From ‘what,’ not from ‘whom,’ were the Jews rescued in the Purim saga?

The Purim story is about the rescue of the Jewish people who were in exile in ancient Persia. But the question is not from whom they were rescued but from what. To believe that it was simply a rescue from physical annihilation is to misunderstand the story entirely.

There is no mention of G-d in the Book of Esther, because His hand is invisible. There are no voices from heaven, no fire and brimstone, no plagues, no turning a teeming city into a lake of salt water, no splitting of seas.

Reading the Megillah may take but a half hour. However the saga takes place over the course of many years. It is only in retrospect that its chain of seemingly disconnected events and episodes emerge as a single, coherent story.

The Megillah begins with the need to replace a rebellious Queen Vashti after she refuses to honor her husband Ahasuerus’ call for an appearance before a huge, drunken orgy whose guests included, yes, even Jews. One suspects the caterer did not have a kosher endorsement.

Vashti is summarly dispatched, and the bereft monarch starts searching for a replacement – a long, drawn out, nationwide endeavor to identify the loveliest virgins and subject them to an intense, prolonged beautification program. Only then can these candidates be trotted out before the widower king so that he might choose his new consort. One can compare this to the Miss America or Miss Universe pageants in which girls from the farthest reaches and often lower strata of society are subjected to years of preparation and beautification before donning their swimsuits and strutting before the judges for a shot at the crown.

Mordecai, named after a pagan Persian god called Marduk, pushes his niece Esther, named for a pagan Mesopotamian goddess called Ishtar, to enter the competition. Yes, Mordecai is Jewish but clearly so assimilated that he doesn’t hesitate to influence his niece to become the wife of a pagan king. At that moment there seems to be no hostility toward the Jewish community, a community which had assimilated so rapidly and so completely it could name is children after Marduk and Ishtar. Sort of like Jews in more modern times calling their boys Peter and their girls Mary.

Clearly this was a Jewish community doomed to oblivion. One more generation and they would be so integrated into the indigenous social fabric there would be nothing left of their own identity and traditions.

Mordecai was no prophet. He did not inveigle his niece into the beauty competition because he foresaw the rise of Haman and his plan to annihilate a Jewish community already on the cusp of self-inflicted cultural annihilation. That Mordecai would spend his time lurking about the royal palace indicates that he had his own ambitions, hoping to find favor with the royal court and enjoy a plum appointment. Clearly he was not sitting in a beit midrash learning Torah.

The situation is eerily similar to pre-war Germany and Central Europe where Jews were so assimilated, the only thing Jewish about them was their grossly disproportionate representation in the legal profession. They saw themselves as Germans in every respect. One could say that a yekke was a German who other Germans saw as Jewish.

A situation like this is the perfect incubator for the virus of anti-Semitism. For, while the Jews may see themselves as Persian or German, there will always be those Persians or Germans who do not, and who resent the success of their nearly (or entirely) ex-Jewish neighbors.

Mordecai was that sort of Jew. Haman was that sort of Persian.

When Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, the Holocaust match is lit. To Haman’s thinking, how dare an uppity Jew consider himself a bona fide Persian? To Mordecai’s thinking, why should he show obeisance to a Persian of equal social status? Haman hated Mordecai because he believed that no Jew should ever have been accepted as a member of Persian society, let alone as a hanger-on at the royal court.

Fortunately, by then, Esther had already been well ensconced as the prima donna in the harem. The denouement of the story we know very well.

But we miss the point entirely.

Because the miracle of Purim was not the physical rescue of Persian Jewry. No, the miracle was the spiritual re-awakening of the pagan Mordecai when the coin finally dropped and he came to grips with the fact that he was, after all a Jew. Mordecai’s Mardukian moniker notwithstanding, it could take only a Haman and a handful of his cronies to engineer the annihilation of all Jews, regardless of how Persian they may have seen themselves. And, paradoxically, it would only be through reconnecting to their Jewishness that they might be saved.

It is to Mordecai’s great credit that he had this epiphany and the subsequent courage to enlist his niece in the thwarting of Haman’s plot. He achieved this by persuading many of his fellow Persian Jews to reconnect to who they really were – something every native Persian had no problem seeing – and turning to their own, nearly forgotten G-d in supplication

The ultimate miracle was precisely that – the dis-assimilation of Persian Jews and their reclaiming their heritage. It was this that made it possible for them to return from exile to the Land of Israel. In fact Mordecai is not the only hero of this story. Haman is just as important. For without his hatred and refusal to accept the assimilation of Jews into Persian society the Babylonian exile and oblivion would have been permanent and total.

We Jews have a remarkable ability to assimilate into our host cultures in record time, and rise to the very top of the game – be it in the professions, politics, sciences or the arts (less so in athletics). Besotted by ambition and success we cavalierly scuttle our own culture and heritage only to find ourselves targeted because of our delusions of sameness.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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