Leora Kling Perkins

Shabbat Zakhor 5784

I have only ever seen one Quentin Tarantino movie. I’m not really into violent movies, and from what I know of them it’s not quite my sense of humor. I did, however, see one Tarantino film, years ago: Inglourious Basterds. I was with a group of people who decided to watch it, and I had no idea what to expect from this movie. For those of you who have never seen it, it is an alternative history, set during the holocaust, in which a group of operatives blow up a theater full of Nazis, including Hitler. When I saw this movie, I didn’t see the appeal. Apologies if you love it, but I just didn’t see it at first. It was violent, it wasn’t my style, and I didn’t find it compelling.

And then I spoke to a friend of mine, who loved it. She talked about how satisfying she found it, the idea of imagining harm inflicted on people who had caused so much death and destruction. What spoke to her about this movie was that it was a revenge fantasy. The movie told a story in which evil people are punished for their actions, in which they suffer. The movie was exaggerated, but that was the point. It wasn’t meant to be realistic. As my friend understood it, it was meant to be a fantasy, to provide catharsis.

The ninth chapter of the megillah is also a violent, bloody story, one that is told in a dramatic and exaggerated way. After King Ahashverosh expresses his support for the Jewish people, he gives the order that if anyone attacks the Jews, the Jews may fight back. And fight back they do. By the end of chapter 9, seventy five thousand people who tried to assault the Jewish people lie dead, at the hands of the Jews. We might find this part of the story incredibly distressing. It is a story of Jews doing harm to many people, and being the cause of mass death and destruction.

I have always had trouble with this chapter. Not only did I find it disturbingly violent, but at the same time it has paradoxically felt boring to me. It is super long compared to the other chapters, 32 verses, and it doesn’t move the story forward. By the time the chapter begins, Esther has already come to the King, the King has already empowered Mordechai to give a new decree protecting the Jews, and Haman has already been killed. The Jews are saved. So why do we need such a long conclusion to a story that is, basically, over? 

This year, however, I see the ninth chapter differently. While this chapter might not be needed to move the plot along, it may be meeting a certain emotional need. If we read it as a literary release of the pain that we Jews have felt through centuries of persecution, maybe we can understand the role of this part of the Purim story differently.

Megillat Esther is a story of the Jews in exile. It is the story of being vulnerable, of being a minority culture without much power, a group that is often targeted and scapegoated. In this story, the author reminds us of how vulnerable we Jews often are, and then imagines our vulnerability being flipped on its head, that we would ascend to positions of power, that our enemies would be punished in the same ways that they have attempted to harm us. The megillah is written as a dark comedy, with dramatic twists and turns.That exaggerated nature of the story might lead us to see it as a work of fiction which allows us to find catharsis in imagining the world in reverse. Some of us might find it appealing to turn to such a story, which allows us to imagine that those who would harm us, all of them, might get their just deserts.

A closer look at the megillah, however, shows us that the ninth chapter may not in fact precisely be about revenge. When the Jews fight their would-be attackers, we are told specifically that they were given permission “to fight for their lives.” And although they are given permission to fight against anyone who might harm them, whatever their age or gender, we are specifically told that they fought the men, who presumably posed the greatest threat to their safety. We are further told that the people they attacked were “מבקשי רעתם,” those who wish them ill. And the megillah makes a point of specifically telling us that the Jews did not take any spoils from the people they fought against. So we see that they showed restraint, that this story is not a description of mass annihilation, but rather a story of self defense against enemy combatants. If it is a fantasy, perhaps it is not of revenge specifically, but of justice. It is a fantasy that people who try to harm others might actually get what is coming to them.

Reading this story today, it is tempting to draw comparisons to current events. Rabbi Aviva Richman taught a class on Thursday, Taanit Esther, in which she cautioned against jumping too quickly to map the story of the megillah onto the events that we see around us in the world, while also acknowledging the power of those literary parallels. She suggests that rather than limiting our reflections to the story of the megillah, we consider a range of Jewish sources. As a particularly helpful frame, she suggested that we turn to Jewish sources about self-defense.

In Jewish law, a rodef is a person who is attacking someone. It is permitted to kill a Rodef in order to save a life. However, there are a number of midrashim, rabbinic stories about biblical figures, in which our ancestors are depicted as having tremendous anxiety about the idea of harming others, even when their own lives are at stake. 

There is a midrash from Genesis Rabbah about Jacob, at the moment when he is preparing to confront his brother Esau. In the rabbinic imagination, Jacob knows that his brother might attack him, and he knows that he might need to defend himself, perhaps with force. The Torah tells us that Jacob was anxious and frightened. The Midrash says that the Torah uses two words, because Jacob had two separate fears. “He was frightened lest he kill, and distressed lest he be killed.” At the same moment, in other words, he feared both for himself, and for his brother’s safety, even though his brother is the person he was afraid of.

What feels compelling about this story is that Jacob is in a complicated place. He is scared, he is in danger, and he might be justified in fighting back. And, at the same time, he is concerned for his attacker. He doesn’t want to harm him, and he fears that he might.

I don’t know if the author of the megillah felt bad about the people who were harmed in the ninth chapter. I tend to think they didn’t. I tend to think that the author of the megillah was much more focused on the precariousness of their situation as a persecuted minority, and that the violence at the end of the megillah is there to meet a psychological need for vindication, to imagine a world where we Jews end up on top. But even in the exaggeration, in leaning into that fantasy, they did hold back. They made a point of stating that the fighting was in self-defense, and that they only attacked the people who wished them harm. 

It is hard to be like Jacob, to worry about the well-being of those who are out to harm us. When taken to an extreme, that attitude can be dangerous, if we fail to stand up for ourselves, and to protect ourselves. And yet, I think there is something admirable about his perspective. He knew that he was ready to defend himself, and yet he desperately hoped he would not need to. 

It may feel hard to enter the joyful space of Purim this year, with so much pain in the world. On the one hand, Israel is suffering. The hostages are still in Gaza. Soldiers are at war, and are dying and being injured regularly. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. And in Gaza, there is so much death, and starvation, and suffering. Regardless of fault, it is still awful to hear about the tremendous distress that the people there are experiencing. And here, we fight increasing antisemitism, and a sense that we Jews might not really have as many allies as we thought.

We may see ourselves in the Purim story this year in many ways. Maybe we connect this year to the third chapter of the megillah, where Haman identifies the Jewish people as different from everyone else, and worthy of annihilation. Maybe the story of Jewish vulnerability particularly stands out for us this year. Maybe the ninth chapter is the one that stands out for us. Maybe we might long for such a decisive end to people harming us. Or maybe we see the ninth chapter as a cautionary tale, of what happens when fighting back goes too far. Or maybe we relate to the fifth chapter, when Esther approaches the king for the first time, when the fate of the Jewish people hangs in the balance, when nobody knows how the story will end.

Whichever piece of this story calls to us the most this year, I think the megillah, and our tradition, does offer a way forward. In the Times of Israel, Erica Brown wrote a piece about the elements of the holiday of Purim that most speak to her this year. She wrote, among other things, about the mitzvah of mishloah manot, sending treats to our friends. No matter what is going on in the world around us, we can always remember to look out for others. She writes “ The best antidote to hate is the gift of our affections. Each small Purim present is a small affirmation that says wars may come and go, but it is friendship that will steady our days and make them worthwhile.” 

May we all be blessed to mark this holiday with people we care about, and to know that no matter what challenges we face, we face them together.

Shabbat Shalom, and Purim Sameah.

About the Author
The Assistant Rabbi at Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, Rabbi Leora Kling Perkins is deeply committed to building and sustaining flourishing Jewish communities inspired by the Jewish tradition. Originally from Needham, MA, Rabbi Kling Perkins is a graduate of Brandeis University and earned rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.
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