Purim – the world’s conscience

When our conscience bothers us, there are two ways of dealing with it. One is to adhere to its voice of justice. The second way is to erase it, banish it, and eradicate its voice.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On Purim, we celebrate the miracle of the Jewish nation being saved from a planned genocide approximately 2,300 years ago. The Purim miracle happened during the time of the nation’s return to the Land of Israel following the first exile which lasted for 70 years. Haman, who was an important minister in the Persian empire and an advisor to King Achashverosh, was angry at Mordechai, a leader of the Jewish people at that time, due to the latter’s refusal to bow down before him. Haman searched for a way to take revenge on the Jewish people and received permission from King Achashverosh to act against the Jews as he pleased. He decided to kill all the Jews in one day, and sent emissaries around the entire Persian empire with a royal decree to kill all the Jews living anywhere in the empire.
In a surprising confluence of events, Esther, Mordechai’s niece, was appointed as Queen of Persia, and cleverly thwarted Haman’s scheme. Haman and his sons were hung on the gallows they had prepared for hanging Mordechai. Mordechai was appointed a minister in the kingdom and the Jews received permission from King Achashverosh to defend themselves from their enemies. The pair of words taken from Megillat Esther, “ve’nahafoch hu” (the opposite will occur), symbolizes the change which occurred in the Jews’ status, from a people whose blood was cheap to one entitled to protect and avenge itself.
This summarizes the story of the Megillah which the Jewish nation has read on the evening and morning of Purim for over 2,000 years.
But it is interesting to discover that in the past, there were researchers who claimed this could not be a historical account. One of the first biblical scholars, the German professor Julius Wellhausen, claimed that the idea of destroying a nation without a rational motive was inconceivable and ridiculous. How tragically ironic that only several decades after his claim, the Holocaust occurred, in which a third of our nation was destroyed by the Germans.
However, his claim is worthy of discussion.
What was Haman thinking? Can an official law be created that would bring about the destruction of an entire nation – men, women, and children – just because they are Jewish? We know that it is possible; indeed it happened only 70 years ago. But how could this be? How could a human being conceive of such a distorted idea? It is possible that the explanation for this is the Jewish nation’s special status among the other nations. The world has an unexplained expectation that the Jewish people will behave differently, better, more morally.
There is some hidden reason for the fact that the Jewish nation is always the “center of attention.” Wherever a Jew arrives, he will merit special treatment, sometimes discriminatory and sometimes beneficial, but always special.
This status creates obligation. Along with the fact that we are expected to do more, we also act as an ideological lighthouse for the entire world. When there is a nation from whom everyone expects more, then by virtue of its actual existence it demands that the entire world live up to a higher standard. Our worst enemies justifiably claimed that as long as the Jewish people exist no one can perpetrate injustice without feeling some pangs of conscience.
When our conscience bothers us, there are two ways of dealing with it. One is to adhere to its voice of justice. The second way is to erase it, banish it, and eradicate its voice.
This is the position in which Haman found himself 2,300 years ago. This is the position Hitler was in just decades ago. It is the same position our enemies, in various nations and throughout the generations, have always been in. Since we became a nation and an ideological lighthouse for the entire world, people have chosen one of these two paths. There are those who chose to learn from the Jewish nation, get to know its values and acquire some of them, and there are those who chose – sadly – to attempt to eradicate us.
Purim stands as a reminder for us that we have no right – and no ability – to disregard a historical fact which is still evident today, namely that we proudly stand for the values of Judaism and aspire to be a light unto the nations.
When we internalize this, and when we are ready to represent significant Jewish values – we will merit internal Purim joy that will burst out and influence all of humanity.
Happy Purim! The author is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.