Megillat Ester, you say? But we’ve only just reached the first Adar! True, but that leaves only seven weeks to Purim—with ten chapters to the Megillah, we’re already a little behind. (From one perspective, we’re early; look a little closer, a bit late. Life.)
For this time through the Megillah, a productive first step is to consider the Talmud’s view that the Jews brought the trouble of Haman upon themselves. Before you shut off at the idea, as many of us do as soon as a troubling topic is broached, remember that we know the end of this story, and it works out great. It’s a rare opportunity to learn from a past mistake without having to tolerate consequences.
More important, it’s only by being aware of where we can go wrong that we can protect ourselves from repeating errors of our past. Our tendency to avoidance too often means we find ourselves repeating the past (yes, I know Santayana’s quip, I’m exercising great self-discipline in not quoting it). Sure, some people dwell on what we’ve done wrong as an exercise in self-castigation, but I am doing it here as a way of improving our odds of self-preservation, to increase by one the list of mistakes we know not to make.
So let’s step outside our comfort zone to contemplate how sonei Yisrael (those who hate Israel—the euphemism the Talmud uses to avoid speaking directly of the Jewish people facing destruction) of the time of the Megillah might have deserved what came their way.
Bringing It Upon Themselves
The relevant Talmudic text is Megillah 12a, where R. Shimon b. Yochai’s students ask him why the [haters of] Israel of that generation deserved destruction. He challenges them to answer their own question, and they suggest it was the Jews’ participation in the meal Ahashverosh made.
Although Bach, Orach Chayyim 670 takes the students’ idea as the essential reason for the Jews’ having been launched into the events of Purim, R. Shimon b. Yochai replies that that would only implicate the Jews of Shushan. Note that he doesn’t dismiss the idea, only its ability to fully explain our situation. Something about participating in Ahashverosh’s feast was worthy of severe punishment, even according to R. Shimon b. Yochai.
I can’t definitively say what it was, since the Gemara doesn’t clarify, but commentators suggest it was their eating prohibited foods (when there was no duress) and/or unnecessarily acting in a friendly manner towards an evildoer. Both of those are examples of the Talmud taking an action more seriously than we do today—would we today imagine that Jews’ eating at a non-kosher meal, and/or participating in a state dinner for an evil ruler, would justify our destruction?
We might jump to answer that our times are different, or that the Jews today don’t realize the ramifications of what they’re doing, but I think that makes unverified assumptions about the Jews of Shushan. It’s not the kind of issue about which we can make categorical statements, but it’s one of those places where tradition took a series of actions more seriously than we seem to today.
Bowing Down to Nevuchadnezzar’s Idol
When their teacher points out the flaw in their logic, the students prevail upon him for his answer, and he says it was because the Jews had bowed down to an idol. Rashi does not turn to the easy bowing down, Haman, even though later in the Megillah he does quote the tradition that Haman wove idols into his garments, so that bowing down to him included bowing to an idol. I think that’s because Rashi thinks the question has to have an answer that precedes the Megillah. The whole Megillah, Rashi thinks, got its start from a prior sin.
For Rashi, that was the incident in Daniel 3, where Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah refuse to bow down to Nevuchadnezzar’s idol and are thrown in a fiery furnace. The sense of the text is that they were the only ones who refused, implying that the rest of the Jews in the kingdom did bow down. (There are other ways to read that, but if there had been widespread Jewish disobedience, you’d think we’d have heard about it).
Rashi assumes it was an actual idol, meaning the Jews committed idolatry, at least outwardly. Rabbenu Tam thought Nevuchadnezzar’s statue wasn’t meant as an object of worship, and Chananyah and company refused to bow down to sanctify Hashem’s Name even where not absolutely required. That would imply, Maharsha notes, that R. Shimon b. Yochai read the rest of the Jewish people as open to destruction for failing to take advantage of an opportunity to sanctify Hashem’s Name.
I believe that, too, would be a revelation to many Jews, that one opinion holds that sanctifying Hashem’s Name can be so important that we would be punished for refusing to do so even where we weren’t completely obligated.
When the Anxiety Is the Punishment
We can’t take that line of thought too far, because the Talmud objects that the Jews didn’t mean their bowing down—they weren’t worshipping, they were yielding to the king’s power. That’s why the events of Purim only threw a good fright into them; they outwardly committed a sin, so Hashem arranged it that they would outwardly face looming disaster.
In that reading, Purim was always going to end well. But it also means that our acting wrongly, even if we don’t mean it, can bring distressing times.
Our first step in Megillat Ester is to recognize that it opens in the middle of a story, as far as R. Shimon b. Yochai and his students were concerned. The Jews were in the wrong for yielding to Nevuchadnezzar’s pressure, even if their actions were insincere. The Jews of Shushan exacerbated that by their participation in Ahashverosh’s feast, an act of joining an evildoer that could have earned them a ticket to destruction. We’ll push on to Chapter Two next week, hoping we’ve learned something about where and when we should act in Hashem’s Name.