Discovering Jewish Identity
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Discovering Jewish Identity

Discovering Jewish Identity

When the Jews attended the king's party, they thought it was all just a "good time". Or was it a slap in the face of Jewish culture and tradition?

by

The Book of Esther is the firsthand account of a turn of events which constituted a dramatic reversal of fortune for the Jewish people. The Book of Esther was written by Mordechai and Esther, two of the three central figures in the story. The third player in this real-life drama is Haman. Haman is a man whose hatred for the Jewish people fueled his meteoric rise to power in the court of King Achashverosh, and who sought to use the leverage of his position to bring about the extermination of all the Jews in the Persian Empire. In the end, it was a combination of Mordechai's wisdom, Esther's courage and God's subtle and consistent support which saved Persian Jewry from the closing jaws of a hate-driven leadership and an all too willing population of accomplices.

A LAYERED TURN OF EVENTS

 

On the face of things we find an astonishing turn of events. Haman's rise to power is the impetus behind a royal decree granting the citizenry of Persia the freedom to rise up and slaughter their Jewish neighbors. Yet, unbeknownst to Haman and Achashverosh, the king's own wife, Esther, is a Jew. At just the right moment, Esther deftly plays her hand. She reveals the truth of her identity, fingers Haman as the would-be henchman prepared to annihilate her people, and wins the king's favor. Esther's interceding leads to the execution of Haman -- and a second royal decree enabling the Jews of Persia to be saved.

At the same time these events were unfolding, another reversal was also taking place. The Book of Esther opens with the description of a lavish six-month feast which King Achashverosh hosted, "for all his officials and servants, the army of Persia and Media, the nobility and provincial officials." This feast culminated in a final week of festivities "for all the people who were present in Shushan the capitol, the aristocracy and the commoner alike."

DOWNER OF A PARTY

 

But this feast was more than an ancient precursor to Mardi Gras. The Talmud informs us that there was a poignant theme to this party which struck at the heart of Jewish identity and consciousness. This feast not only marked the third anniversary of the reign of King Achashverosh, it also marked 70 years since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Achashverosh was keenly aware that the Jewish prophets had foretold the end of the Babylonian and Persian exile after 70 years.

Achashverosh, however, miscalculated the precise time when the 70 years began and drew the mistaken conclusion that the Jews would now languish in utter despair, and that the land of Israel and the once glorious Jewish nation would become permanent gems in his own crown of glory.

To celebrate the certitude of his dominion over the Jews, Achashverosh staged an elaborate party where he donned the priestly garments plundered from the Temple. Likewise, the uniquely beautiful Temple vessels, which were a part of the Persian treasury, were proudly displayed for all to see.

And of course, Achashverosh invited the Jews. They came and enjoyed the celebration. But how could they? Was this feast not the equivalent of a theme park built on the site of Auschwitz, and inviting Jews to come and enjoy the attractions? True, when the king extends an invitation you can't say no. But enjoy the experience!? How?!

Apparently, in those 70 years of Babylonian exile, the Jews had become desensitized to their national mission. On some level, the Jews of Persia lost sight of where they came from and what they could again achieve. So they accepted mediocrity and enjoyed the feast.

Then came Haman and the threat of annihilation. The spark which ignited Haman's fury was a confrontation with "Mordechai the Jew." For after Haman was elevated to his position of power, everyone in the kingdom "would bow down and prostrate themselves before Haman." To enhance the homage paid to himself, Haman wore the image of an idol around his neck. This calculated step lent a religious significance to the ceremonious bowing. Yet there was one person who bowed to no man and who acknowledged no deities. This was Mordechai. And since Mordechai was a Jew, Haman ranted against all the Jews: "And Haman sought to kill all the Jews, the people of Mordechai, who were in the kingdom of Achashverosh."

When Haman sought to sell the king on his plan for the final solution of the Jews, he pointed to their Jewishness: "Their laws are different from every other peoples."

COMMITMENT RESTORED

 

Beneath the surface, the Book of Esther is about an era in which the sensitivity of Jews to their own Jewishness was on the wane. Ironically, there arose at that same juncture an enemy who hated the Jews specifically because of their Jewishness. And, as the Talmud goes on to tell us, the Jewish response to their enemy was not to run from the scourge of their Jewish identity, but to realize that nothing in the world was more precious to them than their very Jewishness.

The Megillah tells us that "the Jews had light and joy, gladness and honor." These words not only represent a reaction to the eventual downfall of Haman, but to a renewal of their commitment to being Jews. Light represents a fresh commitment to studying the wisdom of the Torah. Joy, gladness and honor represent a reinvigorated attachment to the holidays and other observances like circumcision and the wearing of Tefillin.

The Jews of Persia had now come full circle. Where they were once so casual about their Jewishness that they could enjoy a party celebrating their own physical and spiritual downfall, now events had brought about a fresh appreciation of Jewish life.

On the surface, the story of the Jews in Persia could have been about any ethnic group escaping near-annihilation. Yet beneath the surface lays a uniquely Jewish struggle to maintain a passionate sense of identity amidst a host culture that was at times welcoming and, at times, threatening.

In the end, Haman's intentions were the catalyst for a reawakening of Jewish sensitivities. When Jewish lives were threatened specifically because they were Jewish lives, the Jews of Persia realized that not only did they want to live, but more than anything else they wanted to live as Jews.

From "One Hour Purim Primer," by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf. www.leviathanpress.com

Published: February 2, 2003


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