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Compare and Despair: A Purim Story

This week’s d’var Torah in anticipation of Purim!

On Monday night, we will celebrate Purim, a holiday where we escape into a fantasy world. We dress up in costumes, wear masks, and play different characters, sometimes with the help of excessive consumption of sugar or controlled substances. We read a story that at times is too ridiculous to be real: with lavish banquets and harems of beautiful women… a buffoonish king, a cartoonish villain, and a secretly Jew-ish queen who manages to speak up and save her people from destruction.

Purim is mostly designed to shake our sillies out at the end of winter. But once in a while, when we take out this story for its annual reading, we scratch the surface and find something more substantive underneath: Vashti’s feminist rebellion, Esther’s bravery, a message of hope (or perhaps a revenge fantasy) for a people who have been persecuted for generations.

But this year, something in the story turned me completely upside down (which is seasonally appropriate—everything is topsy-turvy on Purim). This year, I read something that made me identify with Haman.

Between the two feasts that Esther throws for Haman and the king, Haman (boo!) tells his wife and his friends about all his successes: his great wealth, his ten sons, his high rank in the king’s court, even the private audience he had gotten (and is about to get again) with the king and the queen. Then he says, “Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordechai sitting at the palace gate” (Esther 5:13).

Usually, we read this sentence as an expression of Haman’s consuming hate, which ultimately leads to his downfall. But there is another sentiment here. Haman sees happiness as a zero-sum game. He cannot enjoy any of it, if there’s even a chance that Mordechai is enjoying himself too. And this reminded me of the modern phenomenon of “compare and despair.”

Compare and despair refers to when, as writer Ann Lamott puts it, “We compare our insides to other people’s outsides.” Instead of measuring ourselves against our own goals, desires, needs and values, we measure ourselves against the lives of others. And this is a recipe for disaster.

Not many of us would admit to hating someone as much as Haman hates Mordechai, or to having an honest-to-goodness nemesis. But most of us would probably have to confess to peeking in on someone else’s life and suddenly feeling that our own life is lacking. Each little shiny thing we see happening for someone else becomes a jab into an already open wound. Luxurious or adventurous vacations. Beautifully-kept homes and fancy meals. News of promotions or accolades or big life events. Cute or smart things their children are doing.

This impulse has always been there, hence the commandment not to covet our neighbor’s property. But the social media machine feeds this impulse while also rendering it insatiable. This is what is called the “attention economy.” Our devices reward us with clicks and likes and, if our audience gets big enough, ads and revenue, both for posting about ourselves and for gluing our eyeballs to the posts of others. They inundate us with toxic and polarizing political posts designed to pit us against one another, making us scared that someone else is trying to take away what rightfully belongs to us. Mostly, corporations use this method to sell us things we don’t need, while politicians use it to make sure we are too busy blaming the other to hold them responsible for making our world better. But the impact can be incredibly harmful to our psyches. We fall into a scarcity mentality, imagining success, or even survival, as a zero-sum game.

Not only does this make us feel horrible about ourselves and our lives, it also distracts us from paying attention to what actually matters, and to what is actually good and abundant in our own lives. And according to Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up with Your Phone, “Our lives … are defined by what we choose to pay attention to.”

Which brings us back to Haman. Haman is, by his own account, extraordinarily successful. He technically ranks higher than Mordechai. Even when Mordechai refuses to bow to him, he has the financial resources (10,000 talents of silver) to bend the king’s ear and secure a decree to destroy all the Jews. But he still has a chip on his shoulder, a thorn in his side. It starts out as a perceived slight, when Mordechai won’t bow to him in the street (the ancient equivalent of refusing to “like” someone’s social media post). But it soon spirals into an obsession. Even knowing that Mordechai’s days are numbered (and that Haman has the power to number them), Haman cannot let go. Every time he sees or hears of Mordechai, he sinks even further into a pit of jealousy.

The last straw is when King Ahasheurus asks Haman “What should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor?” Haman imagines himself as the theoretical honoree. He tells the King to dress said man in royal attire, place him upon the king’s horse, and parade him around the city as someone proclaims before him, “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!” The King replies, “Quick, do this for Mordechai!” Haman has no choice but to fulfill the king’s request, after which he is so distraught the text describes him as having “his head covered in mourning” (Esther 6:6-14). He’s not simply annoyed that Mordechai is being recognized for a noble deed. He is grieving over it.

Which led me to a strange take on the Purim story: What might have been different if someone like Haman could have focused his attention elsewhere? What if Haman could have practiced gratitude for what he had instead of working so hard to destroy someone else? He had a wife, ten sons and, according to midrash, a daughter. He had a high position in the royal court and lots of disposable income. And he loses all these things, without ever having been able to enjoy them, because he couldn’t keep his eyes off what his neighbor was doing. In trying to destroy that neighbor, he ends up destroying himself, even to the point of losing his life.

Again, I’m not suggesting that any of us would end up in quite as dark a place by comparing ourselves to others. But we all do it, and it’s making us miserable. Haman’s trajectory might serve as a cautionary tale to keep our eyes on our own paper. How might we pay more attention to what really matters, as well as to what’s really good in our own lives?

Therapist Kim Schneiderman, encourages us to examine our jealousy for clues about who we want to be. What are our own dreams, aspirations, and values, and how are we doing living up to them? She writes:

A former dance teacher used to say, “Don’t bother comparing yourself to others. There will always be people better than you, and worse than you. The most important thing is to ask yourself, “Am I improving?”

No matter the answer to that question, we can also ask ourselves, “What is good in my life right now? What is there to appreciate and celebrate?”

There is a saying that mishenichnas adar marbim b’simcha: “One who enters the month of Adar (when we celebrate Purim) increases their happiness” (Taanit 29a). As we enter the month of Adar, may we look for ways to increase our own happiness and the happiness of those around us. May we remember that the happiness of others need not detract from our own, as Rabbi Ben Zoma reminds us, “Who is rich? One who is happy with their portion…. Who is honored? One who honors others” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz