Sunday, February 24, 2013

Contemporary Purim Reflections 5773/2013

As we celebrate Purim, I have been thinking about how radically different our experience of Purim is here in Israel in 2013, when contrasted with that of my ancestors who lived in Europe (Poland, Germany) only one-hundred years ago. I will try to explain and fully articulate this sentiment.

1. From Powerlessness to Sovereign Power

One insight that comes into focus in the Megilla is surely the dependence of the Jews upon the foreign power that hosts them and thus the fragility of their existence in Galut.

Let us begin with the closing lines of the Megilla:

"And King Ahasuerus imposed a tax upon the land and on the isles of the sea. And all the acts of his power and his might and the full account of Mordecai's greatness, how the king advanced him-are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia? For Mordecai the Jew was viceroy to King Ahasuerus … seeking the good of his people…"

What is the purpose of these lines? Why mention the tax? What else do we observe here? Rav Yoni Grossman suggests that this section drives home the fact that when ultimately, despite the victory of Esther and Mordechai, all the prestige and power of Mordechai is framed within the context of the Persian government. The REAL power is held by Achashverosh; he can even impose taxes upon the far-flung islands. Note too how Mordechai's greatness is recorded specifically in the Chronicles of Media and Persia. This notion of "chronicles of kings", of "Divrei Hayamim," is quite familiar from our Tanakh, where our history is recorded in the "Chronicles of the kings of Israel and Judah." In this vein Rav Yoni Grossman comments:

"… the reader who recalls the kings of Israel and of Judah, in light of this expression, cannot but dwell on the chasm separating the kingdom of Achashverosh from the kingdom of Israel in its own land; the chasm separating the "Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia" and the "Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel/Judah." In other words, the whole story narrated in Esther is the story of the Persians; it is the story of Achashverosh and his kingdom! This expression is, to a large extent, a biting one specifically because of its inclusion at the end of the story. The narrator is telling his readers, as it were: "When all is said and done, the exile is still the same exile; the king is the same king, and the Jews of Shushan remain where they are. This is not really a story about the Jews. Even if they played an important role in the plot, all in all this was nothing but an episode in the story of the Persians, the ‘kings of Media and Persia.'"

Yoram Hazony takes this a stage further in his book, "The Dawn,"
To live in a society ruled by others means that the government and the laws are not the product of a Jewish concern for the general public interest, and that they are certainly not the result of an interest in the well-being of the Jews as a nation; that Jewish intellectual endeavors are under constant pressure, whether overt or implicit, to conform to alien norms; and that Jewish leadership, if it is capable and effective, is perpetually viewed with a certain measure of suspicion and even fear-both by the community of non-Jews, and by members of the Jewish community concerned that Jewish success may be interpreted by the gentiles as a challenge to their authority.

So what I am saying is that essentially, the Purim story is a story of temporary salvation, of real danger which is averted by political manipulation.

How do we view this from a modern Israeli perspective, from the vantage point of Jewish sovereign self-governance?

The modern Israeli is disdainful of this Galut existence in which we fail to determine our national future. Israeli's don't want to be dancing to anyone else's tune. To an Israeli ear, in an era where Israelis have an army to protect them, and will fight openly and proudly against our foes, the Megilla sounds too much like an expression of powerlessness, vulnerability, and dependence on foreign favor.

2. Jewish Violence: From Fantasy to Danger

At most moments during our 2000 year of global wanderings, the Purim story in which Jews actually killed their enemies, was absolutely unrealistic. Rabbi Daniel Landes recently described it as a comic fantasy in which Jews get their vengeance on their most feared oppressors. However, I doubt that their were any Jews in the past 2000 years who harboured genuine plans of killing thousands of the anti-Semites who threatened them. The mitzvah to wipe out Amalek was entirely theoretical, and represented a idealized fight against forces of evil, something that we could philosophize about , and we were unlikely to enact.

And suddenly, we have Medinat Yisrael. We have weapons; we have the most powerful military in the Middle East. We really can kill our enemies. And now, how shall we relate to the mitzvah of Amalek? Now, a mitzvah that calls for vengeance and killing, a festival that celebrates avenging our enemies – this becomes dangerous stuff, especially after the Baruch Goldstein massacre. The notion of Amalek when abused will have devastating impact, and hence, Purim must be accompanied by caution, and our discussions of Amalek must be regulated and qualified.


One hundred years ago, a Jew in Poland or Russia, or Morocco, may have identified with the Shushan reality as not that different from his own. The paradigms were familiar. Purim is the quintessential holiday of survival in exile, repeated time after time around the diaspora.

Purim in Israel today then, is radically different from one-hundred years ago. We engage it in a manner unknown to our Galut forebears. And in that case, we have to wonder about the message that Purim can offer us here and now. What is the message that Purim should communicate?

Here are some thoughts that occur to me:

  • The Persistence of Jew hatred. We need to use Purim to remind ourselves of how – from Haman to Hitler, from Aquinas to Ahaminajad - Jew-hatred is alive and well. It is irrational, but extremely deadly. We would do well to fight it whenever it raises its ugly head.
  • The Impermanence of Stability. The analysis that I gave above, suggested that life in Shushan, to an Israeli ear, sounds impossibly vulnerable. However, even in an era of statehood and Jewish power, we need to recall that stability is never permanent, and that despite the illusions of security, the situation can turn dire at any given moment. Possibly Shushan is closer than we think. We should never get too overconfident.
Of course, there are many other messages within the Megilla itself. If you have anything to add, please do so in the comments below.

Purim Sameach!