Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayiqra-Shabbat Zakhor-Purim 5763/ March 15

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Vayiqra-Shabbat Zakhor-Purim 5763/ March 15, 2003
The Downside of Purim
Prof. Joseph Fleischman
Dept. of Bible

In 586 B.C.E. the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled most of the population of Judea and Jerusalem to Babylon. This exile did not last many years, since by 538/9 King Cyrus of Persia permitted the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.

Cyrus' proclamation permitting the Jews to return to their land also provided for economic assistance and protection to those wishing to return. Cyrus did not do this out of any particular sympathy towards the Jews, rather as part of his general policy towards national groups under the hegemony of the Persian Empire.

Surprising as it may seem, only a small fraction of the Jewish exiles returned to their homeland. As far as we can tell, the first wave of immigration, in 538/9 B.C.E., led by Sheshbazzar prince of Judah, numbered no more than twelve thousand Jews. The second wave, led about a year later by Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, a direct descendant of the House of David, brought only another thirty thousand Jews. Thus it can be incontrovertibly stated that since Cyrus' proclamation most of the Jews who had been exiled to Babylonia and who but a few years earlier had said, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning," preferred of their own free choice to continue living in foreign realms.

Because so few people returned to Zion they did not succeed in standing up to the hostile elements that had settled in the land during the time of their forced exile in Babylonia. Likewise, they did not muster the strength to rebuild the Temple as they had hoped. The groundbreaking ceremony of the Temple, celebrating laying the foundations for the new Temple, had taken place in the second year after the first wave of return to Zion. The project to rebuild the Temple was headed by prince Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, who, as we have mentioned, was a scion of the Davidic kingdom. He was viewed by the prophets of the times, Haggai and Zechariah, as the divinely anointed king and was proclaimed by them as the one who would fulfill the prophecies of consolation and redemption made by the prophets of the First Temple period. The groundbreaking ceremony of the Temple is described in Ezra, chapter 3, as a celebration with great pomp and ceremony, attended by throngs of people. Joy and hope for a rosy future filled the hearts of the participants. However, the Second Temple was not dedicated until 515 B.C.E., twenty-three years after Cyrus' proclamation, its construction having been thwarted by the opposition of the "adversaries of Judah and Benjamin" to the plans of the Jews returning to Zion. One might have expected the dedication ceremony of the Second Temple to be described as more magnificent than the groundbreaking ceremony, accompanied by unbounded joy shared by all those returning to Zion. For it erased the last traces of the traumatic destruction, restoring the full spiritual, cultural and national pride of the people. However, the dedication ceremony of the Temple is described in the utmost brevity, not as a scene of great joy imbuing the celebrants. The description leaves the reader with a sense of the great hardship faced by those who built the Temple and were dedicating it.

Just as we can learn from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah about the small number of olim who returned to Zion, so too it is clear from the Book of Esther than many Jews preferred to continue living throughout the extensive Persian Empire rather than return to Zion. It is difficult to know whether the hardships faced by those who returned to Zion were the reason most of the Jews did not return to their land. Be that as it may, the miracle of Purim must be viewed within the context of most of the Jews living in foreign realms, despite the fact that they could have returned to their homeland and worshipped the Lord in the Temple which had been rebuilt in Jerusalem.

Haman, enraged by the way Mordechai behaved towards him, plotted to wipe out the Jews. The justification which he gave King Ahasuerus for his request to do so was as follows: "There is a certain people (Heb. am ehad), scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws; and it is not in Your Majesty's interest to tolerate them" (Esther 3:8).

Close attention should be paid to Haman's words, since with this argument he actually succeeded in convincing the king. We do not know exactly who this King Ahasuerus, mentioned in the books of Ezra and Esther, was. This is not the place to review the great variety of opinions that have been expressed on the subject. The author of the Book of Esther, however, does attempt to poke fun at the king in a variety of ways. It must be remembered that the king ruled over the largest empire that had arisen in human history, since the dawn of civilization until the Persian period.

Five stages can be discerned in Haman's argument to the king, the constant component being his point that the Jews are a group that instills fear and threatens the well-being of the entire empire. Note that Haman did not explicitly mention the Jews. By refraining from naming the people he heightened the king's fear of this group. Haman identified the people to whom he was referring only after he had presented all five stages, as follows:

In stage 1 he spoke of "a certain people (Heb. am ehad)," by which he meant that this group of people defined themselves as a national group. Were it not for their doing so, had they themselves not stressed what set them apart as a people but rather integrated into the nations among whom they dwelled, no one would have defined them as a people.

In stage 2 he said this people is "scattered and dispersed." In other words, despite the fact that they define themselves as a people and are identified as a people by their neighbors, they are essentially different from all other peoples known to the king. They do not dwell in their own land like other nations, but are scattered and dispersed, i.e., they are spread throughout the Persian empire. In other words, despite the fact that they are one nation (another rendering of am ehad), they are not concentrated in a single geographical area, as is usual for other national groups with their own language. It must be remembered that in the Persian period the Jews were not living in the Diaspora because an empire had conquered and dispersed them in a different land, as the Assyrians had done to the Northern Kingdom in 721 B.C.E. and the Babylonians to the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E. In this period the Jews were living in a land not their own because they had chosen not to return to it. Most likely Ahasuerus was cognizant of all this when he realized that the people to whom Haman was referring were the Jews (see Ezra 4:6). It is in this context that we should understand Haman's words, stressing that these people, who call themselves a nation, do not voluntarily live in their own land, like all other nations.

In stage 3 Haman said that this people, who do not voluntarily live in their own land, but rather are scattered and dispersed among other peoples, do not even attempt to maintain a minimal degree of unity. They dwell "in all the provinces of your realm," i.e., throughout the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the Persian Empire. Haman began his remarks by drawing attention to the Jews' dispersal and their surprising absence of the usual characteristics of national unity, and in stages four and five he proceeded to emphasize that the Jews pose an actual threat to the integrity of the Persian Empire in general and to the fate of King Ahasuerus in particular.

In stage 4 Haman pointed out that their "laws are different from those of any other people." That is, the laws of this group are different from the laws of the nations among whom they dwell. What did Haman mean by this remark? Apparently he was saying that if this group dwells among other nations of their own free will, it would be reasonable for them to assimilate into the nations among whom they dwell. But the Jews do not behave according to this simple reasoning. They voluntarily live among other peoples, yet they do not adopt their laws and do not behave according to them. The Jews live by a different code of law, a national codex that sets them apart from all those among whom they live. The implications of this are extremely disquieting: these people live among other nations, even though they could have been living in their own land. Yet they do not wish to be like these people, nor are they willing to identify with the values of the society in which they live; therefore they live according to a totally different system of values and norms. Thus Haman portrayed the Jews as strange, different, and arrogant, and consequently as a group arousing great fear.

Having completed this stage, Haman moved on to stage 5, designed to plant the greatest fear in Haman's heart: they "do not obey the king's laws." Haman accused the Jews of being rebels against the king. Not only are they outsiders who instill fear, they are a subversive element that poses a threat to the very survival of the Persian Empire, since they are scattered throughout the entire realm and are an immediate and real threat to King Ahasuerus' crown.

At first glance it seems surprising that the king of such a mighty empire should have accepted Haman's words as the unadulterated truth and immediately signed an edict whose implication was death to all the Jews, without making the least investigation of the veracity of Haman's accusations. Where do we see him exercising his own judgment? Where are his advisors? Even in an absolutist monarchy the king is surrounded by officials with whom he consults. Was this king indeed such a spineless ninny and fool? We would like to suggest that this was far from the case. Haman's words, planned with great care, fell on willing ears and perhaps even touched a chord in a fearful heart. The essential nature of the Jewish people and their loyalty to the crown of Persia had been called into question in the Persian court since the time of Cyrus. This issue comes up clearly in Ezra (ch. 4), which gives an overview of a century of hostility on the part of the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin towards the Jews who returned to Zion, and of the involvement of the kings of Persia in this regard. Thus Haman, in laying emphasis on the problem posed by the Jews, was bringing up a familiar issue which had been a cause of concern to the Persian empire throughout its history.
Haman's decree surely led to great fear among all the Jews of the Persian Empire, and it is easy for us as Jews to appreciate the terrible predicament faced by the Jews of Persia. But let us take a moment to think honestly about how this problem emerged. During this period the Jews could have lived in their own land, yet most of them chose to remain scattered throughout the Persian Empire, while only a small handful resettled in Judea. Here the tragedy of Jewish existence finds expression. The Jews were able to return to their land; the Temple stood in all its glory; but, according to the story in the Book of Esther, they did not return to their land. The Jewish people were miraculously delivered, but this miracle was most frightening. Had Esther not agreed to become queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus, and had this non-Jewish king not loved Esther, whose national identity he apparently did not know, Haman's final solution of the Jewish problem would have been carried out successfully.

It is amazing that even after being miraculously delivered the Jews did not learn their lesson. The author of the Book of Esther does not give the slightest hint that after the edict had been forestalled the Jews decided to immigrate to Israel. The narrator does not even express any opinion on the subject. Moreover, Esther continued to be queen, and Mordechai was appointed to the highest administrative position in the Persian monarchy and, as the text plainly indicates, did not move to Israel. Mordechai, as leader of the Jews, did not set an example and offer a radical solution to guarantee that such dangers of annihilation not threaten the Jewish people in the future. Likewise, we know of no historical sources from the land of Israel or elsewhere that provide any evidence that the Jews drew any national conclusions from the situation and left their homes in foreign lands so that they would no longer be exposed to the danger of annihilation, because they had no way of defending themselves.

In conclusion, in the light of these remarks, we would like to pose the question whether Purim is indeed a joyous holiday? Alongside the joyous celebration of the miracle of Purim is there not an element of sadness, insofar as this chapter of history tells the tragic story of the Jewish people, past and present? Has the Jewish people arrived at any operative conclusions, from then until now? While celebrating the holiday, let us ponder why, since the beginning of the Second Temple period, Jews have preferred living in the Diaspora over returning to their own country and homeland.