Shabbat Message: Purim and the Perils of Powerlessness

Posted on February 26, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

As kids we loved Purim. Dressing up, playing carnival games, booing Haman, and watching adults being silly. It was all great fun.

As adults, the frivolity of Purim is tempting. It awakens the innocence of childhood within us, and that can be a welcome thing, as long as one doesn’t actually read the Megillah. For on close examination, the Book of Esther is a dark and painful tale that adults are likely to find disturbing, repulsive, and sobering.

The opening of the story wouldn’t pass muster with the #MeToo movement, and rightfully so. Queen Vashti’s independence is punished with banishment, and the “Who Wants to Be Queen?” pageant is a vulgar exploitation of women as objects of men’s fancy. How fortunate we Jews were that one of our own won the contest!

Ironically, we were fortunate indeed. For without Esther’s proximity to the king, all would have been lost. The Jews would have been exterminated without objection, as the king had approved Haman’s genocidal plan before Esther intervened to stop it. Consider just how narrowly we averted disaster. How many things had to go just right in order for us to be saved?

The Jews of Persia were utterly powerless. There were no laws to protect us. We had no rights or recourse. Our fate, like that of the women in Shushan, was subject to the whims of those in power. No actual crime was required to condemn us. As Haman told the king: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples…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.”

It was a lie, like so many others that have been told about Jews over the ages – from the blood libels to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to the Nazis and the neo-Nazis of our time. The simple fact of being different was criminalized, and thus we were demonized, declared a threat that must be neutralized, a people not to be tolerated. All made possible because we were powerless.

The reality of being utterly dependent upon the good graces of those who hold your very life in their hands is harrowing. This has been our reality as Jews through much of our history. This is the darkness at the heart of the Megillah that no amount of light and joy can dispel. The only antidote to such peril is power, but that, too, can be perilous, as we learn from the end of the Megillah.

 The final chapters of the book are bathed in blood. Not that of our people Рthank God Рbut, no less tragically, that of our enemies. Having meted out justice to Haman, the all-powerful King Ahasuerus pleads that he is powerless to annul his decree to kill the Jews. Instead, he empowers the Jews to fight back.

This would seem to be a good thing. At long last, Jews are not powerless. For the first time in a very long time, we can defend ourselves. If the story had ended in a valiant stand to protect the lives of our people, the Book of Esther would truly have a happy ending and Purim would be a day of unqualified joy, a study in the righteous exercise of power. Tragically, there is no such vindication.

Instead, the Megillah ends with a massacre, with an act of blood-curdling vengeance. Rightfully incensed by their victimization, the Jews go on a rampage and kill 75,000 men, women, and children.

At its heart, the Book of Esther is a gloomy reflection on the abuses of power. For us, no amount of joy at our miraculous deliverance can erase the trauma of our near-destruction. And how sobering and repulsive it is to see the abused become abusers in a cycle of violence that makes a mockery of justice. Power, the pill that promised to cure us, poisoned us instead.¬†Maybe this is why it is a mitzvah to drink on Purim until you can’t distinguish between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.'”

But maybe, just maybe, in peering into the abyss, into the darkness of Purim, we can find the light. Maybe the drink we are commanded to imbibe can awaken us to the truth. As the saying goes, “in vino veritas.” Maybe we can finally learn that God gave us power not to oppress but to liberate, not to wound but to heal, not to tear down but to build up. Let our might be used as the Bible bids us, to “aid the wronged. [To] uphold the rights of the orphan; [and] defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) To feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, (Isaiah 58:7), and to pursue justice. (Deut. 16:20)

Let no woman or man be subject to the whims of others. Let every man and woman “sit under their vine and fig tree, with none to make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4) Let us rejoice in this lesson of Purim. Let us celebrate and resolve to make real this promise.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck