The events of Chanukah recorded in the books of Macabbees report that the authorities of that time prohibited the observance of prominent mitzvoth such as Shabbat, Brith Milah, the Study of Torah. On the other hand, the events of Purim are the result of an edict, whose implementation was fixed by some kind of lottery, and its purpose was the elimination of the Jewish population of the 127 provinces of the Kingdom of Achashverosh. Why? Because they were something else, they did not live by the edicts of the King. They were different.
It would seem that tradition favors Purim, even though the events of Chanukah took place in the land of Israel. There is tractate in the Talmud by the name of Megillah and a book the Bible by the name of Esther. There are no such counterparts for Chanukah. Some argue that the story of the events of Chanukah record that the Hashmonaim, who were Kohanim, also assumed Malchut, Kingship of the Jewish people, and from the time of Moshe and Aharon, there is a preference for the separation of these two powers, a very important principle in democracy as well.
A methodical reading of the Megillah shows that the story is not limited to anti-Semitism. Let us see, What were the Jews doing at the party of Achashverosh that was long lasting? Did they eat kosher only? And why did this king party so much? It is likely that he was a usurper to the crown and married Vashti, the widow of the previous king, in order to legitimize his accession to the throne. And, therefore, his insistence that she make a personal appearance before the numerous guests at the festivities. Her refusal and subsequent downfall had to do with her unwillingness to provide authenticity to the new king.
Mordechai who was an apparent court activist, may have lost out to his rival Haman who was named the king’s vizier, and was later the object of Haman’s ire because he refused to bow before him. According to the text of the Megillah, when Haman found out that Mordechai was Jewish, he decided to take vengeance upon the entire Jewish nation. In a sense, Mordechai’s attitude provoked a possible pogrom. Nevertheless, it could be argued that Mordechai acted valiantly by refusing to bow, even tough he bore personal resentment for having lost the position to Haman. Our sages say that Haman had the image of an idol on his chest, and by bowing to Haman, Mordechai would simultaneously be bowing to the effigy. Therefore, his refusal to bow.
Question? How come Haman did not know before hand that Mordechai was Jewish? Did he not recognize his origin by Mordechai’s outward appearance? One is reminded of the saying of our sages that the Jewish people were saved from enslavement in Egypt because they did not alter their names, dress or language.
Did Mordechai speak Hebrew while Haman spoke Farsi? Is Mordechai a Jewish name? What is its meaning? The Talmud says “Mordechai min haTorah minayin?” Namely, where is there a hint of Mordechai and his actions in the Torah? They reply by pointing to “mor deror”, ingredients of the incense used together with the korbanot. And according to Rabbi Soloveitchik z’l, that pasuk was probably chosen to emphasize the future participation of Mordechai in the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash. Yet it is clear, no one is named Mordechai in Tanach, aside from our Purim heroe.
How come Haman did not recognize the Jewishness of Mordechai by way of his clothing? Apparently, there was nothing Jewish about his manner of dress either. Basically, Mordechai did not live by “lo shinu et leshonam, shemam, malbusham”. Was Mordechai in the process of assimilation?
After the downfall of Vashti, a beauty contest was ordained in order to choose a new queen. Aware of the beauty of Esther, his wife according to the Talmud, and who was also his cousin, Mordechai introduced her name among the contestants. Esther was proclaimed the winner and Mordechai instructed her not to reveal her Jewishness. Why not? Did he feel that Jews were not considered authentically Persian? Apparently there was no advantage in being Jewish.
The figure of Joseph comes to mind because he attained a very high position in Pharaoh’s court. Yet he was never really integrated into Egyptian society. He was an ivri, the other, not one of ours.
Once Haman obtained the consent of Achashverosh for his evil decree to destroy the Jews, Mordechai turned to Esther who at first refused, but eventually agreed to seek out the King even though she had not been invited for an audience with the monarch. Apparently, her status of queen did not give her absolute power, she needed the King’s permission to approach him. We are again reminded of Joseph who had to ask for Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Canaan. In the eyes of the other members of the court he was an outsider. They would not eat bread at the same table with him.
These events must have prompted Mordechai and Esther to begin to question the value of assimilation into Persian society because it had not prevented Haman’s evil decree. In spite of all their efforts to integrate into the fabric of Persian culture and politics, they were vulnerable.
Even though God’s name does not appear in the Megillah, a point that was raised when it’s incorporation into the Bible was questioned, Esther asks her people to pray for the success of her mission before the King. She cries out “Lech kenos et hayehudim”, “go and gather the Jews”, because in moments of danger we must be united. While assimilation causes dispersion, danger brings about unity. Our Rabbis felt that God’s Providence was guarding and guiding events, a fact that is hinted in Esther’s name. The Talmud also questions, Esther min haTorah minayin? Where do you find a hint of Esther in the Torah? And they answer “Veanochi aster astir et panai”, God sometimes hides and one does not perceive his direct intervention in events. Yet all the happenings in the story of Purim bear the seal of God’s participation. So our sages thought.
After recounting other pertinent incidents to the story, the Megillah relates that the Jews obtained the right to defend themselves, because an edict that had been signed by the king could not be rescinded. A point to consider, God’s help accompanies our ancestors only after they arm and physically defend themselves. In Lima, Perú, where I grew up, there was an oft quoted Spanish saying: “ayùdate y el cielo te ayudará”, “help yourself and heaven will help you.”
The Jews were victorious.
Mordechai was a great Jewish and Persian activist. He was the principal mover of events that resulted in saving the Jews from destruction. Yet not every one agreed with him. Toward the end of the Megillah we read that Mordechai was “ratsui lerov ejav”, most of his brethren liked him, but not all of them. Some may not have approved of his participation in Persian politics, because of the dangers that may ensue when one is too close to the seat of power.
Is the story of Purim the only example of persecution? Surely not. As the author of the Hagaddah affirms: “Bechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu”, “In every generation arise those who wish to destroy us”. Why are the events of Purim included in the Bible? There were other similar events in our lachrymose history, as Salo Baron observed. Mah nishtanah? Why is Purim different.
Because after the dust settled: “kiyemu vekiblu” they reaffirmed Maamad Har Sinai, they reasserted their commitment to Torah. It was like a second Kabbalat haTorah, because experience had taught them that their strength was nurtured through union, togetherness, and we already pointed out that assimilation disperses, dilutes the Jewish people. Their strength was nurtured by living according to the tenets of the Torah and not by following foreign norms.
Jewish participation at the King’s festivities, their adoption of Persian names (the Megillah mentions that Esther’s name was really Hadassah), their intent to become integrated into Persian society through dress and language did not prevent the promulgation of an evil edict that sought their extermination. They may have tried to assimilate into Persian society, but in the eyes of the Persians they were still different. They were not Persians, they were the other. Like in the case of Joseph, the cupbearer mentioned that while in jail a “naar ivri”, a young man of the “others”, not an Egyptian, had interpreted correctly his dream. And herein lies the greatness of Mordechai and Esther. They had already experienced a degree of assimilation and realized that it not the answer for Jewish survival. Unity and Torah are the true deterrents against enemies and insure a future for the Jewish people.
The Jews of Persia reenacted Kabalat HaTorah, as a demonstration of their proven conclusion that assimilation is not an answer, to the contrary, it leads to identity suicide. Only a Torah true life insures God’s help and serves as the cement that coalesces Jews into a people with a common destiny.