Purim: Permission to Defend — By Ben

Not more than a couple of weeks ago, I was wasting time on Facebook, when I came across something that stopped me cold. A friend had posted “Man Shot in Pico-Robertson.”

I know Shenandoah Street. It’s minutes from my home. LA is filled with crime, so I hoped it had been drug or gang related. Granted those shooting motivations are still terrible, but they would allow me to put up the mental reassurance that it was something I could steer clear of. But sure enough, the victim was a Jew, coming home from prayer nonetheless. Then it happened again, exactly 24 hours later.

There was no denying it. Violent antisemitism has made its way to the Jewish community of Pico-Robertson.

It’s quite odd that this incident happened mere weeks before Purim, a holiday where we faced violent antisemitism. The antisemitic spirit grows to its fullest when the wicked Haman convinces King Achashveirosh to write a decree to exterminate the Jews. In less than a years time, the citizens of the kingdom of Persia will be given free reign to not only kill any Jew they wish, they’ll be rewarded for it. It’s quite the terrifying situation. Through the events of the story, Mordechai and Esther are able to degrade Haman and then curry favor with the King. But there’s something about how Mordechai and Esther resolve this issue of extermination that has always bothered me.

Chapter 8 verse 7 starts, “Then King Achashveirosh said to Esther the queen and to Mordechai the Jew…”You may write concerning the Jews whatever is favorable in your eyes, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s signet, for an edict which is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked.” So it is established (for reasons I will never understand) that Mordechai and Esther can’t just annul Haman’s decree since it was also written with the king’s seal. So what do they write instead?

Verse 10 describes Mordechai’s decree, “”He wrote in the name of King Achashveirosh and sealed it with the king’s signet… that the king had given [permission] to the Jews of every city to organize and to defend themselves; to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate every armed force of any people or province that threaten them, their children and women and to plunder their possessions.”

In effect, Mordechai wrote that the Jews were now allowed to defend themselves. Really? That’s the big salvation? That, in the face of annihilation, the Jews can now fight back? Did they really need permission from the king to do that? They wouldn’t do that anyway? This has always stuck out to me in the story.

Photo by Rahel Jaskow

Annihilation of Spirit

To make sense of this, we have to look at Haman’s decree. He could have simply had the Jews wiped out the next day. Instead he draws a lottery (aka a Pur, hence Purim) to decide the date of their death and in doing so he gives the Jews almost a whole year of dread to torture their spirit before killing them. The Megilliah uses the word Pur, then defines it in the text. “The pur (that is the lot) was cast in the presence of Haman.” (Chapter 3:7) The Hebrew word used for the translation meaning “lot” is goral, which also means fate. In essence, the statement Haman was making, “your destiny is nothing more than random chance.” You have no power to guide your own fate.

Messengers disseminated the edict through Shushan and the rest of Persia that the date of the Jews extermination was set. Imagine what a terrifying mindset the Jews found themselves in. First, they had been exiled from their homeland. Then, the prophesy of their return date had come and gone. And now, the official policy of their current residence has announced support for their state-sanctioned murder. What good would fighting even do? Why bother?

But when Mordechai and Esther draft the new edict, not only is their ability to defend themselves granted, it now has the support of the King. “And Mordechai went out from the king’s presence in royal garments… with a great crown of gold… with a robe of fine linen.” (8:15) Clearly the spirit of the empire had shifted. Antisemitic people were still in Persia, their feelings didn’t magically disappear with the edict. But over night, expressing that Jew hatred stopped “being PC” as it were. Those who felt that hatred in their heart had to once again hide it. And for others who are susceptible to getting swept up in public fervor, they would no longer be bolstering that hatred.

From the shift caused by Mordechai’s persistence and Esther’s cunning and courage, the Jews were able to believe once again that they did have influence over their destiny. That alone can give you the spirit to fight.

The Enemy Today

There’s no doubt that antisemitism is on the rise and is hitting closer and closer to home. The shootings in Pico broke the barrier between the news stories of Hypercacher kosher market in France, the Chabad of Poway, and the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, to literally my own backyard. We can debate the local government’s response (having initially said it wasn’t a Jewish hate motivated crime, whether Mayor Bass’s actions were strong enough) but the fact is, the LAPD elevated the shooting to their Major Crimes division and by the end of the day of the second shooting, the suspect was arrested. Clearly, of the two scenarios, the Jews of Los Angeles are closer to Mordechai’s letter than we are to Haman’s. But the antisemitism is hardly hidden underneath the surface.

The question to ask is what are we going to do about it? Are we going to fight? Or are we going to shrug our shoulders, asking, what’s the point? Because if the latter is our mentality, we may be much closer to Haman’s drafted edict than I would have hoped. And we would have missed the entire message of Purim. Our fate is not left to chance. As long as we have the ratzon, the will, our destinies are up to us. With God’s help, of course.


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