A leader known for his excess, a politician prone to racist declarations, a woman challenging gender roles in the corridors of power, and a Jewish man challenging the political norms. This year, as we prepare for Purim and read about Achashverosh, Haman, Esther, and Mordechai, we may feel that this story from Shushan needs to be studied more thoroughly for what it can teach us. Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) is a story of political intrigue and the dangerous dealings that take place in the corridors of power; it is also a reminder of how precarious life can be in a thriving metropolis.
Over 1,500 years ago there was a debate as to whether Megillat Esther should be included in the Tanach (the Jewish Bible). The major challenge brought to bear is the absence of God from the entire story. This is one of only two books in our Canon that does not include God within it. Shir HaShirim (the Song of Songs) is a love song without God overtly mentioned, and here Megillat Esther keeps God separate from the world of politics and political intrigue. Perhaps this is the first lesson from the story reminding us that politics, by definition, is a human endeavor, and it is one with which God should not be sullied.
My feeling has always been that Megillat Esther assumes its place in the Canon as a book that teaches us about how we should be living, and simply surviving, in the Diaspora. The story makes it clear how precarious our survival is, and how we are only one act away from being viewed as a dangerous threat. Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Haman does not result in a personal punishment; instead it leads to a decree being issued against the entire community. Salvation also ultimately comes from having access to the corridors of power, and being able, in a personal way, to plead our collective case with the king so that the Jews might be saved.
Reading the story today, I am sure that for Jews in various parts of the world, it is resonating more loudly and clearly than it has for many years. Here in America we Jews might feel relatively safe from attack and assault, but with our communal experience, we must be mindful when other communities are targeted in the way that Haman targeted us. Unfortunately today it is the Muslim community that are all too often on the receiving end of these attacks and rhetoric.
We have heard the words of Haman: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people … their laws are different from those of every other people; and they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them” (Esth 3:8). Remove references to the “king” and it sounds eerily familiar to the way in which some speak of the Muslim community today. As Jews who have been on the receiving end of these attacks in the past, we must be at the forefront of those voices that stand up against racism and xenophobia.
In my youth, the classification of the characters of Purim was clear and simple; Haman was the bad guy, the villain of the piece. In contrast, we had three heroes to celebrate in the story: Vashti, who stood up for women’s rights against male oppression; Mordechai, who refused to bow down to a human authority; and Esther, who was willing to risk her life to save her people. The remaining lead, Achashverosh, was a figure to be mocked, in some ways serving as the comic relief of the piece.
Yet, we must remember that without Achashverosh as a buffoon like king, prone to excess, the rest of the story could not have advanced. He is easily swayed by his advisors so that he first expels his Queen, then signs an irreversible decree to kill all of the Jews, and then, when he is unable to reverse his previous edict, gives permission for the Jews to massacre their enemies. It is easy to focus on the wickedness of Haman, but without Achashverosh he could never have risen to the same positions of power. As we consider our leaders, it is also important to consider the company they keep and the people who have access to influence their thoughts and opinions.
One final lesson of Purim is the importance of perspective. As a carnival holiday, we dress up in costumes, wear masks to hide our true identities, and according to one tradition, we are supposed to drink until we cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” (Talmud Megillah 7b). At the end of the Megillah, as Haman is dangling from the gallows with his followers and supporters massacred, we as readers are left a little uncomfortable, and it is unclear who the real bad guys are.
While there are things that have been said in this American Presidential campaign that I find personally abhorrent, it is important not to allow ourselves to be drawn down to the lowest common denominator and to enter into the rhetoric of name-calling, prejudice, and hate. In America our political system is increasingly black and white, you are “with us or against us”, and there is little room for moderating voices in the middle. We have seen this in the Presidential primaries, and it will undoubtedly only get worse when we are left with a Republican and Democrat candidate for the Presidency. Megillat Esther reminds us of how important it is to recognize the “grey”, and to resist those forces that try to divide us along lines of “black and white”, because when that happens it can become hard to identify good and evil.