Judaism: Purim: Why Pretend?
(Note: There is a 164-year discrepancy between the traditional Jewish chronology and the secular chronology of the events related here. This is not the place to reconcile the discrepancy; I simply present the years in both Jewish and secular counting, blithely ignoring the discrepancy.)
The Talmud (Megillah 12a) records a discussion between Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay and his students regarding the Purim narrative. The students asked their master: Why did the Jews of that generation deserve extermination? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay threw the question back at his students: You tell me! They gave the simple answer which Megillat Esther itself suggests: “Because they enjoyed themselves at the evil man’s feast”.
On the face of it, threatening them with extermination seems an unreasonably harsh punishment for a relatively minor sin. What was so terrible about enjoying themselves at Achavesrosh’s half-year party which climaxed with a one-week feast for everyone in the capital city, Shushan, with which Megillat Esther opens?
To understand why Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay’s students considered that such a heinous sin, we have to understand what was that celebration was about. And to understand that, we have to go back into history.
We start two generations before the events of Purim.
The year was 3319 (605 B.C.E.), and 700 miles east of Jerusalem Nebuchadnezzar had just become king of Babylon. The First Temple was still standing in Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Judea was still independent, and the prophet Jeremiah was warning his beloved people of impending exile and destruction: “You did not listen to Me, says HaShem…because you did not listen to My words…I shall bring [the Babylonians] upon this Land and upon its inhabitants…” (Jeremiah 25:7-9).
But then the prophet told the Jews that their exile would be limited: “This entire Land will be ruin and desolation and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years; and then, on the completion of seventy years, I will visit their iniquity upon the king of Babylon and upon that nation…” (verses 11-12; see also Jeremiah 29:10).
When Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, conquered Judea two years later in the year 3321 (603 B.C.E.), he was well aware of this prophecy. But he wasn’t too concerned: seventy years in the future was going to be someone else’s problem.
But the Babylonian Empire stuck difficulties earlier than expected: after just three years of Babylonian subjugation, King Yehoyakim (who had ruled as a vassal king under Nebuchadnezzar) rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and restored Judean independence (2 Kings 24:1).
Two years later King Yehoyakim died, and his eighteen-year-old son Yehoyachin (Jehoiachin) became king. Three months later, in 3327 (597 B.C.E.), Nebuchadnezzar re-conquered Judea, captured and exiled King Yehoyachin, installed his brother Tzidkiyahu (Zedekiah) as vassal king, and exiled many of the Jews throughout the Babylonian Empire. Eleven years later in 3338 (586 B.C.E.), the Babylonians destroyed the Holy Temple, which King Solomon had built 410 years earlier.
The destruction of Judea, which Jeremiah had warned of nineteen years earlier, was complete, and the overwhelming majority of the nation was in exile.
The seventy-year prophecy hung, like the proverbial sword of Damocles, over the subsequent kings of the Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar reigned for 45 years, and was succeeded by Evil Merodach who ruled the Babylonian Empire for 23 years, who in 3387 (537 B.C.E.) was succeeded by Belshazzar.
In Belshazzar’s third year, 3389 (535 B.C.E.), he made a feast (Daniel Chapter 5, Megillah 11b, Seder Olam Rabbah 28). His calculation was simple: seventy years had elapsed since Nebuchadnezzar had ascended the throne of Babylon – and he, Belshazzar, had survived the dreaded seventy-year deadline, so this was his reason to celebrate. He had defeated the Jews, their G-d, and their famous prophecy. “Belshazzar, whilst under the influence of wine, called to bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem” (Daniel 5:2). This was his way of demonstrating that the Jews and their G-d no longer held any terrors for him.
It was at this celebration that Belshazzar saw the famous writing on the wall. None of his astrologers or magicians could read it, much less interpret it – until the Jewish prophet Daniel was brought to the palace. He read and interpreted the words “Mene Mene Tekeil Ufarsin” (Daniel 5:25): “Mene – G-d has counted your kingship and brought it to its end. Tekeil – you have been weighed in the scales and been found wanting. Pereis – your kingship is broken and given to Media and Persia” (verses 26-28).
No one in the palace knew it yet, but the Persian army was already pouring across Babylon’s eastern border. By morning Belshazzar would be dead, his throne and empire inherited by King Daryavesh (Darius) the Mede.
When Daryavesh died two years later in 3391 (533 B.C.E.) he was succeeded by Koresh (Cyrus), who immediately proclaimed the Jews’ right to return to the Land of Israel and to start rebuilding the Holy Temple (Ezra 1:1-3, 2 Chronicles 36:22-23). It was seventy years since Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion and conquest of Judea.
When Koresh died after three years, Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) became king of Persia in 3394 (530 B.C.E.) and almost immediately he ordered a building freeze on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Holy Temple would remain half-built for 18 years until Daryavesh II, king of Persia, would allow the Jews to continue construction (Ezra 4:6-24).
King Achashverosh too was aware of Jeremiah’s seventy year prophecy, just as he knew that Belshazzar’s celebration of the Jews’ defeat had ended in disaster. So he was far more careful in reading history.
He calibrated the seventy-year countdown from Nebuchadnezzar’s second conquest of Judea in 3327 (597 B.C.E.). So in the third year of his reign, the year 3397 (527 B.C.E.), with which Megillat Esther opens, seventy years after the second conquest of Judea, Achashverosh made a huge feast to celebrate his defeat of the Jews, their G-d, and their famous prophecy. As Belshazzar had done eight years previously, Achashverosh called for the vessels plundered from the Holy Temple to be brought for his celebration (Esther 1:7, Esther Rabbah 2:12), to demonstrate that the Jews and their G-d no longer held any terrors for him.
And Achashverosh wanted to out-Belshazzar Belshazzar: not content with merely using the vessels from the Holy Temple, he also dressed himself in the garments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) – the garments described in this week’s Torah-reading, Parashat Tetzaveh – which Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Holy Temple (Megillah 12a with Rashi and the Bach there).
We now understand why Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay’s students believed that the Jews of that generation deserved extermination “because they enjoyed themselves at the evil man’s feast”. It was not merely an idolatrous feast – it was the celebration of their own defeat, an orgy of proclamation that the G-d of Israel had been vanquished! It was the blasphemy of a king whose empire ruled Israel, who arrogantly strutted around in the Kohen Gadol’s clothing, serving wine in the Holy Temple vessels, showing all his subjects that Jeremiah’s prophecy had failed, that the Jews were defeated, that G-d could no longer run His world.
And Jews enjoyed themselves there?!
But as the Talmud continues, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay rejected his students’ explanation. This would explain why the Jews of Shushan deserved to be killed – but Haman’s decree was not limited to Shushan: it extended throughout all 127 provinces of the Persian Empire.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay’s students conceded defeat, and asked the master for his explanation.
So Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay explained that they had to go further back into history. Haman’s decree of genocide, he said, was because the Jews had bowed en masse to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol in the plain of Dura (Daniel 3:1). So according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay the sin had happened two generations earlier, but G-d deferred His punishment to give the Jews time to repent.
But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay’s students challenged their master’s explanation: If they really worshipped Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, then surely they deserved death! Why, then, were they reprieved?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay had an answer: They only pretended to worship the idol – so G-d responded with only a pretend threat. Sure, Jews from throughout the Babylonian Empire bowed to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol – but of course they didn’t really believe in it! They bowed to it out of fear of repercussions for disobeying the king, due to social pressure, their wish to show themselves loyal subjects – any number of reasons. But they certainly did not impute any real power to that idol.
Maybe we can compare the Jews of that generation with Jews in the USA or Europe who put Xmas trees in their homes. Of course they have not converted, of course they do not really believe in other religions; they simply want to fit in with the society around them.
And that being the case, they did not really deserve to be exterminated. Just as their bowing to the idol was no more than a façade, so too G-d’s response to them was no more than a façade.
The Talmud asks: “Where is Esther in the Torah?” (Chullin 139b), implying that the Torah had to allude to someone so crucial to Jewish history, even though Esther lived almost a thousand years after the Torah was given. And the Talmud answers its question: The Torah alludes to Esther by saying, “I will assuredly hide My face on that day because of all the evil that [Israel] will have committed, because it turned to other gods” (Deuteronomy 31:18).
This relies primarily on the assonance of the Hebrew “haster astir” (“assuredly hide”), suggesting the name Esther. But it also implies the reason as well as the result: Because we have turned to idols, G-d hides His face from us. He dons His mask, so to speak, to hide His true face.
The Purim story is full of masquerading, nothing is what it seems. The Jews masquerade as idolaters, Achashverosh masquerades as Kohen Gadol, Esther hides her Jewish identity from her own husband and masquerades as a Persian, G-d masquerades as random chance.
But by the end of Megillat Esther, they have all doffed their fancy-dress costumes and revealed themselves for who they really are.
Confronted with extermination, the Jews threw aside their costume of idol-worship and returned to G-d in complete repentance.
Achashverosh cast off the Kohen Gadol’s garments and revealed himself to be wicked but manipulable, by his second-in-command Haman, his wife Esther, and his new second-in-command Mordechai.
Esther took off her Persian fancy-dress and revealed her true Jewish identity to her husband.
And G-d allowed us a tiny glimpse behind His mask by revealing His exquisitely subtle control over history. The events which spanned almost a century must have seemed random happenstance to anyone living through them at the time. But with the benefit of hindsight we perceive how every event, from the conquest of a mighty empire to a king’s capricious whim to get rid of his wife, from a king’s construction of a massive idol to an attempt at assassination, was an integral part of G-d’s plan for Israel’s destiny.
Purim is the day of “nahafoch hu” (Esther 9:1) – the day when everything is the opposite of what it seems, the day when we don fancy-dress to recognise that the rest of the year everything can be make-belief.
Summing up the exchange between himself and his students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay cited the verse, “Because He does not afflict capriciously” – that is to say, if G-d sends any evil against us, then there is a reason. Intriguingly, this verse comes from Lamentations 3:33, and we can now understand better why Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay used Jeremiah’s dirge for the destruction of the Holy Temple to illumine the events of Purim.