Think Again: The ever-current holiday

Purim teaches us the secret of Jewish survival in the face of those bent on our destruction: unity.

By J. ROSENBLUM
March 19, 2011 23:03
‘Ahasuerus and Haman at Esther’s Feast,’ Rembrandt

purim esther_311. (photo credit: (The Yorck Project/WikiCommons))

 
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The story of Purim remains remarkably current, never more so than this year, when a madman rules Persia and brandishes weapons of mass destruction against the Jews.

Iran’s star is everywhere ascendant, and that of the US in decline. Syria and Lebanon (via Hezbollah) are solidly in the Iranian orbit. Turkey is rapidly turning away from the West. Opportunities for Iranian mischief-making abound – e.g., among the Shi’ites of the oil-rich regions of Saudi Arabia or among the majority Shi’ite population of Bahrain, just across the vital Straits of Hormuz, where the US maintains a major naval presence. The noose seems to be tightening around Israel’s neck.

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What gives us hope is only the knowledge that we’ve been here before and survived. Prof. Robert Wistrich, a leading scholar of anti-Semitism, pointed out to me recently that from the moment an enemy decides to wipe out the Jews, he makes a series of fatal blunders. He was speaking primarily of Hitler, but Haman is the model.

Initially, Haman felt it was beneath the dignity of the grand vizier of the most powerful empire in the world to even acknowledge Mordechai’s refusal to bow. Instead, he presented a plan to King Ahasuerus to wipe out all the Jews as a matter of national interest. The Jews, he insinuated, would be a stumbling block to the king’s goal of unifying his empire.

But eventually Haman forgets his original decision not to reveal his personal hatred of Mordechai. After leaving Esther’s first banquet in high spirits, Haman is completely deflated by the sight of Mordechai sitting in the king’s gate, and still refusing to acknowledge him. He returns home ranting. Only when his wife suggests building a gallows 50 cubits high on which to hang Mordechai does he calm down.

But even within that framework, he acts impetuously. Rather than waiting for morning to seek Ahasuerus’s permission to hang Mordechai, as Zeresh advised, he hastens there in the middle of the night, just as the sleepless king is learning from the royal chronicles of how Mordechai saved his life.

Even after Haman is accused by Esther of seeking to wipe out her and her people, he could have argued that he never meant to include Esther and her family in the decree of destruction, and that his concern was only with the kingdom. But the gallows built for Mordechai refute any claim to have acted as a disinterested adviser. And because it is 50 cubits high, it can be seen immediately from the royal palace. Haman has no opportunity to appease the king. He is immediately hung on the very gallows he built with so much anticipation.



PURIM ALSO teaches us the secret of Jewish survival in the face of those bent on our destruction: unity. Our sages view Purim as a second acceptance of the Torah, this time without God’s overwhelming presence to intimidate us. The precondition for the original receipt of the Torah at Sinai was that klal yisrael become “as one man, with one heart,” and so too with the second acceptance. The Jews’ salvation begins with a three-day fast on Esther’s behalf before she risks her life to enter Ahasuerus’s private chamber uninvited.

Rabbi David Fohrman, in a highly original new work, The Queen You Thought You Knew, uncovers another subtle theme of rectification and unification running through the Megilla, this one involving Joseph and his brothers. By the time of the events recorded in the Megilla, almost the entirety of the Jewish people consists of the two tribes of the southern kingdom – Judah and Benjamin. Mordechai and Esther belong to the far smaller tribe of Benjamin.

At the very dawn of the Jewish people, Jacob had to entrust Benjamin, the surviving son of his favored wife Rachel, to the safekeeping of Judah, a son of Leah, to secure food from Egypt. Before bidding farewell to Benjamin, Jacob expressed his anguish in the heartwrenching words, “veka’asher shakolti shakolti – if I am bereaved, so then I shall be bereaved.” More than 1,000 years later, those words find their echo when a women from the tribe of Benjamin determines to risk everything to save the entire Jewish people: ka’asher avadeti avadeti – if I am lost, so then I shall be lost. (Nowhere else in the Bible does a doubled verb in the first person past tense appear after ka’asher.)

When Benjamin was discovered with the goblet in his saddlebags, Judah would have had no shortage of justifications for abandoning him. Yet Judah refused to do so, and offered himself as a slave instead. He concludes his plea to be substituted with the words, “How could I bear to see the evil that will befall my father [when he realizes Benjamin has not returned]?”

And Esther utters almost identical words when she pleads with Ahasuerus to revoke the decree of destruction against the Jews: “How could I bear to watch the terrible fate that will befall my people?” Again, the repeated phrase “bera asher yimtza” – the evil that will befall, appears only in these two places.

As queen, Esther could have secured her own safety and that of her family, perhaps even the entirety of the tribe of Benjamin. But she would not abandon the tribe of Judah, just as Judah would not abandon Benjamin. The debt has been repaid.

This final reconciliation of the brothers is hinted at in the description of Mordechai as “dover shalom” – speaking peace – the final verse in the Bible. Once the brothers hated Joseph, Rachel’s oldest son, and could not speak words of peace to him. But now Mordechai, another descendant of Rachel, is able to speak peacefully “to all his descendants,” which refers to the entire Jewish people.

May we enter Purim with a renewed commitment to the essential unity of klal yisrael, and merit on that account to see the reversal of all decrees against us.


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