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Steven Bayar

A new lens on Purim

Post-October 7, I will break with my personal tradition and drink on Purim.

There are many reasons to drink on Purim. Yes, we are commanded to be merry, but there are other ways to celebrate. At its heart, Purim presents a series of contradictions defying explanation.

It’s not just that the two heroes of the story are named after foreign gods. That Mordechai (Marduk) and Esther (Ishtar) are the main characters suggest a very assimilated community. Imagine the book Exodus, by Leon Uris, with its two main Jewish characters named Jesus and Mary. In the book of Esther, appearances are deceiving.

Chapter Three shows the confrontation when Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman. But the first two chapters inform us how Mordechai puts in place (saving the king from assassination and Esther’s ascension to the throne) that which will doom Haman in the end. The entire book is a set-up of Haman.

And since the book is focused on the political machinations that cause Haman’s downfall, no one questions how Mordechai’s refusal to bow down is contra to Jewish law and practice. For Jews are allowed to bow down out of respect. They cannot bow down to false gods.

We know that Haman did not claim to be a god — at the very least it would have angered King Achashuerosh. The Midrash tries to justify this action (or inaction) by claiming that Haman had an idol around his neck (a detail not mentioned in the text) and Mordechai would not commit idolatry.

It seems the Midrash seeks to justify Mordechai’s actions. Why? Because Mordechai’s refusal was contra to Jewish law: he put the entire Jewish world at risk because he wanted to get rid of Haman and his sons. What if he misstepped? What if he had lost?

Perhaps for that reason, Esther takes over from Chapter Five onward. In the first chapters, Esther has no voice. But when Mordechai threatens her life when she refuses to go before the king, she finds one. From that point on, Esther determines the strategy and finishes the job.

In this admittedly modern interpretation, Esther recognizes that Mordechai started strong but couldn’t finish. Perhaps it was his ego (not bowing down to Haman) or perhaps it’s his attempt to become powerful (and take Haman’s place). In any event, Mordechai must cede power to Esther. She is the more capable one.

And perhaps that is why we drink. Purim was a close call for all the wrong reasons. And Amalek (the implacable enemy of Israel) was not destroyed. We still lived with persecution.

I think of Mordechai in this way when I look at Netanyahu. October 7 showed that we needed a leader who was willing to ignore everything in order to destroy our modern day Amalek. But, as we come to the close, it seems more and more apparent that he can’t focus on “what comes next.”

We should not forget that the Israeli unpreparedness for the massacre was in great part due to Netanyahu’s efforts to remain in power.

There is a reason that the text we read on Purim is named after Esther and not Mordechai. You cannot claim the honor of vanquishing Amalek when you facilitated the problem in the first place.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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