Ignoring (Fortunately) the Dark Message of Purim
Binfol oivecha al tismach uvikashlo al gagel libecha / Don’t rejoice when your opponent falls or have a happy heart when he suffers.
Mishley (Proverbs) 24:17
Ihm ra’av sonacha ha’achilehu lechem v’ihm tzameh hashkehu miyim / When your enemy is hungry feed him bread and when thirsty give him water.
Mishley (Proverbs) 25:21
Ayzehu gibor?Ha’oseh son’no ohavo / Who is a hero? One who can turn his enemies into friends.
Avot D’Rabi Natan 23
If I had a song,
I’d sing it in the morning
I’d sing it in the evening
All over this land
I’d sing out danger,
I’d sing out a warning
I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land. “If I Had a Hammer,” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays
Don’t step out of the house if that’s the clothes you’re gonna wear
I’ll kick you out of my home if you don’t cut that hair
Your mom busted in and said, “What’s that noise?”
Aw, mom you’re just jealous it’s the Beastie Boys!
You gotta fight for your right to party!
“Fight For Your Right” by Rick Rubin, Adam Yauch, and Adam Horovitz, The Beastie Boys
This month we celebrate Purim. Purim is of course noted for silliness. We drink, joke, sing, and make merry, all while garbed in outrageous costume. Typically, even as adults, most people only retain the most superficial understanding of this holiday that they received as children during their Hebrew School days.
The story goes: “Once upon a time there was a king who had a dispute with the queen and got rid of her. The king was lonely and had a beauty contest to pick a new queen. A Jewish girl named Esther was the winner, but the king didn’t know she was Jewish. The king had an official named Haman. Haman was mad at Esther’s uncle Mordechai because he wouldn’t bow to him, and so Haman wanted to kill all the Jews. Mordechai convinces Esther to reveal to the king that she is Jewish. She does what her uncle asks at a private party for her, the king, and Haman; the king becomes angry at Haman; and Haman and his evil sons are hanged on the gallows they built to hang the Jews. Happy, happy, happy.”
While even this watered down version of this ahistorical drama is quite bizarre, many elements of the actual story are usually overlooked. The fact that often the only exposure to Megillat Esther most have is during the Megillah reading and the awkward and stilted English translation in the pamphlets we use (similar to the Hertz Chumash) make comprehension almost impossible.
There are numerous dark aspects to this “fun story.” Ahashverous, the king, has his wife Vashti murdered because she refuses to provide erotic entertainment for his friends. Following her murder, a new law is made declaring that the husband is to be the wife’s master and his language will be the language spoken in the home—a reflection of the fact that ancient Persia had numerous ethnic minorities (including Jews of course). A new virgin “queen” is forcibly plucked from the populace. The king, Ahashverous, agrees to Haman’s plan to murder the Jewish population. He is so much in agreement that he gives his consent after magnanimously turning down a huge bribe of silver from Haman to do so. The king’s change of heart is only due to an infatuation he develops for Esther; there is no hint of moral development that leads to him switching sides. Following Esther’s clever manipulation of Ahashverous, he turns on Haman and has him and his sons impaled on the stakes Haman has prepared for Mordechai and other Jews. The king then gives Mordechai the power to take revenge on his enemies. Mordechai has the Jews organized and armed, and in a couple of days they slaughter over 75,000 of their enemies.
The mind-set of this story is so “Middle Eastern” that if one removes the Jews as the victorious protagonists and the constant imbibing of alcoholic beverages, which Islam forbids (ancient Persians were big drinkers; the wine Shiraz is named after a city in Iran), the story could have been composed in Iran or numerous Arab countries today. The occurrence of brutal misogynistic behavior, a despotic, capricious, narcissistic king, ethnic cleansing, and widespread massacres in revenge are all taken for granted in this story and go without critical comment.
Megillat Esther was never originally supposed to be regarded as a Jewish holy scripture. God is never mentioned even once. The names of the protagonists Esther and Mordechai are corruptions of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar and god Marduk. This was once an entertaining Persian legend that came back with the Jews from the Babylonian exile as was the drunken festival that became known as Purim. As the story and festival were too popular to prohibit, they were co-opted and Judaized into the Megillat Esther and holiday Purim we respectively read and celebrate today. Many rabbinical commentaries and customs of celebration have fortunately distanced us far from the ugly messages that Purim originally embraced.
Today, with all of the persecution and hatred directed at the State of Israel and Jews throughout the world, some may want to identify our enemies as “Hamans” and desire to embrace the message of celebratory revenge and violence. While Megillat Esther is part of our TNaKH (an inclusion that was controversial; in the Talmud in Mesechet Shabbat it is discussed how, unlike a Sefer Torah, a Megillah scroll has no holiness), there are so many writings, such as those cited on the previous page, that actually have a much more beautiful message. We should just use Purim as a time and excuse for uninhibited fun. Let’s embrace
only positive and healing messages from our rich and varied traditions.
Purim Samayach! B’Shalom,