Purim: Cookies, Kings, and Moral Dilemmas
March 16, 2017
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One day every March, triangular cookies and kids in freakish costumes grace Facebook pages, and persons in tall Abraham Lincoln-esque hats walk around dropping off bags of snacks at other people’s houses. No, this isn’t for a cult or some type of ritualistic doomsday tribe. These are important parts of the Jewish holiday Purim.
If you pay any attention to the Jewish religion, you would know that their holiday calendar runs on the lunar, not the solar, calendar. This means that months start each time there is a new moon, and each month lasts approximately 28 days. Purim is a holiday about the salvation of the Jews in ancient Shushan. The story goes that long ago, there was a king named King Ahasverus. He was throwing a party for all of the persons in his court, and on the fourth day of the party, merry with wine, the king told his men to go find his queen, Vashti, and tell her to come dance for them in the throne room wearing nothing but a diadem. Of course, Vashti being the feminist she was, declined the invitation. Ahasverus was mad, and of course, drunk, and immediately decided that he was going to call all of the “beautiful young virgins” in the kingdom to come to his castle so he could pick the next queen.
At the same time, there was a somewhat beautiful jewish girl, Esther living with her uncle, Mordechai. Her parents had tragically died in a fire, and her uncle had taken her in out of the goodness of her heart. When he heard about the king’s quest, he told Esther that she must go to the palace, in the hopes that she was fair enough to win over the king’s heart. However, she must not tell anyone she’s a Jew. So off she goes to Ahasverus castle, and is pampered with the remainder of the young maidens for twelve months before they are able to meet the king. After those twelve months are over, they are taken to meet Ahasverus, and of course, he chooses Esther to be his wife. At this point in the story, moral dilemmas start to occur. Vashti was dismissed from the role of queen and cast out of the kingdom only because she took the path of self-honor and refused to appear before the king’s court stark naked. Esther was picked to be the new queen only because of her good looks. So far in the Purim story, women have been treated like objects for the king to control and manipulate. Do you see anything wrong with that yet? I do. Let’s not forget that Esther did not want to go to the king’s palace; her uncle forced her to against her wishes. Again, we see a woman controlled by a man. But back to the story.
Esther and Ahasverus are married, and outside the castle gates, Mordechai sits every day to make sure his niece is okay. He overhears two of the king’s guards speaking about a plot to poison Ahasverus, and reports them to the king. His good deeds are recorded in the castle ledger and quickly forgotten about. Enter Haman. Haman is the king’s right hand man and basically the behind-the-scenes ruler of the kingdom (think the Steve Bannon to Donald Trump). He insists that whenever he walk through Shushan, all persons bow down to him. But when he passes the castle gates, Mordechai refuses, because the Torah says that Jews cannot bow down to anything but their god. So Haman goes and says to the king that he wants to plan a day to kill all of the Jews. They cast lots (called Pur, where the name Purim gets its name) and they land on the 4th of Adar. Haman sends out dispatches across the kingdom saying that they will kill all Jews on that day.
Mordechai gets wind of this, and tells Esther in the palace. He tells her to speak to the king and tell her that she is a Jew and that he must save her people. She is initially reluctant, but after Mordechai tells her it’s their only chance, she proclaims a three day fast for all, and prepares to meet the king. There’s a catch, however– if the king doesn’t raise his royal scepter to her while she approaches him, she is killed. At the same time, Ahasverus remembers that Mordechai saved his life, and has Haman walk him around the city in royal garb, singing his praises. Haman is furious, and builds gallows at his house on which to hang Mordechai. But his wife is anxious, telling him that countering the Jews will lead to Haman’s death. He doesn’t listen.
Back at the palace, Ahasverus couldn’t bear give up another queen, so he lets her live and speak. She invites him and Haman to a dinner the next night in her quarters, and they arrive. Once there, she gets nervous and invites them over for dinner the night after that. After all, she must be pretty hungry after three days without food. On the second night, she tells Ahasverus of Haman’s decree, and the king is mad. He tells his guards to hang Haman on the gallows that he built, and sends out a new decree, one that enables the Jews to rise up if anyone tries to attack them. And here there are many more moral issues. Haman ignores the words of his wife, who is below him in position, and ends up dying. Ahasverus has the power to decide who lives and who dies. And now, he is issuing a decree that allows the Jews to kill anyone that tries to come against them?! But that’s not the only issue with the story. After Ahasverus issues his decree, the Jews rise up and kill hundreds of people that were supposedly trying to kill them, and they hold a party afterwards to celebrate the fact that they didn’t die. They claim to act in self-defense, but still kill many persons. In that case, is it really self defense? Also, even if it was, is it still justifiable to throw a party right after? The story of Purim is one of the few stories that as a Jew, I am really conflicted about. Is the story read in the Megillah each March an honest representation of what actually happened in ancient Shushan? And, if it is, how are we as Jews supposed to justify a celebration where hundreds of persons were killed?
I don’t really know. But I have hamentashen to eat, so I’ll ponder it next year.