Purim is hard. The way we usually deal with that
is by making it into a children’s holiday and then a frat party for the adults.
That way we don’t have to deal with the Purim story and its implications.
If we don’t want to go the children’s party/frat
party route there are two adult choices.
On the one hand, the Purim story itself is a dark
tale of dubious redemption. As the story ends, Mordecai and Esther have gained
the upper hand and slaughtered all their enemies. However, they have only done
this at the pleasure of the manipulative and manipulated King Aheuserus. While
at the beginning of the story the king gave his ring to Haman with permission
to wipe out the Jews, the story ends with the king giving the ring to Mordecai
and Esther with permission to wipe out those who might harm the Jews. The rub
is that the ring still belongs to the king. It is obvious that sometime in the
not too distant future, a new Haman will arise who will seek to destroy the
Jews and the king will give him the ring.
The rabbis of the Talmud characterized the Purim
story as happening just after the
Jews were supposed to be redeemed. Purim is the reckoning with the lack of
redemption. For this reason the fourth century Babylonian Rabbi Rava says that
one of the obligations of Purim is to get drunk to the point of being unable to
distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. In the long arc of history there is no
difference as long as Ahaseurus is in charge. We all dance to the same fiddler.
We are all caught up in the same system of oppression.
Purim is upon us. Remember Purim? For those not in the know, Purim is the next in the order of Jewish holidays which fit the meme: “they tried to kill us, they didn’t, lets eat,”—though Purim adds “and drink,”—a lot. Most Jews who celebrate Purim remember it as the story of the evil Haman who bribed the buffoonish King Ahaseurus to kill all the Jews in the Persian kingdom as a result of his rivalry with the Jewish courtier Mordecai. The story is situated in the second or third century BCE in Shushan the capital of Persia. According to most scholars the story is a myth. However, like all myths, the story seems to reflect a deep truth and it has resonated with Jews over the centuries since it reflected the fact that in many countries over time Jews had been threatened with extinction by a variety of satraps and princes and ministers and so on, and had survived against all odds.
The Purim story (told in the biblical Book of Esther) is also different insofar as the Jews not only survived but they fought back and killed those who would have killed them—and their wives and children. This fantasy of revenge must have resonated deeply for a Jewish community in the many stations of the diaspora in which they were powerless against the actual enemies who wished them actual harm.
There is however a different reading of the Book of Esther which offers the Purim narrative as a darker story which poses a different set of questions. The key to the story is a statement by a Rabbi who lived centuries after the story might have happened, in the place that it was supposed to have happened—Persia. Before we get to this statement I will summarize the story itself for those whose biblical knowledge is a bit rusty. Continue reading