The former PM of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, was feted for many things. She was praised for her courage and compassion, admired for her principled leadership, and recognised as a role model for young women everywhere.
In my mind she will always be remembered for knowing a prick when she sees one!
At the end of December 2022, in the last days of her term, Ardern was inadvertently caught calling the opposition leader, David Seymour, an ‘arrogant prick’. It was under her breath but as it emerged from her microphone, it was included in the Hansard, the official parliamentary record.
In itself this is not particularly surprising or noteworthy. It’s what you may expect from time to time in the cut and thrust of vigorous political debate. Politicians can be brutal and bolshie. It’s rather what happened afterward that makes the eye water and the heart rejoice with mirth and wonder.
Not only did Ardern apologise, but she and Seymour decided to print the Hansard, sign it, and then auction it to raise money for the Prostate Cancer Foundation. They raised over $NZ100,000. The pièce (or is it pric) de resistance has to be David Seymour’s summation: “The funds will go towards raising money for pricks everywhere”.
This is a remarkable little vignette of the pitfalls and power of politics, but also the potency of words and the flavour of forgiveness. And a lovely little drama to consider at Purim time.
It’s a reminder of how politicians are not above being rude and abrasive, arrogant and aggressive. These masters of words need to be especially careful about their utterances, lest they need to eat them.
In today’s world you can’t assume any word will go unnoticed and unrecorded; it brings truth to something previous generations would only have read as metaphorical – that God, too, records every word of ours in his heavenly records.
This incident, however, is also an object lesson in what’s called reframing: the process of changing the way a situation is viewed. It’s far easier to meet insults with invective, embarrassment with scorn. Ardern and Seymour did the opposite, they reframed the incident into one of good grace and gentle humour and transformed it into an act of charity.
It is, indeed, what Judaism says forgiveness is all about. Teshuva lies in turning around your behaviour and positively changing your life.
The themes of the Purim story are not that dissimilar from the recent annals of Aotearoa (aka New Zealand). The Purim saga is, after all, a political one about the abuse of power and the corruption of words. It’s about Haman using his words to frame a chilling genocide of the Jews of the Persian empire.
The animus of Haman towards Mordechai is not transmuted into love in this story. The transformation is, however, enacted by a remarkable woman who, like Ardern, knew courage and compassion.
Esther rises to meet her destiny inspired by Mordechai’s words: “Who knows if it wasn’t for this very purpose you were chosen?”. Perhaps most important is that Esther and Mordechai instantly recognised a real prick in the callous and callow Haman. Mordechai would not bow down to this pompous but exceedingly dangerous little man.
And Esther – brave and beautiful Esther – dug deep into herself and the foundation stones of her people’s faith and endurance. She discovered how to face a prick who did not know that if you prick us (Jews), do we not bleed?
She recognises that the King had to be shown exactly who Haman was, and that his designs for power would ultimately undermine the monarch himself. Through her skilful machinations and staged parties, she sows the seeds of doubt in the Crown’s head and he begins to realise that Haman is not the trustworthy servant he presents himself to be.
You could say (to echo Hamlet) the play’s the thing by which to prick the conscience of the King!
The denouement of the drama is when Haman, at the King’s prompting, or perhaps testing, suggests that the best way to honour his majesty would be to share the basic elements of his power – namely his ring, his regal clothing, his very crown. Now the King finally gets it: this is the power that Haman himself so desperately craves.
Then, in a chilling but humorous scene, he humiliates Haman by getting him to lead his enemy Mordechai through the streets of the capital, Shushan. How the mighty has fallen, the Chancellor is reduced to a shlepper!
Purim is a warning about the danger of politics and how the thirst for power can undermine a country. It’s about the unpredictable and fragile, and for Jews a reminder of how vulnerable our existence has been, and how deep the hatred against us is.