Nathaniel Helfgot

Misreading the Megillah

In a recent essay in the Forward, , Rabbis Amichai-Lau Lavi and Rachel Timoner (Senator Chuck Schumer’s rabbi) argue for transforming numerous customs surrounding Purim to tamp down the message of violence and  Jewish “vengeance” given that they feel emerges from the book. They are troubled by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other officials’ invocation of language that has been used to describe Hamas’s genocidal war against Israel and the evil that Amalek and Haman, a descendent of Amalek, perpetrated against our nation long ago. They are concerned that the Biblical command to King Saul to completely destroy the Amalekite nation and the story of Esther in which Haman and his minions are destroyed in battle can be used to justify the killing of innocents beyond actual Hamas terrorists. They raise the specter of the massacre of Muslim worshippers by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 on Purim and the long shadow it casts on the use of violence in the context of identifying our current enemies as Amalek. In light of these dangers, they propose a number of changes to the standard customs of the Purim holiday, some which are worthwhile in and of themselves, such as expanding our circle of who we give Mishloah Manot to, to members of other faith communities, to others such as eliminating the custom to make noise and blot out Haman’s name during the recitation of the Megillah which I think is misguided. I do not here come to evaluate the cogency of their entire argument and essay which can be debated by people of good will. I do want to comment on one line in their essay that reflects a common mistaken trope in many circles.

In the opening to their piece they assert:

After killing Haman and his 10 sons, the Jews of Persia kill 75,000 civilians, the ultimate collective punishment.
This is a misreading and inaccurate presentation of the text of Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther. The text explicitly writes in the 9th chapter that the Jews engaged and defeated “those who sought their demise- מבקשי רעתם” (Ch. 9:2), “their enemies- אויביהם” (Ch. 9:5). There is no mention that they killed “civilians” nor that they killed the “gentiles” or “Persians” in general. It is their sworn enemies, the minions of Haman that die in battle. In fact, while King Ahasheveirosh had indeed permitted the Jews to kill the women and children, mirroring Haman’s plan and decree, there is no statement in the text that the Jews in fact did so. Moreover, according to the text in Chapter 8, King Ahashevirosh could not rescind the earlier decree and so the Jews had to fight for their lives on the appointed day against their enemies who were still armed, albeit now they too were armed and could fight with the king’s permission and support.
The text also emphasizes that in contrast to Haman’s plot the Jews did not “take any spoils”. This was a war to defend and protect Jewish lives and not a massacre full of wanton slaughter and pillaging.
As the eminent Bible scholar, Professor Jonathan Grossman, notes in his outstanding volume on the Book of Esther, Esther: The Outer narrative and the Hidden Reading (Eisensbruans, 2011):
“By tallying the slain- even on the same day- when possible (Ch. 9:11) for all three battles, the narrator counterbalances any sense of indiscriminate slaughter. Instead the Jews seemed to know exactly who to kill…This also explains Esther’s request for an additional day in Shushan. A number of the enemies of the Jews and loyalists to Haman’s cause remained at large: Esther wished to take advantage of the opportunity to root them out of the kingdom.
About the Author
Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and a faculty member at the SAR High School in NYC.
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