Tag Archives: Purim

Commentary for Purim

17 Mar

We often think of Purim as holiday about individuals. All of the major turning points in the story essential boil down to whatever decision King Achashverosh’s whims guide him to make at the time. His decisions are certainly influenced at different times by the actions of Ester, Mordechai, Haman, (and a few others), but even those actions are all undertaken and performed by each of those people as individuals. Similarly, Haman’s decision to bribe Achashverosh to allow him to annihilate the Jews is motivated by the actions of one single Jew among the crowd, Mordechai, refusing to bow to him.

 

What Purim really is, however, is a story about the power of individuals within the group. Haman was one of Achashverosh’s top advisors, but he was certainly not his only advisor. Any of the others could have come forward and tried to convince Achashverosh that authorizing the genocide of the Jewish People was a bad idea, using whatever angle- moral, financial, political- they thought would most appeal to the king. But none of them did, and so the decree went unopposed until Ester stepped up to plead with the king. In his role as king over the subjects of the Persian Empire, Achashverosh shows his ability to unite his subjects- as seen in the lavish party that dominates the first chapter of the megilah, to which representatives of all peoples and lands were invited to make merriment together- or to enable their worst inner demons by inviting them to participate in a genocide which chapter nine shows that they were all too eager to participate in, even with the knowledge that the Jews were now authorized to fight back.

 

On the Jewish side we see Ester get a lot of credit (and deservedly so) for saving the Jews, but if each individual Jew does not personally echo Ester’s question in 8:6, “For how can I passively witness the evil is going to befall my people, and how can I passively witness the destruction of my kindred?” and make the decision to take up arms and defend themselves, then the king’s decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves will not matter because they will not have the forces necessary to prevent the slaughter. The story of Purim is not just one about how our choices affect ourselves, but about they affect those around us as well.

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Commentary for Purim

25 Mar

The story of Purim has four major characters. There is Haman: a devious villain bent on genocide. Then we have Mordechai and Ester: the brave hero and heroine of our story, who risk their lives to stand up for and save their people. Finally, we have Achashverosh: King of all one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of Persia, who generally appears to be a complete and total doofus, unfit to be king of his own block, much less the most powerful empire on the planet.

As a leader, Achashverosh is, to put it mildly, irresponsible. Examining the scene where Haman proposes to Achashverosh that the Jews should be killed (Ester 3:8-11), we get a dialogue that can be summed up as follows: Haman says “There are these people who live in your kingdom who never follow your rules and who have different customs than everyone else. I will pay you ten thousand pieces of silver if you let me kill them all for you.” And Achasherverosh simply responds “okay.”

Setting aside the obvious moral abhorrence of genocide, a responsible leader would have at least done some research to try to determine if anything Haman was saying was true, and whether or not it was financially and politically worthwhile to eradicate the Jews. Are the Jews really disobeying the laws of the kingdom at every turn? Would eradicating the Jews in all of Persia wind up costing the royal treasury more money in lost tax revenues than Haman was offering to pay? Does eradicating the Jews set a bad precedent that might cause other minority groups to rebel, fearing for their own safety? Achashverosh considers none of this. He gives Haman the green light without a moment’s thought. Later, when he does decide to reverse the decision, he does not do so because he has found evidence that Haman’s statements are untrue (in fact, in chapter four, when he is presented with evidence that Mordechai the Jew saved him from an assassination attempt, Achashverosh orders that Mordechai be honored as a hero of the state, but does nothing to repeal the decree of legalized genocide which would leave this same hero of the state dead). Nor does he overturn the decree because it would not be politically or financially beneficial to the kingdom. He doesn’t even overturn the decree because he had a moral epiphany and came to the conclusion that genocide is wrong. He repeals the decree against the entire Jewish People simply because he finds out that his wife is a Jew, and in his mind, once this affects him, then it becomes a problem.

It’s safe to say that responsibility, either moral or financial, is not Achashverosh’s strong suit. In fact, determining what exactly is Achashverosh’s strong suit is something of a challenge. He is unique among Biblical characters in that he is the only one who is portrayed almost completely as a fool. Other characters have acted mistakenly or foolishly (such as those who rebel against God), but no one else is portrayed as being little more than a drunken, bumbling idiot.

His drunkenness- or at least his love of drinking and partying- is the trait most identified with him. The Megilah starts by describing two, back-to-back elaborate parties he held, lasting a combined total of one hundred and eighty-seven days. It seems that planning elaborate parties was the only thing he was good at.

While this section is necessary from a narrative perspective (telling the tale of the old queen’s expulsion, thus setting the stage for Ester’s ascent), the extreme amount of detail (what dishes were used, what color were the decorations, who sat where, etc.) that the text goes into about the party seems completely unnecessary. The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that all of these little details were, in fact, necessary, because they teach us to the following lesson which we can learn from Achashverosh’s example: “When a person is involved in an endeavor, his achievements must be equal to his abilities.” Everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Your performance should be measured not against how well others did, but by how much of your potential you fulfilled.

Commentary for Purim

6 Mar

Purim is known as a holiday about distorting reality. Esther feigns politeness towards Haman so that he will not suspect it when she springs her trap. We “hide” our identities by dressing in costume. When Haman’s name is mentioned, we boo and hiss to drown his name out in order to fulfill the mitzvah to “completely erase memory of the Amalakites (of whom Heyman was a descendent) from under the heavens” in Deut. 25:19. Esther hides her religion from King Achashverosh, even going so far as to abandon her birth name (Hadasah) for the more Persian-sounding “Esther” (which sounds a lot like the Hebrew word “astir” which means “I will hide”). Despite being a major player in the events of the story, God’s name is not found anywhere in the megilah, neither are there even any references to God at all. The rabbis link these last two ideas together (Chulin 139b) by quoting Deut. 31:8 in which God says “I will keep My countenance hidden,” to show that God’s workings might not be easy to spot, but they are always still there.

 

Strangely, the quote by which the rabbis determine God’s means of saving the Jewish People is actually meant as a rebuke in the context of the verse and the section: “This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst… And yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods (Deut. 31: 16-18).”   This leads us to another oddity of the megilah: usually, when the Israelites are being faced with some sort of extreme danger, we (and they) are explicitly told that it is Divine punishment for some collection of sins. In Esther, just as there is no mention of God as cause of our salvation, there is also no mention of God’s wrath as the reason for the tragedy that almost befell us.

 

The megilah starts out with Achashverosh throwing an extravagant feast to which everyone is invited, so that he can show off his vast wealth and power. With so many guests, Achashverosh had an opportunity to show off all of his fancy stuff, and included in this were “vessels of many varying kinds (Esther 1:7).” The text specifically mentions the diverse assortment of vessels and the reader switches from the regular Esther cantillation to the mournful cantillation of Lamentations for that phrase to teach us that many of them were looted from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. While some have pointed to participating in a feast with defiled holy vessels from the temple as the Jews’ sin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instead posits that the sin was not partaking in the feast, but rather enjoying it. By enjoying the use of sacred items for Achashverosh’s own ego, the Jews are distorting their view of the world, rejecting Divine sovereignty in favor of that of the mortal Achashverosh.

 

In the end, the Jews are saved because of the leadership of two individuals. The first is Mordechai, who is the only one who refuses to bow to the king’s chief minister, Haman, because Jews should bow before the true King of the Universe. The second is Esther, who undertakes a daring plan to win Achashverosh’s favor and convince him to save the Jewish People.

 

As part of her plan, Esther must come before the king uninvited, which was punishable by death if the king so desired it. To avoid execution, Esther knows that she must look pleasing before the king and stroke his ego by prostrating herself before him. Rather than ensure that she looks her best before the king, though, Esther fasts for three days, making her look sickly to the point that not even royal robes can hide it. This is because Esther realizes that although she is physically prostrating herself before Achashverosh so that she can save her people, she is really prostrating herself before God because she knows that ultimately it is God, not Achashverosh, Haman, or anyone else who will be deciding the fate of the Jewish People.

 

Although the story of Purim is one about distorting reality, it is also one about accepting the truth. There are times when we might want to hide the truth, either from others or from ourselves, but in the end it is even more important that we ultimately accept the reality.

Commentary for Purim

18 Mar

One of the most well-known customs of Purim is the custom to drown out the name of the story’s villain, Haman, by making noise and booing whenever his name is read.  This custom derives from the commandment to completely blot out the memory of the nation of Amalek, of whom Haman was a descendant.  That commandment, which is part of the special maftir Torah reading that we read every year on the Shabbat before Purim (Deut. 25:17-19), is bookended by two other commandments that seem to directly contradict it.  The first is to “remember what Amalek did to you” (the story of which we read from the Torah this morning), while the second, coming immediately after the commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek, is a strong but simple “do not forget!”

 

These commandments seem to be paradoxical.  How can we possibly “blot out the memory of Amalek” from the world if we are required to keep it in our national consciousness?  Indeed, the custom of blotting out Haman’s name creates this same paradox:  How can we possibly be successful in blotting his name out if everyone comes to shul to fulfill the custom of doing so?

 

When Amalek attacked the Israelites, they did not send out their army to meet the Israelite army in battle.  Instead they ambushed the Israelites, attacking from the rear of the Israelite column, where the majority of people were young, old, or frail: those too weak to defend themselves.  They wanted to kill as many people as possible, purely for the sake of seeing how many people they could kill.  For this reason, Amalek has become a metaphor for those who would prey on the weak, and those would kill and do evil purely for evil’s sake.  Though our comfortable lives sometimes make it easy for us to forget, such people do exist in the world, and if they gain power, they can commit horrible atrocities.  Just as Amalek emerged again to try to exterminate the Jews even after their crushing defeat at the hands of King Saul (which we read in yesterdays Haftarah), the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, Theoneste Bagosora, and Saddam Hussein always emerge no matter how many times their ilk are defeated.

By remembering Amalek, we are training ourselves to be ever vigilant, so that we can stop their ilk from rising up before they can carry out their evil designs, just as (*SPOILER ALERT!*) Mordechai and Esther do to Haman in the story of Purim.  By confronting and defeating evil, we do our part to eliminate it from the world.

Commentary for Pekudei and Shabbat Shekalim

3 Mar

This week’s parshah starts off with an accounting of all of the metal donated for the construction of the Tabernacle, and what piece or instruments of the Tabernacle that metal was used to make.  This total included both the donations offered in last week’s parshah and the mandatory tax of half a shekel levied upon every Israelite male aged twenty years or older, as was commanded in the beginning of parashat Ki Tisa, which we read as this week’s special maftir.  This tax, collected annually, would go to purchasing of sheep for the two sacrifices given on behalf of the whole Jewish People every day of the year.  The tax was due on the first day of the month of Nissan, which marked the beginning of a new fiscal year.  In order to give people time to collect the money and pay the tax, the Rabbis instituted the reading of this special maftir on Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Adar as a reminder that this tax was soon due.  After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbis instituted a mitzvah of giving three coins equal to half the standard unit of currency to the local shul for the purposes of helping with the upkeep and feeding the poor at this time of year in order to help remember the biblical commandment.

In more recent times this mitzvah has become closely associated with Purim, despite the fact that the biblical commandment predates Purim by almost a millennium.  In most communities the collection of this donation usually occurs after the afternoon service on the day before Purim; the Fast of Esther.  The Fast of Esther is observed in commemoration of the fast undertaken by the Jews of Shushan in solidarity with Esther as she prepared herself to appear before the king and set into motion her plan to save the Jewish People from Haman’s decree.  In exchange for a royal order to kill the Jews, Haman offers to pay the king a large amount of silver.  The Gemarah (Megillah 13b) notes this and points out that God had a countermeasure already in place against Haman’s plan: the annual tax of a half-shekel of silver. In addition to supporting the Temple, the tax’s age and gender restriction also allowed it to function as a census for a military draft if one was necessary.

Megillat Esther readily admits that such a military action was necessary to defend the Jewish People against those who tried to carry out Haman’s plan even after Esther had convinced the king to rescind his decree, it is quickly glossed over because it is not something we are supposed to focus on.  There is nothing wrong with being ready to defend yourself, but violence should only be done when all other options have been exhausted.  While the half-shekel tax can function as military census, we would much rather use it as it is used in this week’s parshah; for its designated purpose is to support the community’s holy endeavors