Purim: Opting Out

The Jewish people were about to fall prey, by official government decree, to a massive, blood-thirsty,  mob attack.  The Megillah relates how Esther heroically risked her life to proactively visit King Achashveirosh’s chamber in order to petition him to revoke the decree; it also records the explanation of her request that she offered the king.  The Megillah’s account of what she said is very brief, and it is therefore surprising to find what seems like a redundancy in this explanation.   She says “Let a decree be written to revoke those dispatches devised by Haman…which he wrote ordering the destruction of the Jews who are in all the King’s provinces.  For how can I bear to witness the disaster which will befall my people!  How can I bear to witness the destruction of my birth-nation!” (Esther 8).  She seems to be repeating the identical idea in different words.

Esther is definitely speaking rhetorically to gain the king’s sympathy; it is possible to explain that she is also just speaking poetically to emphasize her point.  Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik (1820-1892), legendary Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva and later Chief Rabbi of Brest, Belarus, resolves this difficulty in another way.  Rabbi Soloveitchik clarifies and limits the original decree that was promulgated by Haman to destroy the Jews.  An earlier verse in the Megillah states that the decree was specifically “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all of the Jews” (Esther 3).  He understands this verse as revealing a distinction between Haman anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Semitism.  Contemporary anti-Semites have attempted or expressed an intention to destroy the Jews as a race, but the Haman version of anti-Semitism was not bothered by the Jews as a race – it was bothered by the Jews as adherents to their unique religion.  If a Jew would leave his faith and assimilate into Persian society, he could benefit from immunity to the decree and his life would be spared.  Esther did not just finish her plea after making her first statement, suggests Rabbi Soloveitchik, in an effort to preemptively respond to a possible defensive move that she anticipated the king might make.  Evidently, the Jews of Persia fell into two categories:  those that would risk everything to stay true to their faith, and those that would buckle under the pressure and “opt-out” of Judaism.  Esther first expressed her anguish regarding the first group, who would nobly lose their lives rather than give up living as Jews.  This consideration, however, Achashveirosh might dismiss.  He could claim that even if the decree would remain in force, no one would have to die; anyone that decides to melt into Persian society will be exempt and spared.  That is why Esther continued her plea by expressing her pain over what might happen to the Jews that make up the group that would welcome and choose this option.  Although these Jews would not lose their life, she told him that she could also not bear to see them forsake their allegiance to their heritage.

The prospect of seeing some of her people disappear into  Persian society deeply troubled Queen Esther.  Even though this attrition had not yet happened, the anguish that it would possibly happen was enough that it was one of the few things she choose to mention in her short plea to Achashveirosh.  Sadly, this concern is still at least as relevant.  Today,  the American Jewish community is shrinking and assimilating in spite of the absence of any immanent existential threat.  It is not a mere possibility but it has been happening for decades and its incidence is only increasing.  Does this situation bother us, or have we become apathetic or numb to this reality?  Does it  evoke some level of emotional distress or concern, or are we locked into a state of emotional flat-line regarding the grim future of our people?  The legacy of Queen Esther demands that, at the very least, we focus attention, thought, and above all emotion on this contemporary yet age-old issue.



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2 responses to “Purim: Opting Out

  1. Barak

    Nice! Hope you had a great chag!


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