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Sunday, March 15, 2009

PURIM'S REAL HERO

The story of Purim, so simple at first glance, is anything but simple when examined more closely. Recounted in the Bible's Scroll of Esther, it appears on the surface to be a story of how the Persian Jewish community, approximately 2350 years ago, was condemned to annihilation by the decree of the King Ahashverosh and then saved by the selfless and courageous efforts of two Jews, Mordechai and Esther. The Persian king's decree had been engineered and manipulated by Haman, the king's most trusted advisor. The classical commentaries of the Jewish tradition view Mordechai and/or Esther as Purim's heroes. And, contemporary commentators point to the fact that they each took personal initiative, rather than awaiting Divine intervention for their People's deliverance, to explain the absence of even a single overt reference to God in the entire Scroll of Esther.

However, appearances can be deceiving. Taking nothing away from Mordechai and Esther, there aren't enough days in the year to celebrate the courageous undertakings of Jews who acted throughout history to save our People from disaster. And, to omit any direct reference to God simply because people chose to act first and pray later seems to deny God's hand in the successes and deliverances that we might ever achieve; an unlikely expression on the part of ancient Jewry on the whole and, some would argue, an unfortunate one on our part today. Is there room to understand Purim as a reminder that faith in God is not a prerequisite to Jewish participation, and even to Jewish heroism? Of course, there is. However, should this, in and of itself, constitute sufficient reason to elevate Purim's apparent heroes beyond so many other heroes of Jewish history who acted similarly in the face of equally grave circumstances while achieving comparable success? No, it shouldn't.

So, if there is a unique hero of the Purim saga, one worthy of Biblical mention and from whom we might learn enduring lessons, who was s/he? And, might this hero shed greater light upon God's absence from Purim's story?

It seems to me that Purim's true hero turns out to be the very man who decreed the annihilation of Persian Jewry in the first place. Yes, King Ahashverosh, the man whom history would rightly have tried and convicted for a genocidal attack upon his own Jewish subjects had he failed to annul his decree upon Esther's impassioned plea on their behalf, is indeed our hero! No, his annulment of the decree constituted nothing heroic; of course, this was simply the just and reasonable thing to do. However, when the king's motivations are considered more carefully, they may reveal how he was indeed Purim's hero, they may offer important insights into God's absence from the Scroll of Esther's recounting of the Purim story, and they may constitute collectively an accessible and virtuous model for today's leaders of the free-world, as the West struggles to acknowledge a serious existential threat posed by Expansionist Islam.

Had King Ahashverosh been motivated to annul his decree against his Jewish subjects solely due to his love for his beloved Queen Esther, his intervention might well have ended with the reversal of his decree alone. While he might never again have trusted his advisor, Haman, to the degree that he once did so, his love for Esther was hardly reason enough to order his Royal Army to engage in all-out war against the militia that Haman enlisted to destroy the Jews; shouldn't he have reasoned with them or even folded some of them into his own army rather than initiating what could easily have become a civil-war? Furthermore, as the Scroll of Esther recounts, the king allowed the Jews of Persia to rise up against Haman's militia, fighting alongside the king's army, in their own self-defense. Didn't the king risk anarchy among the various subjects in his kingdom by allowing the Jews to do so, rather than using his own army exclusively to render Haman's network harmless. After all, wouldn't such actions among one group of subjects encourage other groups to take matters into their own hands, as well?

It is possible that King Ahashverosh's decisions were motivated by more than his love for Esther and her People alone. Ahashverosh might well have realized that the Jews were the canaries in the mine-shaft, his own monarchy constituting Haman's next target. He might well have wondered whether some officers and soldiers of his own army were compromised by Haman's manipulations. Allowing the Jews to fight alongside his army might have discouraged those among the Royal Army who were less loyal from breaking ranks with officers and troops more loyal to the king's monarchy. Furthermore, empowering the Jewish population to defend itself alongside the king's forces might have encouraged even greater loyalty among his Jewish subjects, long into the future, as they might have come to understand that their fate and that of the monarchy had become bound inextricably.

As for God's absence from the story of Purim, King Ahashverosh might well have been motivated by self-interest in his determination to save his Jewish subjects and confront Haman and his militia with decisive force, having understood the broader implications of Esther's more focused concerns for her People. Decisions and actions motivated by self-interest do not necessarily constitute acts of faith. Seeing as there is no evidence at all that King Ahashverosh was a man of faith, it should not surprise us at all that God is not mentioned in the Scroll of Esther; Purim's real hero acted upon the most basic human instinct of self-preservation, though he achieved a Divine, just, and even righteous purpose.

The Neville Chamberlains of history might likely deem King Ahashverosh a war-monger; to the Jewish People, he is perhaps worthy of distinction as a heroic figure, having taken decisive action before it was too late. Today, most ironically, as Iran (modern-day Persia) inches ever-closer to developing the nuclear arsenal that its Expansionist Islamic leadership threatens to utilize to wipe the State of Israel off the map, leaders of the Western World might be well-served to take note that Iran is completing a nuclear infrastructure that will allow it to produce approximately fifty nuclear weapons annually - almost fifty times the arsenal necessary to destroy the tiny State of Israel. We would all be wise to learn from the decisive action that King Ahashverosh took against Haman's militia, protecting the canaries in the mine-shaft, empowering them to protect themselves alongside the king's own forces, and thereby both ensuring evermore their loyalty to the monarchy while protecting the monarchy from an ominous and impending threat.

The leaders of the free-world might take a page out of Esther's Scroll, learning from Ahashverosh's decisive but self-interested actions to determine how they may secure our own civilization, one far more just and worthy than the fate that the Hamans of the world might ever seek to perpetrate upon the Jewish People - and, thereafter, upon everyone else.

*To listen to recordings of Rabbi Jeret's sermons and classes, and to consult a schedule of upcoming Services, classes, and other programming at Congregation Ner Tamid, please click on the following link: www.nertamid.com/rabbi

Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay
www.nertamid.com