Parashat Purim: The good, the bad and the confused

Apparently we must continue to drink on Purim until the truths of the Bible completely overturn the confusion of a world which has lost its moral compass.

February 26, 2010 17:21
4 minute read.
purim mask 88

purim mask 88. (photo credit: )

I think that the Scroll of Esther, read on Purim, provides the best critique I know of our present day “situational ethics” environment. What led me to this insight was a strange talmudic comment: “Where do we find Haman in the Torah? ‘Is it from the tree [Hebrew: hamin ha’etz] which I commanded you not to eat of it, that you ate [Genesis 3:11]?’” (B.T. Hulin 139b).

This verse, part of the biblical portion of punishments meted out to Adam, Eve and the serpent after their transgression, links Haman, Esther’s story and the sin of eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

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What was the nature of the garden prohibition? It certainly could not have been “knowledge” which the Bible was forbidding; after all, the Book of Proverbs praises wisdom, the sages of the Talmud were well-versed in the sciences and Greek culture, Rabbenu Sa’adia Gaon and Maimonides urge us to accept knowledge from anyone who teaches it, Jew or gentile, and although the Scroll of Ecclesiastes maintains that “he who increases knowledge increases pain” (Ecclesiastes 1:18), the Kotzker Rebbe commented, “be pained, but acquire knowledge.”

I believe that God was forbidding Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil so that they would not try to become their own arbiters over what is morally right and wrong. The Bible is teaching – as the most fundamental axiom of the book of divine wisdom – that objective Good and Evil must be decided by a Higher Authority. As Sigmund Freud says in his Civilization and its Discontent, when it comes to self-justification and rationalization, every human becomes a genius.

Uriel Eitam, in a magnificent article published in Haddassah, She is Esther (Esther (Dassy) Rabinowitz Memorial Volume 5757, Tvunot Press, Allon Shvut), shows how Ahasuerus confuses concepts of good and evil, and how Haman actually turns evil into good – each in order to execute his nefarious designs.

Ahasuerus confuses the moral concept of “good” with the physical, sexual category of maidens of “goodly appearance” (tovot mar’eh as in Esther 1:11, 2:2, 3). The confusion becomes far more serious when it becomes “good” in Ahasuerus’ eyes to banish/execute Vashti for her refusal to “show off her beauty” to his drunken guests (1:19, 21). The source of the king’s confusion is because his “heart had become ‘good’ with wine,” which causes one’s rational faculties to become impaired.

Haman actually converts evil into good when he claims it to be “good” for the king to destroy the Jews of Persia in order to gain 10,000 silver talents (3:9). Ahasuerus abandons the Jews, making them and the funds necessary to exterminate them available to Haman so that he may do that which is “good” in his eyes (3, 11). And when Haman decides to listen to his wife’s advice and murder Mordecai (one of the true – and truly good – heroes of the tale) by having him hanged, the Scroll of Esther reports: “And the matter was good before Haman, and he prepared the tree” (5:14).

It is Esther who sets the record straight by clearly separating evil from good. Indeed, for the first six chapters of the scroll the world evil (ra) is not found; no wonder, since the worst evil has been called “good”: It is Esther who reveals the truth by declaring at her feast with Ahasuerus, “An adversary and an enemy is this evil Haman” (7:6). And Esther also places “good” in proper perspective: “And if it be good to the king, let him give me my life for my request and my nation for my petition” (7:3); “And if it be good to the king, let him countermand the thoughts of Haman…. who has written to destroy the Jews” (8:5); “And if it be good to the king,… let the 10 sons of Haman be hanged from the tree” (9:13, 14).

But if the wrong was righted, if true knowledge was restored, if good and evil were placed in their proper perspective, then how can we account for the inordinate drinking which marks our celebration of Purim, as our sages teach: “It is incumbent upon a person to drink on Purim until he can no longer know the difference between cursing Haman and praising Mordecai” (B.T. Megila 7b)?

I believe the answer is the same response the Talmud gives as to why we do not recite the Hallel psalms of praise on Purim: The Scroll of Esther concludes with the Jews still living in the galut (Diaspora) of Persia; they remain servants of Ahasuerus. The world has not yet been redeemed. Indeed, Iran (Persia) continues to threaten our security even today. Suicide bombers are still described as freedom fighters and martyrs. Apparently we must continue to drink on Purim until the truths of the Bible completely overturn the confusion of a world which has lost its moral compass.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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