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The Megillah opens by setting the stage for the drama which is about to unfold:

“It happened in the days of Achashverosh – that is the Achashverosh who ruled from India to Ethiopia, a hundred and twenty-seven provinces – in those days, with King Achashverosh sitting on his royal throne which was in the capital, Shushan, in the third year of his reign, he made a great feast...”.

Persia was a mighty empire – one of the great empires of world history. Persia had just recently vanquished Babylon, inheriting the Babylonian Empire – which was how Israel fell into Persian rule.

This meant that just about all the Jews in the world were under Persian rule.

And now, against this backdrop, we listen in on the conversation between Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his students, which the Talmud (Megillah 12a) records:

The students asked their master: Why did the Jews of that generation deserve extermination? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 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”.

What was so terrible about enjoying themselves at Achashverosh’s half-year-long 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 Yochai’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:

Even before Babylon had invaded and conquered Judea, while the First Holy Temple was yet standing, the Prophet Jeremiah had already warned and prophesied that “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).

King Achashverosh was aware of this prophecy, that after 70 years the Jews would return to Israel. He lived and reigned, therefore, in great fear and trepidation of what would happen when these 70 years were up: Would the Jews rise up in great rebellion throughout his Empire? Would he be forced to retreat from the province of Judea?

And so, keeping an eye on the calendar, King Achashverosh followed the final years of the 70-year countdown as the deadline inexorably approached.

And then the 70th year came and went – and nothing happened, his Kingdom and Empire were intact, the Jews and the Land of Israel were still firmly under his dominion.

King Achashverosh couldn’t have known at the time that he had miscalculated by calibrating the seventy-year countdown from Nebuchadnezzar’s second conquest of Judea in 3327 (597 B.C.E.), instead of 11 years later, with the destruction of the Holy Temple.

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, not the destruction of the Temple. Achashverosh made a huge feast to celebrate his defeat of the Jews, their G-d, and their famous prophecy.

To demonstrate his victory over the Jews and everything they believed in, that the Jews and their G-d no longer held any terrors for him, Achashverosh called for the vessels plundered from the Holy Temple to be brought for his celebration (see Esther 1:7, and the way it is explained in Esther Rabbah 2:12).

More than this: not content with merely using the vessels from the Holy Temple, he also dressed himself in the garments of the Kohen Gadol which Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Holy Temple (Megillah 12a with Rashi and the Bach there).

We now understand why Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’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 Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 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 Yochai’s students conceded defeat, and asked the master for his explanation.

So Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 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 Yochai the sin had happened two generations earlier, but G-d deferred His punishment to give the Jews time to repent.

But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s students challenged their master’s explanation: If they worshipped Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, then surely they deserved death! Why, then, were they reprieved?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 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.

This is akin to Jews of our generation in the USA and 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, the Jews of the Persian Empire 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, the threat of extermination, was no more than a façade.

How did they respond to Haman’s decree of genocide?

“The king and Haman sat down to drink – and the city of Shushan was perplexed [נָבוֹכָה]” (Esther 3:15).

Why were they “perplexed”? We would have expected them to be frightened, maybe furious, maybe defiant, maybe demoralised – but “perplexed”? How is that a response to a decree of genocide?

Decades ago, Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d (New York and Israel, 1932-1990) posed this question, and gave an ingenious and incisive answer:

The Jews of Shushan were comfortable in their Persian exile. They felt themselves fully Persian. They had fully adapted to and integrated into their Persian host-culture. They were certain that the Persians had accepted them. Here in the Persian Empire, they were safe from anti-Semitism.

And after generations of this delusion, suddenly “their” country turned against them. They couldn’t understand it. After all – weren’t they Persians? How could any Persian Government even consider persecuting Jews?

And so they were bewildered.

I change the scene to Europe of two or three generations ago:

During the dark years of the Shoah, when the modern Haman achieved power and began the genocide, the Jews of Germany offered almost no organised resistance. The Jews of Poland, by contrast, put up fierce resistance.

This, even though the Jews of Germany should have had all the advantages over the Jews of Poland:

The German Jewish community was wealthy, well-organised, and highly integrated into German society. 100,000 German Jews had fought in the German Army in the First World War – Jews who still had contacts with Army officers, Jews who knew how to fight, who knew how to use weapons.

The Jews of Poland were largely on the fringes of society: they spoke Yiddish rather than Polish, they had scant contact with wider Polish society. It was far harder for a Polish Jew to pass unnoticed on a Polish street than it was for a German Jew to pass unnoticed on a Polish street.

And yet the Polish Jews fought back far more tenaciously than the German Jews did.

Because when the Nazis y”sh passed anti-Jewish laws, the Jews of Germany were perplexed. They were bewildered. They couldn’t understand how this could happen: they were comfortable in their German exile. They felt themselves fully German. They had fully adapted to and integrated into their German host-culture. They were certain that the Germans had accepted them. Here in Germany, they were safe from anti-Semitism.

And after generations of this delusion, suddenly “their” country turned against them. They couldn’t understand it. After all – weren’t they Germans? How could any German Government even consider persecuting Jews?

The Jews of Poland had no such delusions. They always knew that they were outsiders, in danger of persecution. They weren’t perplexed at anti-Semitism, so they knew how to confront it.

When Queen Esther pleaded with her husband King Achashverosh to rescind Haman’s decree, his response was that rescinding the original decree of genocide was impossible, “because a decree written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s signet-ring cannot be rescinded” (Esther 8:8).

What King Achashverosh could do, and what he indeed did do, was to allow the Jews the legal right to defend themselves (v. 11).

This is essential to understanding exile mentality: King Achashverosh didn’t forbid his subjects to attack the Jews, he didn’t provide the Jews with weapons, he didn’t station his soldiers in the Jewish areas to protect the Jews. He merely decreed that the Jews were legally permitted to defend themselves.

And it was that that made all the difference. Without that legal permission, the Jews wouldn’t have fought back – couldn’t have defended themselves against the laws of “their” country.

And this mentality should be (but probably isn’t) instantly and intimately familiar to every American Jew.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.