This year, Purim is not funny

The end of the book of Esther is not pretty. Here is why it matters -- more than ever.

Jewish school children gather and sit in fancy dress during a schools' annual Purim event (Photo: Shutterstock)

Admit it. At Purim in synagogue last evening, you probably did not finish Megillat Esther — the story of Esther. 

You wanted to, but you know how it is. The kids get tired and noisy, and everyone wants to get to the hamantaschen. I get it.

But, if you had stuck it out to the very end of the story, it would have shocked you.

So, let’s go to Esther, chapter 9:

And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples..So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies. In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men [and the text continues by listing the ten sons of Haman who were also hanged]… The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil.

Well, at least “they did not lay hands on the spoil.” At least they could not say that we were greedy.

But, no doubt about it. Throughout history, this ending of the story has not been “good for the Jews.”

  • In the 1500s, the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, thought that this story epitomized the blood-thirsty and vengeful nature of the Jews.
  • In the late 1700s, a biblical scholar, Johann David Michaelis, noted that Haman had been executed without trial, which demonstrated why the Jews should never have equal rights.
  • Also in the 1700s, Willhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette of the University of Berlin, one of the giants of 19th-century biblical scholarship, criticized Esther’s “bloodthirsty spirit of revenge and persecution.”
  • His student Friedrich Bleek referred to the book’s “very narrow-minded and Jewish spirit of revenge.”

In other words: If you think that the Jews are not nice people, the end of the book of Esther will prove it for you.

Which, of course, led the Jews to defend themselves — not against their enemies, but against their critics.

The whole revenge thing? Jewish teachers taught that this was a legal fiction, or even a satire on a legal fiction.

After all, why did King Ahasuerus let the Jews do this?

Because he had already issued an edict allowing Haman to destroy the Jews, and even as king he could not reverse an earlier edict. So, he had to issue a second edict, allowing the Jews to defend themselves.

Besides, Jewish scholars said: look at the numbers in the story! The Jews killed 75,000 Persians? In self-defense? And that little bloody fact never made it into the annals of Persian history?

This leads us to conclude that the whole incident was invented. That whole thing about exacting revenge against the masses — it would have been both unnecessary and unwarranted.

Because, as Erica Brown has taught, why did Haman want to destroy the Jews in the first place?

Haman only seems to want to get rid of the Jews because Mordecai had refused to bow down to him. It was a narcissistic wound that got out of hand.

It wasn’t because everyone in Shushan hated the Jews — though history has demonstrated what can happen when tyrants rile up the mobs — as in January 6.

OK. Enough Esther stuff.

Why was Purim not so happy this year?

Because we read the end of the book of Esther, with its tale of Jewish vengeance, and we contemplate what happened this past week in the northern West Bank city of Huwara. Jewish settlers went on a rampage, torching dozens of homes in that city.

It was a pogrom — the first Jewishly-organized pogrom in — how long?

If you believe the story of Esther, not since Shushan, circa fifth century BCE.

That is why this year we Jews read this passage with a lump in our collective throats.

What is my interpretation of what happened at the end of the book of Esther?

Let’s assume that the entire story is a work of historical fiction.

So, why end it that way?

Because it was a work of Jewish fantasy — a dark fantasy that powerless Jews, over the centuries, told themselves.

When you’re powerless, that’s what you do — you create revenge fantasies. It works wonders for you, psychologically. It is like what the director, Quentin Tarantino, did in his film “Inglourious Basterds,” which is an alternative history in which a team of Jewish soldiers and a survivor conspire to eliminate the leadership of the Third Reich.

So, yes: the fantasies of revenge can be sweet. The reality, however, is emotionally and morally disfiguring.

What is the work that we, as the Jewish people, need to do?

I turn to my friend and colleague, Ron Kronish, who interprets the task of remembering Amalek — the mythical antisemite and ancestor of Haman — by bringing us a teaching from the nineteenth century rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch:

If the day comes and you want to be similar to Amalek and their likes, and you will not know the obligation, and you will know not God, but you will just look for opportunities in small and big matters, to exploit your superiority only to harm mankind, “don’t forget” the moral mission of Israel… Remember the land soaked with tears that cause the laurel to grow for these wreaths. Do not forget this thing, for when the day comes when you yourself will suffer from the aggression and vulgarity of Amalek… Preserve your humanity and the values of integrity that you learned from God… and in the end humanity and justice will win over vulgarity and violence.

So, no: This year, Purim did not seem as funny as it has been in years past.

Not when we are living with the real story of real Jews exacting real revenge in a real place that has had real consequences.

Not when we are living with the real story of a real Jewish state with real politicians who have channeled their own inner Hamans.

The obligation on Purim? To drink so much that you are no longer able to discern the difference between the hero, Mordecai, and the villain, Haman.

Woe be to the Jewish state if that moral intoxication spreads and grows.



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