Purim Celebrates Jews, Others, and the Bonds We Need

Purim, which begins at sundown today, is the consummate Jews-and-others holiday. It has the usual theme of persecution by others, along with the less usual triumph. But if you read the whole Megillah—the Book of Esther–it has much else besides, and can serve as a guide.

A supremely powerful but spacey king of Persia fires his wife in a drunken stupor when she refuses to dance for him and his loopy friends. During a kingdom-wide beauty contest (all contestants spend a year beautifying themselves in the king’s palace, which must have left a lot of young men running around in circles and biting themselves) he chooses a likely babe to replace his ex. Need we wonder much about his criteria?

Anyway, his choice, the lovely Esther, turns out to be Jewish–except she doesn’t inform him of this minor fact. Should we call it a lie or just a humongous omission? Either way, she does it on the advice of her cousin and mentor Mordecai, which gives an almost rabbinical stamp of approval to a, an intermarriage and b, a concealment of Jewish faith and identity.

Meanwhile, Mordecai overhears two of the king’s own eunuchs plotting to kill him–lingering castration resentment?–and informs the king who, after confirming the fact, adds impalement to the eunuchs’ troubles.

Now the book’s real plot unfolds. Mordecai refuses to bow to the prime minister, Haman, a martinet who gets so angry he tells the king to kill the Jews. All of them. The king says, sure, why not? But “the city of Shushan was dumbfounded”–the Jews had friends in the capital.

The Jews put on sackcloth and fast for three days—today is the fast of Esther, commemorating that—and Mordecai tells Esther she must visit the king unannounced (a good way to get yourself killed) to beg for her people’s lives. Fortunately the king is still in love with her, and offers her half the kingdom.

She asks him and Haman to a feast, and then another, and eventually begs for her life, fingering Haman as the junior Hitler who wants to kill her and all her people. By this time the king has found out that Mordecai saved his life.

Haman and all his ten sons are impaled on the high stakes he has prepared for Mordecai and the Jews. The king can’t rescind his extermination proclamation but issues a new one: Not only can the Jews “assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force, together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.”

The Jews kill seventy-five thousand persecutors, but decline the spoil; we aren’t told about the women and kids. But there is no doubt that we are celebrating a very bloody occasion with our stories and costumes and drunkenness, one that involves tremendous triumph over a very grave threat. Yet consider the multiple roles played by others.

Esther marries a Gentile king, hiding her Jewishness; this partly clandestine, probably forbidden love saves the Jews. Mordecai serves the king with complete loyalty, and is richly rewarded. Jews, facing mass murder, have Gentile sympathizers as well as enemies, which can only be because they have made alliances outside the community and done much for the good of all. Only some non-Jews attack, and they are taught a very harsh lesson. Jews defend themselves, but show restraint even as they slaughter their enemies.

The lessons for Jews today? Threats will come, but alliances with outsiders, including the most intimate relationships, can be the key to survival. Jews have earn admiration and protection by doing more for the world than the world does for them. And, with the approval of allies in high places, Jews can defend themselves well and exact a bitter price.

An insular Jewish community with no non-Jewish friends will not survive, nor will one that does not fight to defend itself. God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther; it’s about how the Jews of Persia helped themselves. In today’s dangerous world, we could do worse than follow their lead.