Middle Israel: Purim: The tragedy behind the comedy

The Book of Esther was the road map our politically reckless forebears carried as they abandoned their power, honor, self-confidence and land.

A CUSTOMER tries on a disguise and looks at costumes in a Jerusalem shop this week. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A CUSTOMER tries on a disguise and looks at costumes in a Jerusalem shop this week. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Purim, our very own Halloween, is upon us again, as costumed kids, urban carnivals, and drunken adults will next week make plain, while thousands, in synagogue after synagogue, will jeer, stomp, and fire toy guns to the sound of the name “Haman.”
Toy store owners this week reported that this year’s best-selling mask is Donald Trump’s. Trump’s character indeed brings to mind the unpredictable Ahasuerus, just as the role he assigned Queen Vashti – “to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials” (Esther 1:11) – is so similar to Trump’s expectations from Melania, who for her part is responding much the way Vashti did; just as Ivanka – Trump’s pious and glamorous confidant – reminds some of Esther, while Jared reminds others (certainly himself) of Mordecai, and Haman of Susa reminds any Jew of the ayatollahs of Tehran.
Yes, the Purim story is indeed powerful, inspiring and funny, replete not only with relevance but also with any good story’s three essential C’s – conflict, color and change.
Dazzling with “couches of gold and silver on a pavement of marble, alabaster, mother-of-pearl and mosaics,” where royals, dukes, advisers and eunuchs waltz, whisper and scheme, the Scroll of Esther is the ultimate happy-ending story, a tale of hatred, obsession and deviousness in which the nation designated for annihilation “struck at their enemies with the sword” and “wreaked their will upon their enemies” (ibid. 9:5).
The problem is that this captivating story is historically unworkable, politically absurd and Jewishly mad; for despite the laughter it evokes and the salvation it salutes, it in fact epitomizes the tragedy of Jewish existence until the rise of the modern Jewish state.
THE ESTHER SCROLL is historically implausible because if Mordecai “had been exiled from Jerusalem...along with King Jeconiah of Judah” (ibid. 2:6), then Mordecai was well more than 100 years old during our book’s time, because the historical Ahasuerus – Xerxes – was not even born when Cyrus the Great died.
Moreover, the historical Persia was tolerant, as the Bible itself reports elaborately in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Decreeing the mass murder of one of its minorities ran against its political raison d’être.
Similarly, the idea that Persia would let one of its minorities slaughter thousands in the streets is absurd, even if that minority happened to have supplied the king’s latest wife.
Even more grotesque is the book’s disparagement of politics.
Yes, a whimsical idiot who shoots from the hip decrees, appointments and death warrants in response to accidental meetings with rival sycophants, ministers and viziers is not politically unthinkable, especially these days, and neither is genocide – but a genocide decree stemming from two courtiers’ personal conflict is not the way politics works.
Indeed, the Book of Esther brings politics down to the nadir of burlesque from the heights of drama to which the Bible raised it in the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings.
The reason is as simple as it is unspeakable: Mordecai was the first post-Zionist, and such was the future he prescribed for the Jews.
Unlike the lives of Gideon, Ehud, Saul, David or Ahab, Mordecai’s travails happen not here but abroad; and not by the rivers of Babylon, where he was forcibly exiled, but well to their east, where he journeyed voluntarily, in disregard of Persia’s invitation to the Jews to return to their land.
It was a conscious choice that was part of a system of thought, one that shrank politics to an affair where man is but a pawn in a divinely orchestrated play.
That is why Mordecai, the first person known to be called “the Jew,” is the founder of the derelict formula for national preservation while squandering the most essential national assets: land and government.
The Book of Esther effectively tells the Diaspora in its first years of existence: why should we Jews have our own homeland, power and dignity, if all it takes to keep our nation alive is one wise man at the Gentile king’s doorstep, and one pretty woman in the his bed? ‘GALUT’ – LITERALLY “exile” and figuratively the Jewish condition following Nebuchadnezzar’s sacking of Jerusalem – had three dimensions: geography, politics and mentality.
Geographically, galut meant that only a minority of the Jewish nation lived in its land, because most Jews chose to view it from afar; politically it meant that the Jews submitted to foreign rule, the way Mordecai, even after his victory, was a non-Jew’s No. 2; and mentally galut meant that at any time a critical mass of the Jewish nation was fearful of its non-Jewish surroundings.
All three dimensions are foreshadowed in the Book of Esther.
Geographically, the Jews willingly abandon their land and are described to the king as “a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm” (ibid.3:8); politically, Gentiles exploit the Jews’ self-inflicted vulnerability; and mentally, as would befit a nation captured by fear, Esther “did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her” (ibid. 2:20).
Just as the fear to state one’s Jewishness foreshadowed the future ghetto Jew’s fear of his own shadow, Mordecai’s procession from Babylonia to Persia foreshadowed the Wandering Jew, and his unnatural and disproportionate power in his master’s court foreshadowed the court Jew’s in his.
The Book of Esther, in short, is the exilic Jew’s manifesto, the root of the delusion that political weakness is actually a form of power, and that political power is a joke.
During the Holocaust, the last Jewish community to be deported was Hungary’s. Ten days before the German invasion of Hungary, thousands of unsuspecting Hungarian Jews celebrated Purim, one mere month before they arrived in Auschwitz.
On that last Purim, they still wore costumes and masks, stamped their feet when the scroll reader mentioned Haman, and silenced the children when he read the fantasy (ibid. 9:2) that exilic Jews condemned to annihilation attacked “those who sought their hurt,” so much so that “no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples.”