My musings on Purim and genocide began when a friend of mine wrote me in an email that he felt his main duty on Purim was to “heal the Megillah.” Right away, being the good rabbinic Jew that I am, and also a lover of the scroll of Esther, I became defensive. I assumed that what he meant was what we read as almost a postscript, after the intricate drama of Haman’s downfall – the part where the Jews massacre tens of thousands of their enemies.
First of all, I said to him, you have to realize that the real tragedy of the megillah is that it foreshadows the Holocaust. I had once heard Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach, Shlomo’s twin brother, talk about “Haman’s thought and intention,” which Ahashveroush tells Mordechai and Esther that he cannot expunge, because a decree that has been signed and sealed by the king cannot be withdrawn. This thought – to murder all Jews – blew down through the generations and eventually reached Germany in the 20th century.
Compare it to the Nazis, I said. All the Jews in a vast kingdom were to be killed in one day. That means that there must have been a highly organized militia dedicated to this purpose. The king tells the Jews that he cannot revoke the decree – he can only allow them to fight back. Its kill or be killed. In fact, it seems to me, the massacre of Haman’s legions is a security need of Ahashverosh. Now that he has moved against Haman, he cannot allow his armed supporters to live. The Jews, I implied, had no choice.
But then I realized he was right. Genocides and massacres have continued to be perpetrated throughout the second half of the twentieth century and into the new millennium. There is Cambodia (75-79) and Rwanda(94), Darfur (ongoing) and Bangladesh (1971, Burundi 1972-2005) Biafra (1967-70 and Indonesia (65-66), massacres of Iraqi Kurds (88) and Iraqi Shiites (91), unfortunately many more.
It is terrifying and disheartening to think about the persistence of genocide and massacres in our times. Yet we also have the opportunity to learn and be inspired by the way that some countries and some extraordinary individuals have acted in their wake. In both Burundi and Rwanda, where Tutsis and Hutus took turns killing each other for decades, truth and reconciliation policies in Rwanda and power sharing agreements in Burundi have, at least on the surface of things, put a stop to the cycle of revenge. In South Africa too – although things are far from perfect – the truth and reconciliation commission preempted black vengeance for decades of massacres at the hand of the army and police. And going back further, to the partition of India, Gandhi succeeded to a great extent in preventing in Bengal the scale of massacres between Hindus and Muslims that happened in the Punjab, on both sides of the Pakistani-Indian border
So maybe there is another way. Maybe we do need to heal the megilla (although in a Purim twist, the friend who e-sparked my musings has written me that he intended to write hear the megilla, not heal the megilla).
It seems to me that the Jews had to massacre their enemies back then. But we can at least hope and pray that this may no longer be the case; that at the very least, there might be another way.