As in many aspects of Jewish life, myths abound concerning the Purim story. One of those myths portrays Haman as a maniacal, genocidal Jew-hater, while painting Ahasuerus as a harmless, bumbling old fool, pulled to and fro by his wives and advisers.
Yet the talmudic tractate Megila makes it abundantly clear that Ahasuerus hated the Jews no less than Haman, and vigorously yearned for their destruction.
In fact, the Midrash says that Ahasuerus hated the Jews even more than Haman! As proof of this, they point out that when Haman offered a bribe of 10,000 talents of silver to the king so he would approve of the plan to wipe us out, Ahasuerus absolutely refused to accept the gift: “The silver is given to you,” said Ahasuerus to Haman (3:11).
And yet, some time before Ahasuerus and Haman become partners in crime, a very different image is set before us: The Megila opens with an elaborate, orgiastic six months of revelry – which makes Mardi Gras and Carnivale pale in comparison! – to which the Jews of Shushan are invited as full citizens.
And not only are the Jews invited, their every need is catered to. Commenting on the verse (1:8), “The king commanded his officers to fulfill every man’s pleasure,” the rabbis state that the Jewish guests were served glatt kosher meals, and even allowed to sit separately! But alas, all is not rosy in Persia-ville: At this same meal in which the Jews feel like honored guests, they watch aghast as Ahasuerus appears dressed in the clothes of the kohen gadol, the High Priest, then brings out the holy vessels of the destroyed Temple from which to drink and eat.
What is going on here? What message is Ahasuerus trying to convey, by both graciously inviting the Jews to his banquet, then doing something that shocks them to the very core? And what happens to make both Ahasuerus and Haman determined to solve their “Jewish question” once and for all? The answer to these questions goes to the essence of what Megilat Esther is really all about.
Like many rulers in history, Ahasuerus is willing to tolerate the Jews – even welcome them – because he knows how “clever” Jews are, how good they can be for business and what excellent advisers they make on issues of finance, foreign policy and social welfare. Mordecai joins the ranks of Joseph, Don Isaac Abravanel, Daniel, et al., as expert counsel to the royal court.
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Ahasuerus is even willing to accommodate the special needs of the Jews, their dietary requirements and unusual customs, because those represent no threat to him. But there is one thing which Ahasuerus, like so many of our other “hosts” throughout Diaspora history, cannot and will not abide: He cannot permit us Jews to fulfill our ultimate destiny of living in our own land, under our own rule, with our own Temple, government and army.
And so, even as he provides separate dishes and mehadrin food, he draws a line in the sand. By wearing the garments of the High Priest and using the utensils of the Temple for his own drunken feast, he sends the message: “You Jews may practice your faith here – as a minority – but you are not going back to Jerusalem, you will not rebuild your Temple and reestablish the Divine service and sacrifices; you are confined to the Diaspora.”
As he is wont to say more than once, “Up to half of the kingdom, and it shall be granted to you.” What is the half that he stubbornly refuses to grant? Explains the Talmud: That is the restoration of Jewish sovereignty; that alone is not up for discussion.
What, then, changes his disposition and turns him into a partner to genocide? Mordecai! For who is Mordecai, after all? He is a proud Jew, an uncompromisingly courageous Jew, who is a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin! Yes, the Sanhedrin, our “Supreme Court,” a major component of our national identity.
The Sanhedrin, which can only operate freely in Israel. The Sanhedrin, which is one of the most potent symbols of our Jewish nationhood and spiritual supremacy.
When Ahasuerus is confronted by the model of Mordecai, who will have none of the “Diaspora mentality” practiced by his co-religionists, he accedes to the urgings of Haman and seals the edict of our destruction.
The real miracle of the Megila is the fact that God hears our cry, answers our prayers and reverses Ahasuerus’s mindset.
Not only does the Persian king execute Haman, but he becomes the very instrument for the Temple to be rebuilt – through his and Esther’s son Darius, who renews the decree of Cyrus to allow the Temple to be restored. In fact, it is this crucial postscript which permits us to celebrate Purim at all! While the rabbis rule that only events which occur in Israel can become eternal national celebrations, Purim is excepted – and accepted – because its ultimate purpose is the restoration of the Temple and the return to Zion.
The message in all this for us today should be obvious, and is eminently topical: We may enjoy periods of prosperity and popularity in the Diaspora; we may get oodles of kosher noodles and all the accoutrements of Yiddishkeit in countries around the globe.
The leaders of our host nations may be more than ready to accommodate us – even the dictator of Iran, that wouldbe Haman of present-day Persia – who proudly proclaims that he “has nothing against Jews,” he only wants to see Israel wiped off the map.
But surviving under the dictates of a foreign ruler, even one who genuinely treats his Jews well, cannot be the real goal of our existence. The focal point of Jewish life today must be to reunite world Jewry in our own land, operating under our own rule, practicing our own religion, culture, language and destiny to the fullest, with no fear and with no trepidation over charges of dual loyalty.
The Purim story, as outlined in the Megila, teaches us that miracles can occur in a subtle, almost imperceptible fashion, without an overt interruption in the course of natural events. But they are miracles no less than the Ten Plagues or the Splitting of the Sea.
So too we must recognize that the return to our ancient homeland and the recreation of the Jewish commonwealth – with its astounding advances in science, economic prosperity, Torah learning and military prowess – is perhaps the greatest miracle ever bestowed upon us since creation.
Anything else is just a mask. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; email@example.com.
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