In these difficult times, I’ve been doing a lot of learning.
I work from home – which can be isolating – and Jewish texts have been my companion these last ten (!) days. I engage with them – sometimes well into the night – and, every once in a while, they provide solace by answering a question, offering advice or providing guidance.
One such example occurred just before last Shabbat. In discussing the situation in Israel with a non-Jewish colleague, I somehow wandered back to the education of my youth and the two major Rabbinic Jewish holidays – Chanukah and Purim. I explained that, traditionally, these two holidays celebrate the salvation of the Jewish people, but from very different threats. Chanukah, it is said, was an attempt to destroy the Jewish people spiritually, by assimilating them into Hellenistic culture and uprooting religion; Purim, on the other hand, was an attempt to physically annihilate the Jews.
In context, what we are experiencing now is very much a Purim story, so I opened up Megilat Esther and began reviewing the story that I’ve heard and read so many times over my life.
At first, what I noticed did not surprise me. Then, as now, a Persian (Iranian) leader gave support to an evil entity (Haman = Hamas?). This entity proceeded to plan a secret attack on the Jewish people and encouraged all of his people and others throughout the empire to join in. The day chosen was random, unknown to the Persian leader so that he could deny any responsibility for an order signed in his name.
And while the analogy sadly breaks down a bit here (the plot was not uncovered in time) the epilogue picks it up again with vigor, and what it says caught me completely off guard.
For when Esther revealed Haman for what/who he was and Achashveirosh had him hanged from the gallows, the king next offered Esther “up to half the kingdom”. Esther initially asked that the official order for the genocide of the Jewish people be rescinded, but Achashveirosh would/could grant her that request. Instead, he gave her and Mordechai the royal signet and had them write whatever law they wished to the entire kingdom.
And what was the law that was passed on that day? That all of the Jews in the Persian empire could arm themselves and defend themselves against their attackers when the first order (that of Haman’s decree that all of the empire rise up to kill the Jews) went into effect.
Immediately following the issuance of this second decree, the Megilat Esther writes:
לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר (אסתר ח:טז)
For the Jews there was light and gladness, happiness and honor (Esther 8:16)
Huh? What? That’s not how I remembered the story! I thought Purim was a holiday that celebrated the defeat of our enemies?!? Why would the author of Esther place these words here, before any actual salvation was achieved? Why insert these words before recollecting the actual battle between the Jews of Persia and their enemies?
The answer is obvious. What was being celebrated back then was not the defeat of their enemies, but the permission to defend themselves against attack.
Today, Israel seeks the same from the international community. Behind the IDF, Israel will defend itself from its enemies and should be allowed to do so.