This year, maybe for the first time ever, I attended all of the High Holiday services, singing in the choir at a synagogue in the northern suburbs of Chicago. On Yom Kippur morning, the rabbi’s sermon was about how the Torah is actually a blueprint for how to live a happy Jewish life, if you’re reading carefully; the thing that stuck with me was his emphasis on making time for study, reading and reflection. A week later, at the church where I am a section leader in downtown Chicago, the scripture reading was from the book of Esther. I found myself listening to the reading and the sermon and realizing that actually, I didn’t remember much about the book of Esther. A friend at church described the reading as “the one where they hang some guy at the end.”
…do they really? Where had I been? Had I ever actually read Esther, or heard the whole megillah chanted out loud? Or had I just been told what was in it, and like a good little sheep, absorbed only what I was taught without bothering to question it or check it out for myself? This is something that I am beginning to suspect characterized my seven or eight years of Jewish education. So, between the reading in church and the rabbi’s urging to make study a part of our lives, I decided to pull out my 15-year-old copy of the Tanakh–never before opened–and have a look at Esther.
I’ve always liked Purim. I like mishloach manot, or giving gifts of various foodstuffs to your friends and family to honor the holiday. At my synagogue growing up, we always had a Purim fair with games and costumes and food (I always seemed to come out of Purim with a goldfish or two in a plastic bag full of water, to the chagrin of my parents). I like hamantaschen and making noise at the mention of Haman’s name.
The sermon on Esther that I heard in church focused on the idea of finding the strength we need within ourselves, rather than calling on God (God, by the way, does not appear in the book of Esther), and on the bit where Mordecai tells Esther, “And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” Being in the right place at the right time, and looking inwards for fortitude. All good stuff, actually.
But now I’ve read the book of Esther, and I am thoroughly perturbed. I’m not going to synopsize the whole thing (you can read it here if you are so inclined). The part I’m particularly interested in is what happens after Esther saves the Jewish people from total annihilation (which, I might add, is where the story ended when I learned about this as a child).
So King Ahasuerus orders the evil Haman impaled on the stake which he had originally built to kill Mordecai. Then Esther actually has to remind the king about the edict that Haman sent out, ordering all of the Jews in his realm to be destroyed. Ahasuerus sends out an edict canceling the earlier edict, so that’s good…but then he goes one step further, and says that on the day that Haman had originally chosen for the Jews’ execution, the 13th day of Adar, the Jews would have the right to “stand for their life” against anybody who had plotted their destruction.
Which means that the Jews go ahead and kill hundreds, thousands of people, both in Shushan, where the king’s palace is, and elsewhere in the kingdom: “Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would unto those that hated them.” And then Esther says to Ahasuerus, “Hey, can we do it again tomorrow? And for good measure, let’s also have Haman’s sons hanged.” And then there was much rejoicing.
This morning a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook entitled “Let the people of Israel enter the gates and kill Arabs.” And with this story so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between Israeli Jews taking to the streets to kill Arabs in Jerusalem and the Jews of Esther’s time being given permission to slaughter those who would potentially do them harm.
I know less than I should about the current state of affairs in Israel, so I don’t want to get too far into it. But there’s another parallel that my brain immediately drew, and that’s between this condoned, sanctioned killing of the enemies of the Jews and the ongoing battle in the United States over gun rights, especially in the wake of the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. The popular slogan is “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” So the Jews in the book of Esther are the good guys, right? Once they have been saved–just barely–from being done away with altogether, they are given permission to kill those who would have done the deed. Which is good, right? They’re just protecting their people from the evildoers.
But what I want to know is, how did they know? How could they be sure that the people they were killing were the “bad guys”? The numbers in the story are staggering; after the first day, the king marvels, “In the fortress Shushan alone the Jews have killed a total of five hundred men, as well as the ten sons of Haman. What then must they have done in the provinces of the realm!” On the second day, the Jews kill another three hundred men in Shushan, and throughout the kingdom they killed seventy-five thousand of their foes (according to this translation, of course). Surely they must have made a few mistakes and killed a few men who had nothing against them, and among that number there must have been women and children as well. Whole villages, whole tribes of people, exterminated. How is that any different from what Haman had planned for the Jews? Haman allowed Mordecai, who had offended him, to stand in for the entire Jewish people; and the Jews turned around and allowed Haman, the Agagite, (who was clearly evil–he gets no pass from me) to represent all of the people who might also be enemies of the Jews.
When everybody has a gun, how do you know who is intending to use it for evil purposes and who is just there to protect everybody else against the bad guys? I’ve had this scene from the 1985 movie Witness running through my head all day, as I’ve been slowly writing this post.
Grandfather says to Samuel, how will you know these bad men? Will you look into their hearts and see the evil there? Otherwise, you’re just guessing, and you could be wrong. You could be wrong even if you’ve seen them do something terrible, even if they’ve done something terrible to your people. It seems hypocritical to me for the Jews in the book of Esther to slaughter their oppressors or potential oppressors, and to turn the tables–the text states, “And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.” Why would a people who know what it is to be afraid, to be enslaved, to be oppressed, turn around and become the oppressors?
Last year, the Metropolitan Opera produced John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, in which a cruise ship is hijacked by Arab terrorists and a Jewish passenger in a wheelchair is thrown overboard (based on true events). Many Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, decried the piece as being anti-semitic, in poor taste, and incendiary, and called for its removal from the Met season. And I thought, remember that time when Jewish art, music and literature were censored and banned by the Nazis? We say “never forget,” “never again,” but how quickly we actually do forget. Mordecai cautioned Esther to hide her Jewishness because she could be killed for it, and for deceiving the king…and then in the end, non-Jewish residents of Ahasuerus’ kingdom had to pretend to be Jewish so that they wouldn’t be slaughtered by the Jews taking their vengeance. How can that be? How could Mordecai, who a few pages earlier was wearing sackcloth and mourning the fate of his people, condone the killing of so many others? Was he really not able to imagine the families of the murdered people keening over their dead the way he and his fellow Jews did when they were marked for slaughter?
The lesson that the book of Esther doesn’t actually teach, but that I think we can and should take away from it, is compassion and empathy. It might be fitting that I started this blog with Jane Eyre, in which forgiveness confers greater power than aggression and hate, because I think that also applies here. Imagine what a powerful statement it would have made if the Jewish queen had pardoned Haman and his sons, rather than insisting on their execution? I’m not saying Haman deserved to be forgiven, but that’s the point. That’s what gives you the upper hand, the moral high ground–not killing people who wish you harm. Killing your oppressors just creates more sorrow and strife. If someone at Umpqua, or in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, for example, had had a gun and opened fire on the original gunman, who knows who would have gotten caught in the crossfire?
That’s my sermon, so to speak. I feel as though a rosy bubble from my childhood has burst…but I think that’s a good thing, in the long run.
P.S. Also, I was just reading over my Jane Eyre post, where I quoted that line where Jane calls Mr. Rochester Ahasuerus and asks him what she could possibly want with half of his kingdom…only connect.