Purim: The Power of Punting

It is Purim. I know that Purim is about turning a prospective tragedy into joy and celebration. At least that is how it is celebrated. However, I take that as simply a specific instance or case of inversion whereas Purim is about the art and tactics of inversion, about inversion more generally as a way of dealing with conflict. Or what I call punting.

When I was in high school, I played on our football team. I was a wide end. It is a hybrid role both in defence and offence. On the one hand, you are supposed to be an offensive lineman. I was very tall and expected to hold the line against the opposition as well as track their players, usually the opposing end running to catch the ball. I was supposed to intercept. On the other hand, when your team has the ball, you are a wide receiver.

I was a terrible player in either role. Though big and tall and easily able to see the whole play, I was skinny as a bean pole. I was no match for anyone who blocked me hard and low. And I did not have long legs. I just had a lengthy torso. I could not run fast and was easily tracked by their players when I ran to catch the ball. And if it happened to fall into my hands because of the skill in throwing of the quarterback, I just as often fumbled it. And yet when we were on defence, I was expected to interfere and catch the ball.

I was the wrong guy for the position. Actually, I believed, for any position on the team. I got the role because I was very tall relative to my fellow students. But I was a fumbler and a bumbler, and a slow runner to boot. After I had proven my mettle – or lack of any – I ended up spending the remaining portion of the season warming the bench.

The rest of the team was better than I was – every single player. But not much better. Except perhaps for Steve Lewis who was our quarterback. He was excellent. Nevertheless, we lost every game. It did not help that our couch was terrible. Or perhaps he was not. Perhaps he had appraised us correctly. Lacking any confidence in us, he did not bother to teach us to play an aggressive game of keeping maximum pressure on the other team by cleverly alternating throwing and running strategies. Nor did he teach us how to play a clever defensive game. Instead, he taught us to punt, or what he thought was punting.

Perhaps I would not have been as bad a player as I was if I had been seen as a punter, someone who practiced his position, not by outrunning the opposition and leaping to catch the ball. Nor by running interference and catching the ball intended for their tight end. Perhaps I could have been taught to be an artful dodger able to deke out and trick my opposing player – seeming to go one way, but in reality going in the opposite direction. But this is a nostalgic dream of emerging victorious from a season of humiliating play. Besides, our coach, though he had advised us repeatedly to punt and hope the other side would fumble the ball and we could gain yards that way, never understood the core to the art of punting.

When we had the ball, he did not teach us how we could punt on the second down and greatly enhance the other side fumbling the ball because we had so confused and tricked them. Instead, he just advised us to kick on the second down and try to take them by surprise. Perhaps it worked the first time, but the coach became a broken record. On the other hand, he did not teach us to run a defensive strategy either, one where we held the other team in check by keeping them from advancing by the use of stealth instead of serving as a mighty Maginot Line. Instead, to repeat as he did, he taught us to punt, to punt on the second down and take. in a dream world, the  opposition by surprise and hope that when the ball was in their end they would err. We were supposed to gain our yards by their mistakes, but they usually outplayed us and marched rapidly down the field towards our goal posts.

I could be writing this as a parable about handing the JCPOA crisis over the Iran nuclear deal. Trump had followed an all-out aggressive strategy of a full court press against the other team but though the other team was significantly weakened, they pressed ahead with their nuclear strategy. Prior to that, President Obama had followed a policy of engagement to stop the Iranian progress down the field through the use of a singular focus on their nuclear strategy but permitting the other side to employ other strategies to progress down the field. Neither policy turned out to be a formula for victory.

But we were taught neither a policy of maximum pressure against the other side nor a policy of clever defense to hold them in situ. Instead, we were taught to punt. For years I used to recall the coach and disparage him for his continuing stress on kicking on the second down. I thought it had been a foolish strategy that exhibited no confidence in us as players – even though that lack of confidence was well deserved.

Then reading the Megillat Esther, I had a flash. The problem was not resorting to the punt when you have a weak hand. The problem was a failure to master the art of punting. Punting is the art of redirection in place of the art of confrontation or aggression or, alternatively, the art of engagement for defensive purposes. Punting is practicing defence by being offensive to the other, by indeed putting the ball in their court, but doing so in a way that will induce them to err instead of just relying on chance or serendipity. That is what Mordechai does to Haman in the story of Esther.

What is punting? Formally, in European soccer or rugby, it meant hitting the ball back to the other side before it was allowed to land. More generally, it suggests doing to the other what they would do or are trying to do to you. Megillat Esther is a lesson in intelligent punting. For that is the strategy followed by both sides, only it is Mordechai who mastered its execution.

Haman tried punting in response to Mordechai’s use of the tactic. Haman was no dummy. Mordechai had introduced the art. He had refused to bow down to Haman, refused to submit to his aggressive bullying, Mordechai refused to meet aggression with aggression. But neither did he bend. Neither did he adopt defensive strategies that would simply slow down or mitigate Haman’s aggressive bullying order. Instead, Mordechai refused to bow down before Haman. He practiced non-violent civil disobedience.

Members of the king’s court begged Mordechai to accede to Haman’s demands. Mordechai ignored their entreaties. He was a Jew. He would not bow before Haman. Haman could have responded by resorting to physical force like Bull Connor from Selma, that icon of racism from Alabama, in fighting the Black peaceful sit-ins and peaceful protest marches in Birmingham in the sixties with billy clubs. Instead, Haman punted as well.

My daughter, Rachel, who is a biblical scholar who trains rabbis in Boston, offered a midrash to explain Mordechai’s resistance. Bowing to Haman would have been a form of idolatry since Haman in his dress and manner and behaviour had turned himself into an idol. Bowing down before Haman meant bowing to an idol, an act specifically forbidden to Jews. Rachel could cite Abraham ibn Ezra as an authority, but no text itself supports such an interpretation. Further, that would be a tactic followed where direct confrontation was the order of the day, but, as I have argued, the art of conflict management celebrated here is not confrontation, not maximum pressure to weaken the opposing force. Nor even engagement and a defensive posture to wait to fight the battle on another day. Instead, it became a battle of wits. It is a battle that will be won by one side out punting the other.

Haman adopts a very different mode of indirection than the simple and direct honesty of Mordechai and Esther – more on this later. He joined QAnon. He deflects by indulging in a conspiracy theory. He does not go to King Ahasuerus and accuse Mordechai of challenging his power. That might simple have revealed how weak he really was, how his power was an empty shell, one built only on formal authority rather than any genuine skills of leadership. King Ahasuerus might have replied to him had he made such a complaint, “Go take care of your own problems. Don’t come sniveling to me. You are supposed to be my chief minister, my vizier.”

Haman knew that. Therefore, he used indirection.  He told King Ahasuerus that, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among other people in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your interest to tolerate them.” In other words, there is a fifth column in your midst. They threaten you, not me. They threaten the realm, not myself. Therefore, every last one of them, must be destroyed, must be exterminated.

Notice the slip in logic. From the claim that these other people (he meant the Hebrews) have their own laws, Haman draws the inference that they disobey the king’s laws. However, having separate laws can complement or supplement rather than challenge the legal system of the realm. King Ahasuerus did not catch the illogic of the claim, but rather accepted the depiction of the existence of a “deep force” as a threat.

Haman had turned Mordechai’s protest against his (Haman’s) personal excessive use of power and accused the Hebrews of indulging in an excessive and threatening use of power by having the Jews follow their own legal code. I am not threatened. You, the king, are under threat. The only way to respond to such a threat is by uprooting the danger at its root and destroy those who would threaten the realm. Non-conformity in general was the threat, not a failure to comply with specific orders.

Mordechai was in a very tough position. If he directly attacked Haman, it would only be used as proof that Haman was right. But if he kowtowed to Haman and took up a defensive posture, he was doomed. No appeasement would stop the eventual and slow grinding down of his own people. His only out was to punt back, to, in turn, reverse Haman’s position and put the ball back in Haman’s court, but in such a way this time that Haman would make a fatal error.

By this time in the story, the suspense is not whether Mordechai can pull it off but the delight in watching the way he does it. Or really Esther. For she had listened closely and well and proved to be a master of the punt. By now, we have gained a great deal of trust in the artful dodgers than Mordechai and his protégé would show herself to be.

The Megillat begins with a display of conspicuous consumption on a grand scale. King Ahasuerus is clearly someone who believes that all is glitter – fine cotton, blue dyed, embroidered with purple linen, silver rods and marble columns; couches of gold and silver, on a pavement of green, white, shell, and onyx marble. Luxury, luxury, all is luxury. Superficiality, superficiality, all is superficiality.  Is there any better mark on whom to use the practice of punting? Specifically, the text states that there was to be no coercion. It was a time of joy and celebration. However, the target of the punt was not the self-indulgent king, but another punter, a ruthless and mean one.

King Ahasuerus had a trophy wife, the beautiful Vashti. He ordered her to come to court so he could put her on display. She refused. She practiced non-violent resistance to being used as an object. The king became furious. So much for banning coercion. But he did not punish her for disobeying him. That would have seemed petty. He did what Haman would later do to himself. He claimed to be acting on behalf of the entire realm lest women everywhere follow Vashti’s example and disobey their husbands. Men were ordered to be the dominant part of the partnership.

So much for King Ahasuerus’s avoidance of coercion. He proved to be a hypocrite. The sycophants who surrounded him then set out to find a successor, a maiden who would be both beautiful and compliant. Esther, a Jewess, the niece and adopted daughter of the Jew, Mordechai was spotted, put on display and won the king’s favour.  But, on Mordechai’s order, she did not reveal she was Jewish. The deception had begun of a king who had been trapped and enraptured by appearances. The first rule of the art of punting is to only reveal what was absolutely necessary and enticing to the other and nothing that would invite closer inspection.

The next step was to turn attraction into enchantment, to mesmerize the king so that he did not simply call her forth from his harem for a dalliance, but won his grace and favour, won his love sufficiently that he made Esther Queen instead of Vashti. How did she do it? She punted. How? By first enchanting Hegai, the king’s chamberlain. How? Vashti had proven to be an independent rebel. Esther put herself forward as totally obedient to Hegai. She asked for nothing but what Hegai requested of her. The second rule of punting was not only to keep secret what need not be revealed, but to appear to reveal all and convince the target’s most trusted courtier that no trouble would come from this source.

In fact, compliance came easy to Esther. That is how Mordechai had raised her. She could both keep the secret of her nationality and religion while appearing to be fully transparent and obedient. Then the deke! Mordechai learned of a planed conspiracy and insurrection. He did not report it to the king. Instead, he told Esther who whispered it in the king’s ear. What a surprise he had to learn that he not only had an extremely comely woman to sit on his throne by his side, and one that was very compliant, but someone who was sharp as a tack, a good listener out to protect him and his power. She had become a triple threat with neither an ounce of aggression nor any semblance of defensiveness, someone apparently totally open to him alone.

King Ahasuerus was now ripe for the picking. But even he was not the main target. Punting requires a ruse, a distraction, but one that can and will play a role in the ultimate deception against the main target. The king was the quarterback expected to throw the ball to Haman and ended up throwing it to Mordechai as an interception while Haman is wiped out in the play.

Enter Haman who was named vizier, presumably because he had mastered the same magic of appearances as Esther – keeping his huge ambitions secret while appearing totally transparent and compliant with the king’s wishes. But he was two-faced. When he turned away from the king, he in turn expected total compliance. Mordechai refused to give it, hence enticing Haman to set out on his final solution for all Jews. At first, Haman seemed to succeed even more than heretofore. The king placed his ring on Haman’s finger and gave him the power “to do to the Jews as it pleases you.” The king gave the royal endorsement to commit genocide, “to destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, on one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and their spoils to be taken as plunder.”

Lamentations throughout the Jewish community of Persia. Except, Esther; she evidently presumably thought she might escape the edict given her favour in the eyes of the king. But Mordechai informed her that the edict was universal, applicable to all Jews and the edict had been delegated to Haman for execution. It was likely that she would not escape the consequences. For if she remained silent, then Haman would be able to blackmail her; If she told the king that she was Jewish, then he would both be upset that she withheld this news from him but would also be furious at being trapped by his own edict.

The fourth stage of the punt was in place. The king had to be offered a way out of the Catch-22 in which he had found himself while ensuring that Haman fumbled the ball, tumbled and fell, not just on the ground, but from grace more generally. Esther appeared before the king, without approaching him, in her finest, but with a demeanor as if she wore sackcloth. The king summoned her and asked what was troubling her. “What is your petition? Even to half the kingdom, it will be given to you.”

Wow!!! Had he even heard what he had just promised? Esther retained her composure and simply asked that Haman be invited to a banquet she would throw for him, in itself an apparently huge win for Haman. At the banquet, she would do the king’s bidding and reveal her request. But Haman, even more bitter at Mordechai’s intransigence, especially as he had risen as far as he could go in both the king’s and the queen’s favour, accepted the advice of his wife and friends to construct gallows intended for Mordechai that looked very much like the gallows the insurrectionists had constructed for Mike Spence in the plaza of the Capitol on 6 January 2021. Mordechai would be hanged in the morning.

But the king was haunted during the night with the memory of Queen Esther being told by Mordechai about the conspiracy and plot against him. When he asked in the morning whether Mordechai had been rewarded, he was told that, “Nothing had been done for him.” Haman was preparing the execution and was summoned by the king.  

“What should be done to a man whom the king wishes to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” And Haman said to the King, “A man whom the king wishes to honor. Let them bring the royal raiment that the king wore and the horse that the king rode upon, and the royal crown should be placed on his head.”  

However, it was not enough to trap Haman by his own narcissism into following the king’s orders and honoring Mordechai. Now he was stricken by foreboding and lamentations. He foresaw the end he faced. He thought he might redeem himself at Esther’s banquet. When the king then asked her to disclose her wish and promised that it would be given, she said,

“If I have found favor in your eyes, O king, and if it pleases the king, may my life be given me in my petition and my people in my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish; now had we been sold for slaves and bondswomen, I would have kept silent, except the adversary has no consideration for the king’s loss.” When the king asked, who was responsible, she said Haman. When Haman heard, in fear and trembling he came to the queen and cast himself down on her couch begging mercy. The king came upon the scene and suspected Haman of trying to accost his beautiful Esther.

Haman ended up on the gallows.

Now that is a real punt.

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