Purim in 2020
Purim. Poor Him. But “poor” who? Ahasuerus the drunken incompetent sop of a passive king? Vashti the deposed queen? Esther, the #MeToo nice Jewish girl? Or Mordechai, whose refusal to bow to Haman and disobeying the king’s command, put the whole Jewish community at risk? Should we feel sorry for Bigtan and Teresh, the incompetent plotters? Or is it Haman, who overreached in his quest for power, driven by ambition and hatred, and ended up with his sons strung up on a scaffold? Take your pick. And people do.
Whether you believe it actually happened or not, the message of Purim is that people screw up, and life is unpredictable. It can be horrible. Even if we put our trust in God, who is not mentioned in the text, but works behind the scenes, we still have to do our part.
Purim is named after the lottery of life. We rise and fall, succeed and fail. Yet often and against the odds, we manage to overcome and survive. That is life. And we have to make the best of it.
I get really annoyed by those hyper-sensitive self-flagellating Jews who look at the story of Purim and feel ashamed of what they see as Jewish violence. All those poor Persian antisemites killed over two days. Haman strung up with his sons. How could we be so cruel as to want to survive by killing those who want to kill us?
Let’s examine the facts. It was Haman who started it by being an ambitious, intolerant, prejudiced bully. He persuaded the king that Jews were dangerous aliens, and got him to agree to kill them all, every single one of them, and confiscate their property. Wouldn’t you think we had a right to defend ourselves?
It is true I do not like the expression “kill men, women, and children,” which is used by both sides and indeed is a phrase common throughout the ancient world. But this was a common way of expressing deterrent (not unlike dropping an atomic bomb on whoever is down below, men, women, and children). And one should not confuse hyperbole with fact.
As for killing sons of traitors, our own king Zedekiah was forced to watch his sons killed by the Babylonians before they put his eyes out. It was the law of the jungle then. A thousand years later, Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun did the same as they invaded territories.
When Esther got the King to understand the enormity of his actions, he could not rescind the signed and sealed law. He was supposed to be infallible. That in itself was the height of irrationality. Infallibility is a dangerous dogma. The best he could do was to decree that the Jews were allowed to defend themselves. In doing so, he was in effect saying in public that he had changed his mind and would rather not have people killed.
No one forced those subjects who took him at his first word to attack the Jews. If they did, it was because they wanted to for their nefarious reasons.
Of course, we celebrate surviving genocide. And you would think there would have been total respect and admiration for Esther and Mordechai. But don’t you believe it. They were as divided against themselves then as nowadays. When Mordechai tried to get the Jews to agree to celebrate, it says in the last sentence of the Megilah that “Mordechai was acceptable to most Jews.”
Most? Not all? Can you believe it? Why it’s like nowadays: Bernie Sanders and the left oppose Israel defending itself against those who want to destroy it.
I suppose I can take comfort from the fact that in the 300 years before Purim, the Jews were divided into two kingdoms that often went to war against each other. At least that’s not happening now. Perhaps that’s why we are commanded to drink on Purim, to make merry, and give presents and charity. To show that the way to respond to hatred, after it has been neutralized, is to try to be nice and kind and not let it eat us up. Getting a little drunk is one way of forgetting how divided we are.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.