secret decree to kill all the Jews on the 13th of Adar, and he made preparations to hang Mordechai the Jew for his refusal to prostrate himself before Haman in submission. Fortunately, Mordechai, who found out about Haman’s plot, was in the king’s good graces, because he had helped thwart an attempt on the king’s life; in addition, Esther the Queen, who kept her Jewish identity a secret, was his cousin and foster daughter. At the risk of her life, Esther came to Ahasuerus and ultimately persuaded him to issue a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies and in addition to put the evil plotter Haman to death. On the 13th of Adar, the Jews triumphed over their would-be killers, and this victory is marked by the celebration of Purim every year on the 14th of Adar. We know this story.
Traditionally, Jews today use groggers or other noisemakers to drown out the mention of the name Haman during the reading of the Book of Esther (which occurs twice, once on Purim night and again during the day), but it is useful to examine the name of this hateful person. The Gemara [Chulin 139b] asks where we see an allusion to Haman's name in the Torah. The answer the sages give is from the Garden of Eden scene in Genesis (3:11): "Ha’min ha'eitz hazeh... – Did you eat from this tree?: The word ha’min consists of the same three Hebrew letters (heh, mem, nun) as Haman.
There is a deep connection between the first human mistake in the Garden of Eden and the life of Haman. Haman was a person, who the sages say had everything: wealth, prestige, family. He had it all. Yet Haman could not be happy. As long as Mordechai sat at the gate of the king refusing to bow down to him (Esther 3:2), he could not be happy. At one point Haman even says, “all of this is worthless to me” (Esther 5:13). He was only missing one thing and thus everything else – his fortune, his political influence, his large family – lost value and meaning.
When we find ourselves in this mindset, we can never be happy. We may have money, family, friends, and health, yet if we’re lacking one thing all the good things are for naught.
This is why Haman’s name comes from the tree in the Garden of Eden. Adam had everything one could want: the luxuries of Paradise, a wife, a direct connection to G-d, literally everything. But he lacked one thing, the experience of eating the fruit. And so he could not be content. This is the essence of Haman: Haman is a historical and literary figure, but even more Haman represents a concept that is part of the human condition.
Rashi points out that just as Haman’s name originates from “ha’min ha’eitz – from this tree,” so too, he ends up being hanged on a wooden gallows (eitz) (Esther 7:10). The thing we constantly long for beyond our reach ends up being our downfall.
We protest Haman on Purim because the mitzvah of the day is one of the most difficult of all mitzvot in the Torah: the mitzvah to be happy. It sounds easy – get a daiquiri and lie on the beach – but it does not work. Pleasure is one thing, but to achieve true happiness is much more challenging.
We can see this in the modern world. A WIN-Gallup poll released at the end of last year asked people from 54 countries if they personally were happy, unhappy, or neither. The happiest people were from Colombia, and five of the happiest 12 countries were in Latin America. On the other hand, in the lower half of the happiness list (below even war-torn Afghanistan) were people from Germany, France, the United States, Russian Federation, China, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Italy—nations we associate with greater wealth and power. Regionally, people from Latin America were roughly twice as happy as people from the seven wealthiest societies in the world. The futility of Haman remains valid today.
In a related poll, a joint Gallup-Healthways survey of more than half a million Americans found that American Jews were the highest ranking group in terms of “well-being” (emotional/physical health, work environment, healthfulness of behavior), with the very religious netting the highest scores within this group. As we know, religious Jews make many physical and financial sacrifices for their faith, so mere material wealth cannot account for this high level of well-being. Professor David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University believes that the key to happiness for Jews is “the core ingredients of happiness—family, friends and faith.” In a comment in his work Ohr HaTzafon, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel [the Alter of Slabodka], saw a universal possibility for happiness: “Every person is surrounded by limitless potential for pleasure and enjoyment. The world and all its details is a source of pleasure. A person’s experiences in physical and spiritual areas give him the potential for happiness without end” (Vol. III, p. 84).
While misfortune is never welcome, we can sometimes learn to achieve happiness through such events. Consider a person who undergoes a critical surgical procedure or chemotherapy to treat cancer. This patient is often helped by family and friends who find the right doctor or hospital, drive the patient to and from medical appointments, and help with the recovery and medical expenses and paperwork. This patient, upon recovery, will understand how friends and family enrich us through their love, and he or she may have a rejuvenated appreciation for life and a feeling of happiness.
The rabbis teach us the key to happiness. One can only be happy when they learn to be “sameach b’chelko”—happy with one’s own lot in life. When we become so grateful for all we have and not focused on all the things we do not have, we can begin to achieve this. The rabbis teach that we should make 100 blessings a day (Menachot 42b). These are moments when we step back and reflect upon our good fortune and express gratitude to God for His bounty. Thus we can truly fulfill the Mitzvah of the day that we sing in havdallah every Saturday night from the book of Esther: “La'yehudim Hyta Ora Vsimcha Vsasson Vykor”"For the Jews there was light, happiness, joy, and honor" [Esther 8:16].
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"