Reflecting on Purim — Then and Now
There is a trend in certain quarters to look at the story of Purim as one of Jewish aggression — the murder of innocent Persian non-Jews, and antagonism to outsiders for no valid reason. Some Jewish academics have focused on the “brutality” of killing Haman and his sons, and of killing men, women and children. Elliott Horowitz has written about this in Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. But if one looks at the text honestly and objectively, it is as far from the truth as black is from white.
The story, apparently, takes place in Persia some 2,500 years ago, though the historical facts are unclear. The first part is comic. A drunken King Achashverosh spends a good portion of the year partying. He deludes himself that free orgies for his administrators and subjects will keep them loyal and avoid plots against him. He has civil laws that are frankly ridiculous, like never being able to retract an order once given.
He loses his temper with his tempestuous Queen Vashti, who tries to stand up to him (once again we are not entirely certain why). He fires her, but then the poor fellow gets lonely and misses having a wife. He cannot act. He needs the advice of his various sets of seven cronies, and is so insecure that he has to decree that all wives must obey their husbands. The young men about town suggest he gather as many virgins as possible from throughout his realm. They are submitted to a 12-month regime of cosmetics and oils before being allowed to spend the night with the king. He has to pick just one to be his queen. The rest are carted off to incarceration in his harem. But even after selecting Esther, he continues to gather virgins for his own pleasure (and probably that of his inner circle, too).
There is an undertone of insecurity and the next part is ominous. Jews are reluctant to admit who they are. The Royal Guardsmen want to assassinate the king. And then this mindless sop is so short of cash he gives his approval to genocide. Kill all the Jews, and confiscate all their property. The bad guy who persuades him to do so is Haman — another browbeaten macho who is under the thumb of Zeresh, his wife. Thanks to to Esther, the plot is defeated and the bad guys are eliminated.
Now the Jewish dimension to the Megilah (the Book of Esther). Both Esther and Mordechai carry the names of Assyrian deities. Were they so assimilated? Jews, feeling insecure, kept a low profile, and hid their identity. When Esther was taken into the palace, Mordechai warned her not to reveal her origin. Only Mordechai publicly refused to bow down to the egomaniac prime minister. Although Mordechai proved his loyalty by saving the king from a plot hatched by his palace guard, he did not calculate on Haman’s ideological antisemitism. Following this, Haman doesn’t just try to eliminate Mordechai. The case Haman makes out to the king is that Jews are different. They are all untrustworthy, disloyal, and a danger to society. In other words, as totally wrong and irrational as antisemitism is today.
Mordechai tells Esther she must act; all they can do is pray. It is Esther who risks her life to get to the king. She softens him up with alcohol and then reveals Haman to be the real threat to the king (after he has revealed his designs by asking the king to let him ride the royal horse through the capital). The Jews are saved. Mordechai and Esther are the human tools of salvation. But the unspoken name of God lurks in the background, hidden (Esther’s name means “I hide”) but pulling the strings. Jews survive both through their own efforts and Divine intervention. Purim means lottery, but there are two — the human one that fails, and the heavenly one that succeeds.
To end the book there is a sad reflection on Jewish life then and now. When Esther and Mordechai try to institute an annual festival of commemoration, they cannot succeed in getting all the Jews to agree. (We are a stiff-necked people, aren’t we?)
But what of the killing of poor non-Jewish Persians in the aftermath of Haman’s plot? One could take the apologist’s line and say that thousands of years ago, life was brutal, like gang warfare today. Or indeed the way the Syrian government or ISIS has been torturing and killing children. Or one might understand the natural sense of pain and anger that parents would feel when their children are threatened with death.
The text simply does not support the theory of wanton cruelty. The first decree was to invite everyone in the Persian empire to join in killing the Jewish men, women and children, and grabbing their goods on one specific day that astrology determined to be the best. So much for astrology. But the second decree said the Jews could defend themselves.
No Persian had to go kill Jews. Those who chose to were animated in their clear disregard of the second decree only by irrational hatred or hopes of gain. And when a section of a population is so full of irrational hatred and greed it affects its children, too. Children can still be taught to hate and wield knives! What always struck me was that only a minority was infected by the virus. In a population of millions, those who actually were killed because they attacked the Jews amounted to no more than 800 in the capital and 75,000 throughout the Empire who died for their evil cause. This is not a story of Jewish cruelty, but of regrettably necessary self-defense. And the Jews did not take any loot!
It is such a modern 21st century story of government and personal corruption, and using violence for irrational hatred and gain. Haman is called “Haman the descendent of Agag.” Agag was the Amalekite king that Samuel killed (Samuel Chapter 15). The Amalekites first attacked the Israelites coming out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:27) by killing women, children, the tired, and the weak bringing up the rear of the people. Antisemites are cowards. That is why the Bible focuses on their cruelty and the need to remember and protect ourselves from endemic hatred.
But those who suggest that violence is an essential part of the story are ignoring the real messages of Purim in Jewish law and lore: to give to the poor, to send presents to one’s friends and to read the Megillah. No violence there, only the importance of history, charity and friendship. The tradition of dressing up in disguise came later, to remind us that much in life is hidden; many people do not reveal themselves; and what appears one way at one moment can turn into something or someone quite different the next.
What the Megillah, in all its confusing and contradictory richness, tells us is that the world is a topsy-turvy one. It is complex, fun, dangerous and made up of many layers. And nothing could be more topsy-turvy than suggesting that we delight in violence. What we do delight in is survival — physical and spiritual.