Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, had a near-death experience. Yehoshua asked him: “what did you see?” He said: “I saw a world turned upside down, where the poor were rich and the rich were poor.” His father answered: “You saw a world turned right way up.”
For a long time, this was my favourite passage from all of Gemara. Recently, I’ve started to feel more conflicted about it.
This brief story is an interlude in Masechet Bava Batra of the Babylonian Talmud. The chapter is all about economic redistribution, charity, the rights of the poor, and fiscal justice. It encapsulates a beautiful idea. The poor should know what it is to be rich and the rich should know what it is to be poor.
Six years ago, the then-26-year-old duke, Hugh Grosvenor, became the world’s richest man under 30. Upon his father’s death, he inherited £10 billion, a title, and some of London’s most profitable land deeds. He remains Britain’s fourth richest person.
According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1 in 5 households in this country are in poverty. 7.2 million households are going without essentials, like heating, food, showers, toiletries and adequate clothing.
It’s hard to picture statistics, so let’s take a story. Heather is a mum of two girls, aged 10 and 4, in Camborne, Cornwall. Her family is one of those millions in poverty. They opted to tell their story to ITV. Cameras followed her round as she worked multiple shifts, round the clock, and fed her family from food banks.
What would it be like if, as in Yosef ben Rabbi Yehoshua’s vision, the two swapped places?
How would the duke fare if he woke up as a social renter on a council estate in Cornwall, with no money, and unpaid debts, and needed to get his children to school but couldn’t afford the bus fare?
How would it be for Heather if she suddenly found herself a duchess, living on a 300 acre estate in Lancashire, waited on for every meal, never having to clean, and able to indulge in boozy parties costing upwards of £5 million? She wouldn’t need to go shopping. She would own the shopping centre.
It is a tempting fantasy. Seeing this world, so clearly turned upside down, I, too, take pleasure in imagining seeing the day.
We can see why it would have appealed to the authors of the Talmud, too. Rabbi Yehoshua was a poor tailor living under Roman persecution. Yehoshua saw the incredible wealth of Emperor Hadrian, which he had extracted from colonising and impoverishing the people of Eretz Yisrael, among many other territories of his Empire. Why wouldn’t Yehoshua, a pious scholar, want to switch places with that brutish tyrant?
But is it really motivated by righteousness, or is it just a desire for revenge? As we approach Purim, I remember what can happen when a world is turned upside down like that. How easily the oppressed can become the oppressors. How quickly hurt people can hurt people.
Our story begins in a world where one man has a ludicrously bloated empire and spends all his time flaunting his wealth on extravagant banquets. Achashverosh has a harem of women at his beck and call, who live in fear of death and exile.
This is a system already ripe for abuse, and, when Haman is appointed as chief vizier, we see just how far that society can go in its cruelty. Haman insists that everyone bow down to him. He took an ethnic disliking to Mordechai and the Jews, who, in turn, refused to accept his authority. So Haman plans a genocide, with full indulgence from the king and his court. He erects a stake on which to impale Mordechai.
In the end, the world is turned upside down. Mordechai is put in Haman’s position. He is given royal robes and the signet ring. He gallops through town on a horse and everyone bows down to him. Haman is impaled on the stake he planted for Mordechai.
Then, the Jews enact a genocide. In one day, they kill three hundred men. On the next, they kill seven thousand. They massacre and exterminate all who stand in their way, including women and children, with royal permission to plunder their possessions.
Look, a complete inversion of events! The poor are rich and the rich are poor. The strong are weak and the weak are strong.
But, is this justice?
In Progressive movements, we are so embarrassed by this chapter of the Megillah that we often omit it from our readings. In Orthodoxy, the goal is to get so drunk you don’t know what’s happening. By the end, you’re supposed to be unsure whether you are booing or cheering for Mordechai. That’s not a surprise: if we hears it sober, we’d probably jeer everyone.
The problem the story highlights is not that some people are good and others are wicked, but that broken systems make good people do wicked things.
The same system that permitted egregious exploitation and violence remains intact, with different people doing the killing. Everything is turned upside down, but, somehow everything is just the same.
This story is just a fantasy. There was no historical massacre by Jews in ancient Persia. In reality, they never got the upper hand during their exile. This is just their dream of what they might do if that world was turned upside down.
That doesn’t mean the fantasy is harmless. While Jewish history includes many times when we have been oppressed, it also includes occasions when we have been the oppressors.
There is nothing in our history to indicate we are any less capable of cruelty and malice. In fact, we know too well that oppressed people, when handed power, can act in ways that would make their persecutors blush. Revenge is a powerful drug.
That doesn’t mean we should never try to turn the world upside down. We are still right to take umbrage at the outrageous wealth of Hugh Grosvenor while most live in poverty. It is still correct to hiss Haman as he uses his powers for ethnic persecution.
But a world where the rich are poor and the weak are mighty is not a world turned upside down. It is the same world with people in different positions.
The problem is not Yosef ben Yehoshua’s dream. It’s his lack of imagination.
When we dream of the inversion of this world, we need to think of more than just switching who gets to be in charge.
We, too, must have a vision of a world turned upside down. Where there are no rich and there are no poor because everyone has enough. Where there are no persecutors and there are no oppressed because power is shared evenly and democratically. Where racism and abuse are unfathomable because communities strive towards accountability and progress.
That would be a world turned right way up.