The Two-Way Street | Purim: The Danger of a Single Story

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman
on March 5, 2020

Stories matter. The stories we tell about ourselves and the stories others tell about us can shape the way we are perceived, seen and welcomed (or not) into a community. Stories shape other people’s perceptions and expectations, especially if they have little or no context to understand the complexities of our lives.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED talk, tells of the “danger of a single story:”

…I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.

She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

Adichie’s experience with her American roommate demonstrates the ignorance and bias that clinging to a single story can reinforce. We know from our own lives that people are never truly just one thing and that there is so much more to every person than the one line or story we may have been told. Yes, there is poverty in Africa. Yes, the continent has experienced many catastrophes over the decades. But Africa — and more importantly Africans — cannot be reduced to that single story.

The Purim story that Jews will read next week contains an example of a most dangerous single story. Haman tells a story about the Jews in Shushan: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples 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 Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction…”

With no context or contravening information, Achashverosh readily accepts Haman’s single story, putting in place policies that would have been devastating to our people had they come to fruition. This is the danger of a single story. Unlike demonstrably false stereotypes, this story isn’t altogether untrue: The Jews were dispersed throughout the land, and they did have laws that were different from other people’s, but for good reason and not necessarily in opposition to the king’s laws. Without taking the time to learn more, to listen to multiple narratives and nuanced perspectives, people miss the larger truth — and what we are left with is a flat, cartoonish narrative that can justify the most horrible outcomes.

Megillat Esther itself is an example of what can be missed when you look too quickly or too superficially at a story before you. This book contains no mention of God or God’s action in the story. But God’s presence is hidden (nistar) in Esther’s very name. Esther herself tells one story to gain access to the king, and another one once she has his ear. And we celebrate the holiday by donning masks, hiding our faces to reveal what may in fact be an inner truth to who we are.

None of us is a single story — and how we reveal the hidden parts and multiple dimensions of ourselves to those who don’t (yet) know us sets the stage for our relationships for generations to come. As Jews who want others to engage with us in our multiple complexities and complicated multifocal narratives, we have an obligation to understand that the others with whom we interact have just as complicated, multiple narrative stories as we do and that no partner to dialogue, to peace negotiations, to sharing space on this planet is ever as simple or as flat or as narrowly defined as our stories about them paint them to be.

As we uncover our own complicated selves this holiday, let us be willing to open to the complicated and nuanced stories around us. That openness should include understanding the complex Palestinian narratives as well as those of Israelis.

Chag sameach.

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and lives in Abington, PA. This teaching is inspired by the text study Purim, Prejudice and the Dangers of a Single Story presented by American Jewish World Service.

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