Paradigm of Exile: A Pre-Purim Thought
The Megillah (the Biblical book of Esther) at first glance appears to be a straightforward account of the events that led up to Haman’s death and the ensuing victory of the Jews over their enemies. If we look at it more closely, however, there is much in the book from which we can gain insight not only into the events that are the book’s subject, but as a paradigm reflecting the Jewish experience during our many centuries of exile. One example of the Megillah’s paradigmatic nature comes near the end — Chapter 10, to which many of us pay scant attention because we’ve already passed the last mention of Haman.
For context, let’s start by looking briefly at Chapters 8 and 9, which together tell the story of the Jews’ defeat of their enemies after Haman’s execution. Chapter 7 ended with Haman’s death at the king’s command, and chapter 8 tells the story of Mordechai’s and Esther’s attempts to persuade the king to save the Jews from the fate Haman sought for them. The king is sympathetic, but there’s a problem: “[a]n edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked.” (Esther 8:8). Mordechai overcomes this obstacle by obtaining from the king a new decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves and kill their enemies with impunity.
Chapter 9 speaks of the events that follow the king’s new decree. It recounts the Jews’ success in defeating and killing their enemies throughout the provinces of the Persian empire. It then goes on to explain in some detail the origin of the Purim holiday through which we celebrate this victory.
But wait — once Haman was dead, where did these enemies come from? The earlier part of the Megillah depicts Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews as resulting from a fit of personal pique at Mordechai’s refusal to show him sufficient deference. Haman’s oversized ego leads him to make critical mistakes that Mordechai and Esther exploit to bring about his downfall and execution. So why did anyone, after Haman’s death, seek to fulfill his murderous intent?
The Megillah doesn’t say. Apparently, it was taken for granted that the Jews always had a sufficient supply of enemies. Chapter 9 wraps up the Purim story, by telling of the Jewish victory over these unnamed enemies (which took an extra day in Shushan, the capital) and Queen Esther’s subsequent command to commemorate that victory by celebrating Purim each year. That appears to be the natural end of the story.
But the Megillah doesn’t end there. It goes on into Chapter 10, which appears to have little to do with the events that went before it:
King Ahasuerus imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands. All his mighty and powerful acts, and a full account of the greatness to which the king advanced Mordechai are recorded in the Annals of the kings of Media and Persia. For Mordechai the Jew ranked next to King Ahasuerus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred (Esther 10:1-3, JPS translation)
The three verses that make up this chapter raise an obvious question: what are they doing here? They have little or nothing to do with the story that is the focus of the rest of the Megillah. This chapter begins by reporting on the king’s tax collection, and then proceeds to praise the king’s exploits, mentioning in passing his conferral of a high position on Mordechai. The third verse of this chapter — the final verse of the book — mentions Mordechai, emphasizing his subordination to the king and describing his relationship with his fellow Jews. After the stirring story told in the rest of the book, this chapter would seem to be anticlimactic.
The backdrop to the story told by the Megillah is underscored by a well-known but often underemphasized fact: God’s name appears nowhere in the Megillah. Surely this doesn’t mean that Mordechai and Esther failed to recognize God’s hand in the events related there — especially of the king’s well-timed bout of insomnia. But the Jews of that period, though they needed and were no doubt grateful for divine assistance, could not rely on it. The age of the nes niglah (overt miracle) was over They had to conduct themselves as if they were on their own and had to depend only on their own wits. That was how Queen Esther devised the plot that defeated Haman, and it was how Mordechai figured out how to get around the inviolability of royal decrees.
The tenth chapter of the Megillah shows that the instinct for surviving through cleverness was not a one-time product of an existential challenge. It was a way of life. The first verse, which contains no mention of Mordechai, is careful to attribute the tax collecting efforts (which presumably were unpopular, as taxes usually are) to the king alone. This is in stark contrast to Joseph, the other Biblical figure who attained a similar position in the leading nation of his day. When Joseph seized the people’s land on behalf of Pharaoh (Gen. 47:13-26), he made no effort to attribute responsibility for the seizure to the king, its beneficiary. Rather, he was only too willing to take responsibility on himself:
Then Joseph said to the people: Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields, and as food for you and those in your household, and as nourishment for your children.(Gen. 47:23-25)
Although the right to one firth of each year’s harvest belonged to Pharaoh, and Joseph acted for Pharaoh’s benefit, from the people’s point of view, it was Joseph who took advantage of their desperation. Not surprisingly, when the “new king” who pretended not to know of Joseph’s accomplishments, turned on his descendants and their brethren and sought to enlist the Egyptian people, he found them to be willing accomplices.
It appears from chapter 10 that Mordechai may have understood and was determined not to repeat Joseph’s mistake. He may have advised the king as to his collection of the tribute, but he was careful not to take public responsibility for it as Joseph had. In chapter 10 the king is the active figure — which is somewhat ironic considering that throughout the Megillah, the king almost never acts on his own but only at the suggestion of his advisors.
The dilemmas faced by both Joseph and Mordechai contain a familiar paradigm of Jewish history through the centuries of exile. Jews, who were often better educated than those among whom they lived, frequently rose to positions of significant influence. Rulers often relied on them and — when they no longer had need of them — often allowed the peasantry to make the Jews the scapegoats of choice. Those Jews who, like Mordechai and Joseph, attained high positions had always to be careful to serve the ruler without provoking the populace. It was a difficult — and frequently dangerous — balancing act.
In a sense then, chapter 10, far from being an anticlimax, is the essence of the Purim story. Purim is the quintessential holiday of galut (exile). It is the story of how we managed to survive through the centuries of exile, strangers in someone else’s land The Purim miracle, though essential in its time, was, as the struggle for survival in Diaspora lands always is, necessarily incomplete and temporary. It’s a struggle that must frequently be joined, a battle that must often be refought. Our continued ability to refight that battle is surely worth celebrating.
Simchat Purim — a joyous Purim to all.