I wonder: if we really stopped to read the Megillah of Esther carefully and critically, if we paid attention to Haman’s designs upon the Jews, if we analyzed the details of the Jewish self-defense,
Would we let children read this book?
Would we merrily dance around in costumes?
Would we make this holiday such happy holiday?
You all know that I will be dressed up in costume tomorrow night and we will be as raucous as possible. At the Purim dinner we will sing some traditional yet silly songs. This is our normal modus operandi for Purim.
But perhaps it is the reflection that age allows, or because of issues about our society today, as I have been reading and rereading the Megillah that I hear episode after episode of extreme violence. It is a loud subtext of the Megillah. There is violence towards bodies, violence towards women, violence against children, violence towards Jews and violence towards Persians.
This is the story about a very bad, violent and malevolent society.
The Megillah of Esther, far from being a silly children’s tale, is a very adult book, a clarion warning about violence and what it does to society. The Jewish observances that stem from, that are included at the end of the Megillah for no real rhyme or reason shows the radically different Jewish view.
On this Shabbat, Saturday and Sunday, synagogues and churches around the country are dedicating themselves to reflect on the issue of handgun violence and the need to control the sale of arms and lessen the violence in our society. It is an epidemic that must be addressed. Though other issues come to the fore, if we forget about and ignore the issue of handgun violence, we really do it at the peril of lives. Reading Megilat Esther is most appropriate on this Shabbat.
Violence Against Bodies:
The Megillah says that in the third year of Ahashverosh’s reign he made a party and they drank for 180 days. After Esther was chosen as queen, he made another party. When Esther evolves her plot to save the Jews she throws two parties for Ahashverosh and Haman. Now they were certainly not drinking sarsaparilla! Regardless of historical inaccuracies, the Megillah reports a society that abused their bodies through alcohol. And we know that intoxication goes hand in hand with other forms of violence, whether it be physical, sexual or with guns.
Violence Against Women:
We usually make light about Vashti and her role in the plot. But when we read the Megillah it is clear that it portrays the subjugation of women in the Persian world. After all, if you can do this to the queen, you can do this to any woman. Vashti was not invited to a grand ball. She was commanded to appear naked in a scene that superseded the Roman debaucheries. Though it allowed Esther to enter the story, it is important to listen to her voice too, that she is also subjugated to a drunken tyrant. Esther was also subject to death for appearing without proper summons and authorization. It is absolutely clear that the women were opportune for violence and abuse.
Violence Against Children:
Haman’s degree to exterminate the Jews was all inclusive, “from young men to old, babies and women.” We can look at this from both sides. We do not have to imagine the impact of genocidal violence upon children for there is sufficient literature from the Holocaust. But in Persia this was to be hand-to-hand combat and slaughter. Can you imagine what Haman had planned? The violence against children destroys the last shred of humanity. Several times the Megillah alerts us to this degradation of the society of perpetrators, not only of the victims.
Violence Against the Jews:
Violence Against the Persians:
The climax of the Megillah is the actual battles between the Jews and Persians. The latter thought that they were going to murder defenseless prey and instead confronted a seriously armed camp. How many Jews died? We don’t know. There had to be some amount of casualties. How many Persians died? Ignore the hyperbole and the questionable historicity. On the first day in Shushan there were 500 dead plus Haman’s ten sons. On the second day in Shushan they killed 300 more. In the rest of the country, they killed 75,000. And then they publicly hang Haman’s ten sons. And we sing and dance and make sounds with groggers while we recount all of these deaths, no matter how righteous in self-defense it was.
Shouldn’t we read it in subdued voices?
Shouldn’t we discuss how to tell this to children?
Do we really want to advocate for a violent society?
I can present the Megillah in many different ways. Surely I wish the Jews of Europe could have defended themselves, like the Jews of the Megillah, before, during and after the Holocaust.
My point of reference in this sermon is singularly focused on us, the readers of the Megillah, the revelers in the story and its projection of violence. This text is filled with violence against bodies, against women, against children, against Jews against the Persians, and by extension, against us too. We become desensitized to violence when we read this over and over and take the violence for granted, don’t even bat an eyelash at the numbers of the dead, don’t flinch at the threat to men and women, babies and children.
And if this is true about the Megillah, then it is certainly true about violent video games and the plethora of violent images on television and cable networks, in music and in art. The campaign to diminish gun violence is not just about guns, it is about all forms of violence, it is about our vision of society and of the world. They need to shape a different image where people are respected, where each human being is considered sacred, where life is holy and thus cherished and not threatened nor destroyed.
Whatever laws need to be enacted, do so.
Whatever curriculums need to be written, write them.
Whatever reforms of social exposition need to be implemented, change them too.
Somehow we need to create a kinder, gentler, more respectful society.
The end of the Megillah gives us a clue. There are two mitzvot created in the ninth chapter, mishloach manot and matanot l’evyonim, gifts to each other and gifts to the poor. There is no hint to why these behaviors are instituted. They don’t connect to the plot. But maybe, just maybe they are created to be the antidote to violence. We give food gifts “each person to his neighbor” and other gifts to the poor.
We break down the walls that separate us. We behave with mercy and kindness, even love to each other, and those we don’t know. That is how to diminish violence in the world – change how we think about each other. That is what Isaiah was dreaming when he spoke about breaking weapons into plowshares, instruments to feed the world instead of killing. Just maybe….
“Once in the days of King Ahashverosh..”