The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)

x-posted to Justice in the City

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.)
The Sages of the Talmud, especially the fourth century Babylonian Rava, were neither so simplistic nor were they naïve. It is to Rava that we owe the free flow of alchoholic drink on Purim. Rava says: “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim, until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman,’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’” The statement is immediately followed by a story:

Rabbah and Rav Zeirah made a Purim feast together.
They got drunk, Rabbah rose, slaughtered Rav Zeirah.
On the morrow, when the wine had left him,
he [Rabbah] asked for mercy on him [Rav Zeira], and he revived him.
A year later, he said to him, “the gentleman should come and we will do the Purim feast [together].”
He said to him, not in every hour does a miracle happen.

Why does Rava choose, as his criterion of drunkenness, not being able to distinguish between Mordecai and Haman? That is not being buzzed, nor even inebriated. That is being fall on the floor, passed out drunk. Rava’s Purim drinking does not bespeak the comradery of friends around the Shabbes table, or at the pub. Rava’s Purim goes much darker. Then, the editor of the Talmud follows it up with the disturbing story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira who did get that drunk, whereupon Rabbah killed Rav Zeira. This story is illustrative, not dispositive. It is as if the editor was saying: “Yes. This drunk.”

If we read the megillah carefully we are left unsettled. In the beginning of the story (after the King kills Vashti and takes Esther in her stead) he gives Haman his ring and tells him that, yes, he can “destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day.” After we are led through the intricate paths and byways of the royal intrigue for the next six chapters, Haman is found out and killed. The King then takes the ring from Haman’s cold, dead hands and gives it to Mordecai. He grants Mordecai and Esther permission to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions—on a single day.” For good measure, the Jews of Shushan repeat this on the morrow.

The question we are left with is this: In the next scene, the scene after the end of the megillah, who will get the ring then? If Ahaseurus the King is still in charge, and his rule is based on whim (and the last person who paid him) and not justice, we suspect that another Haman will get the ring, then another Mordecai, forever. Mordecai and Esther’s victory is not redemption. As Rava says further on: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” The point of getting drunk on Purim is not celebratory. It is to look into the darkness of the unredeemed world.

It is not coincidental that in that unredeemed world Rabbah slaughtered Rav Zeira. The point of the story is just that. It is a miracle in an unredeemed world that people don’t kill each other. Not being able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai means living in a world of constant enmity where there is no solid ground to stand on.

If we “celebrate” Purim this year, and any year, it can only be as a way of looking into the darkness of the unredeemed soul of the world. That is the place where we will stay—the place of Haman slaughtering then Mordecai slaughtering, Palestinians slaughtering then Jews slaughtering—until we all move to solid ground, when we get rid of Ahaseurus and throw away the ring—when we create political structures, states and societies, which support justice rather than fomenting injustice and fantasies of revenge.

2 Responses to “The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)”

  1. Excellent piece and important words. For the interested reader, Rava’s statement about the obligation to get drunk and the story of Rabbah’s manslaughter of R. Zeira are on Talmud Bavli Megillah 7b, and Rava’s statement that we are all still slaves to Ahashverosh is on Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.


    aryehbernstein · March 15th, 2014 at 6:18 pm
  2. Goldstein and his ilk, although claiming to be meticulous in keeping the Torah, are actually a despicable fulfillment of the secular Zionist aim of being a nation like all the nations. The tension between Torah and secular Zionism is not being resolved in a good way. Purim has become a time to admit we have no claim to higher morality. Getting buzzed becomes the only path away from despair.


    Shoshana Zucker · March 16th, 2014 at 3:24 am

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