In the very many years I got to speak in my “Natan Ya” home congregation, and other congregations, I always refrained from doing so on Purim. Recently the editor of the book I am working on, Rabbi Efrat Rotem, asked me for the reason of doing so. I responded that I had some unresolved issues with Purim that make it difficult for me to speak about it. It is very much unlike Passover which I am pleased to speak about over and over again, and to which I feel attached to by heart and soul. This is not the case with Purim. Rabbi Rotem suggested that I find a way of preparing an address for Purim and my approach to it. So I read the Megillah yet one more time; the words remained the same but the additional investment of time paid off, and I have come up with an insight that helps me with this celebration.
Ido, Elik, Reuven, and Tomer Marko.
We know the story all too well and what is unveiled in the scroll of Esther is no different. Even today a decent heart cries when reading Haman’s order approved by the king, “to destroy, to kill and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to seize their possessions as plunder.” Total destruction, nobody is to be spared, it is the destiny of “all the Jews”. The reason given by Haman to King Ahasuerus is admittedly odd, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of all other people and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not in the king’s interest to let them remain.” For us, still living with a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, these words echo loud – it is difficult not to make some comparison between these two events. It is pure hate that lead to such acts, brutal, inhumane, and the greed of the strong to progress at the expense of the weak. The king could care less, he does not ask a question, raise an objection, or simply attempts to do the one right thing. He is oblivious to all of that, but certainly not to the fact that he is going to enjoy the rewards of this inhalation, “ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who carry on the king’s business, to put into the king’s treasuries.” That are offered by Haman.
Still, as history tends to show over and over again, wicked plans do not prevail. They may have made the Jews pay a greater or lesser price over the generation but such wickedness was never awarded with long-term success. In fact, in the case of Purim it all turned around and the Jews received “the right to assemble and to defend their lives, to destroy, to kill and to annihilate the entire army of any people or province which might attack them, including children and women, and to plunder their spoil”. The description continues with what the Jews actually did after receiving this note prepared by Esther and her uncle Mordecai. “Thus the Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying; and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. At the citadel in Susa the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men,” and on the following day they killed another “three hundred men in Susa, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.” The story also notes what happened outside of Susa, “Now the rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces assembled, to defend their lives and rid themselves of their enemies, and kill 75,000 of those who hated them; but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.”
I must admit, and I think every decent person, cannot find any happiness with people being killed, even when it is necessary to fight to defend your life. It would have been better if such an enemy would not have existed in the first place. However, the case is that the enemy was there, and it was there for the kill.
They cannot really kill everyone, nor do they do so. And even though they got permission to loot they do not do so. They do not direct their justified anger against the innocent. The enemy had to be actively engaged in attacks for the Jews to be defending themselves and then, the response of killing is justified. Even though permission was given to lay their hands on the plunder they do not do so because that is already excessive, it goes beyond what is required to defend oneself, it is going beyond what is just, even when speaking of an enemy.
Here, in the depth of this ancient story I find a direction of proper behavior, a just conduct even when being hit by a bitter enemy. It is perfectly legitimate, justified and humane to kill an attacker when so required; there is no problem defeating such an enemy. But that is to be done to the attacking enemy and only to the enemy and the circle around it, which is uninvolved, even if simply annoyingly indifferent and passive, still should not be a target for retaliation. One kills to defend oneself and no more. Moreover, if we want to keep ourselves pure we should stay away from the plunder because if we do not, it becomes easy to take more and more steps where killing becomes a reason to enrich oneself. To such a reading of the Esther scroll I am a partner.
Reuven Marko, 1 March 2018, 15 Adar, 5778