Ahasuerus’s Clothes 

by an anonymous Torah student, for All That’s Left

All That’s Left, a Jerusalem-based, anti-Occupation collective, has published For a Time Such as This: 5784 Purim Reader, a series of six essays  from left-wing Torah scholars sharing their thoughts on Purim in this dark time. Jewschool is proud to partner with ATL in publishing some of these essays. You can access the full reader here

The parshiyot that surround the holiday of Purim are often filled with long and tedious descriptions of the nature of ritual service in the Mishkan. Often the descriptions feel distant from our lived experience as Jewish people today. One such example is the following verse (Exodus 28:2):

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃

“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.”

This verse, like the others describing priestly garments, feels irrelevant to our current moment in Jewish history with no Temple service.

However, it appears in an interesting midrash found in Masechet Megillah, the Talmudic tractate that records many of the interpretations of the biblical Esther story. When describing Ahasuerus’s party at the beginning of the Book of Esther, it says the following (Megillah 12a):

“בְּהַרְאוֹתוֹ אֶת עוֹשֶׁר כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ” – אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר חֲנִינָא: מְלַמֵּד שֶׁלָּבַשׁ בִּגְדֵי כְהוּנָּה: כְּתִיב הָכָא “יְקָר תִּפְאֶרֶת גְּדוּלָּתוֹ” וּכְתִיב הָתָם “לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאֶרֶת”

The verse states: “When he showed the riches of his glorious [kevod] kingdom and the honor of his majestic [tiferet] greatness” (Esther 1:4). Rabbi Yosei bar Ḥanina said: This teaches that Ahasuerus wore the priestly vestments. Proof for this assertion may be adduced from the fact that the same terms are written with regard to the priestly vestments, as it is written here: “The riches of his glorious [kevod] kingdom and the honor of his majestic [tiferet] greatness.” And it is written there, with regard to the priestly garments: “For glory [kavod] and for majesty [tiferet]” (Exodus 28:2).

The midrash here is picking up on the similar wording between the verse in Exodus and in Esther – in particular the word תִּפְאֶרֶת or splendor. But it isn’t merely an overlap in language; this similar wording means that the rabbis of the Talmud deduce the nature of one description from the other. Since the Exodus “תִּפְאֶרֶת” usage is describing the clothing of the priesthood, then the usage of “תִּפְאֶרֶת” in Esther must reference the same thing. Which means that King Achashverosh is wearing the clothing reserved for the Jewish priests. 

The imagery of this midrash is jarring. Clothing that is supposed to be the uniform for getting close to the Divine, is now being worn by a foreign king. Not only that, but at a banquet. The degradation in Ahasuerus’s donning of the priestly garments not only makes fun of what we deem as ritually significant, but it is exploitative in his particular position of power as head of the Jews in exile – like a kind of cultural appropriation. 

Another strong example of this in the Megillah is when we read “וכלים מכלים שונים/And vessels from different vessels” (Esther 1:7) as the utensils used at the banquet, but it is read aloud in the cantillation of the Book of Lamentations. The Book of Lamentations is read on the 9th of Av, marking the destruction of the Temple – one of the most tragic events in Jewish history. And so to read this particular verse in the Lamentations cantillation is an allusion to those vessels being the ones used in the Temple service themselves, which were carted away as loot after the Temple’s destruction – now merely goblets of wine and frivolity (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 12a). 

In these examples, we see parts of our religious heritage – which perhaps before didn’t feel deeply connected to our current practice, or we took it for granted – now being used in ways outside of their intended use. This undoing of their purpose is painful. It makes a personally resonant garment or object into something of mere utility – a kind of degradation that feels almost violating.

Early on in the war, the images of IDF soldiers in Gaza with children’s toys, women’s clothes, reciting the Shema in a mosque, giving divrei torah on Gazan furniture – all often left me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t articulate why at the moment, and the voices of many people I knew echoed within me: They are coping in an unimaginable moment, wouldn’t you goof around too? Who am I to criticize people risking their lives for my safety? One can hold that. But Ahasuerus wearing the priestly garments reminds me that sometimes even more trivial acts, devoid of immediate violence, have weight. They can be representative of exploitative power structures, warning signs of destruction and degradation. As in the case of Ahasuerus, these acts can warn of more explosive violence to come; or as today, they can explain the dehumanization that has enabled massive ongoing violence to occur. 

Ahasuerus himself doesn’t seem to dislike the Jews. But the moment Haman recommends his plan to eradicate an entire people, Ahasuerus doesn’t think twice. His apathy on the subject of foreign people in his sovereign land’s safety is almost scarier than Haman’s outright hatred of the Jews. And it’s fueled by seemingly ‘silly’ acts like his wearing of Jewish priestly garments. The significance of such an act being lost on him, the inherent dehumanization, is what makes him so easily swayed towards approving the destruction of an entire people. 

Sometimes, seeing things in their inverse is exactly what problematizes them. We do not realize something’s function or why it is important, until it is broken or is done wrong. And Purim is exactly the time for this. By being the holiday of “וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ ה֔וּא” – the holiday of inversion, Purim can be a kind of funhouse mirror look at our lives. And sometimes seeing things around us distorted, gives us better clarity into what is right and good. We all deserve to not only live in physical safety, but also in ways that respect and honor those around us rather than belittling their ways of being in the world. Just like Ahasuerus’s flaunting of that which the Jews held dear was a sign of a deeper disdain and dehumanization, so too the parading of intimate clothes, destruction of furniture, and mockery of ritual space in Gaza and the West Bank is a glimpse into the devaluation of Palestinian life and personhood that enables unfathomable material violence. And if we don’t pay attention to how even more symbolic acts of mockery and inversion are a microcosm of greater violence, we set the scene for destruction on a massive scale.

All That’s Left is a Jerusalem-based collective unequivocally opposed to the Israeli Occupation and committed to building the Diaspora angle of resistance.

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