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In self-defense of Purim

On that troubling bit in the Esther story where the Jews partake in killing, annihilating and destroying

I eagerly dread this time of year.

On the one hand, Purim, now just two weeks away, is a carnival of costumes, comedy and conviviality. Oh, and cocktails. So, fun for kids and adults.

On the other hand, its central text becomes more troubling the more you hear it. And we read Esther a lot: two times, four times, infinite times if your son happens to celebrate his bar mitzva on Purim.

Now, I hear you shaking your head (yes, I bugged your house). After all, isn’t the story of Esther one of of self-defense? Haman’s decree allows Jews to be attacked; Mordecai’s decree allows them to defend themselves, right? We assume so, but even at its inception the second decree seems a little ominous, echoing Haman’s language of killing, annihilating and destroying, including women and children. Does this sound like self-defense? “A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so that the Jews would be ready on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies” (Book of Esther, 8:13).

Perhaps it’s all just a scare tactic? If so, it works:

And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them. (8:17)

No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them. And all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them. Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful. (9:2-4)

Aye, there’s the rub. If it was all about self-defense, and everyone was terrified of them, all those “other nationalities” needed to do was NOT stride into the Jewish Quarter brandishing axes on the 13th of Adar. Just go to work or school or the movies (Iranian cinema is delightful) on that day! Instead, they circumcised themselves and jumped in the mikveh?

Now, let’s turn to Shushan, center of the action. On the 13th of Adar, 500 people are killed in the citadel, as well as Haman’s ten sons (75,000 empire-wide), without any mention of self-defense. And then (9:13):

“If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews in Shushan permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on poles.”

That would be the 14th of Adar. A day on which no one is allowed to attack Jews. And, as per another decree from Xerxes, “The Jews in Shushan came together on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and they put to death in Shushan three hundred people” (9:15). And that is why we have Shushan Purim.

So if it wasn’t self-defense, what makes these people the enemies, haters, ill-wishers and adversaries of the Jews? It’s not like they were writing nasty posts in which they spun conspiracy theories of Jews bent on taking over the Holy Land, inducing government officials to adopt antisemitic policies!

Actually, it’s exactly that, as we learn from The Book of Ezra, which is set during the return to Zion following the horrors of Babylonian captivity:

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem. And in the days of Artaxerxes… wrote a letter to Artaxerxes… “The king should know that the people who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city.” (4:4-7, 12)

Esther is, essentially, a revenge epic. It’s a story of the powerless Jews in exile finally getting a chance to turn the tables on their tormentors. It is the Persian version of Inglourious Basterds.

There seems to be quite a hunger in the Jewish community for that sort of material right now. After all, we do face legions of haters and ill-wishers. But the question we have to ask is whether we think transferring this revenge epic from parchment to pavement is really the way to go. This time, there are actual attackers with blades in their hands. Isn’t it time we focus on that reality, not the fantasy of eradicating all the haters?

At the very least, it’s a sobering thought for Purim.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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