A question about Purim has bothered me for many years.
After realizing he had been tricked by Haman into exterminating an innocent people, the Jews, the king issued a new decree allowing the Jews to arm themselves and preemptively strike. But he does not rescind the old decree that ordered the mass murder of Jews.
Would it not have been far simpler and safer to first rescind the decree and arrest Haman, with the Persian army used to destroy Haman's supporters? Why issue a new decree allowing a small minority to defend itself against the majority and then sit back to see what happens, all the time leaving the order of mass murder on the books as law?
Of course, a pat answer would be antisemitism. The king "obviously" hated Jews and had come to hate Haman and his men. Why not let them fight it out "gladiator-style" and have some fun betting on the outcome?
But we also know that the king could not rescind decrees. Under Persian law, once issued, decrees issued by the monarch were permanent and could not be changed, even by that monarch. So, no matter how the king felt about Jews, he could not stop the impending slaughter by rescinding the decree that ordered it. The only reasonable solution was to do as the king did, and allow the Jews to arm and to strike at Haman's forces preemptively.
So, why was it that a Persian monarch could not rescind decrees? Was this just an arbitrary whim? Did an early Persian king out of some type of strange megalomania write into law that no king that followed could ever rescind any decree? What benefit in the world would such a law bring?
Enter a college course I recently took on the ancient Near East, focusing on archaeological discoveries of the last century and their impact on understanding ancient Near Eastern culture.
In the ancient Near East, the monarch was viewed as the manifestation of the godhead and the gods on this earth. This did not mean the monarch was a god. Instead, he was god's representative, much in the way that the Pope is viewed in traditional Catholicism and similar to the idea in of a tzaddik in some extreme forms of hasidism.
The actions of the monarch were therefore believed to have cosmic significance, to have actual real impact in the heavens.
That is why the king could not rescind the decree.
Mankind wanted the world to exist, to remain formed and functional, to keep good harvests and ample rains, to avoid starvation, chaos and void. The bad in this world was believed to be limited by divine decree, just as the good was expanded by the same.
But if the king were to rescind a decree on earth, the godhead could – and would – do so in the heavens, and chaos would come to the earth.
Seen in this way, the king's actions in the Book of Esther become clear. Just as he could not rescind the decree of mass murder, he could not tolerate a wife who publicly disobeyed him, no matter how odious and unwise his command may have been. To tolerate that would have allowed the same to happen among the pantheon of minor gods in heaven who functioned under the overall (but somewhat disinterested) rule of the godhead. That in turn would have brought chaos and suffering to the earth. So the king remained faithful to his position while rectifying the threat to the Jews in the best possible manner available.
This explanation can be carried a bit further.
Mordechai would not bow down to Haman not because he feared Haman was viewed as a god or that such bowing – common in the Near East until very recently – constituted idol worship. Bowing was a common courtesy, and no one would have thought twice about Modechai doing so to greet Haman.
But Mordechai did not bow down because, as the political head and 'regent' of the Jews, bowing down to that evil man constituted an act that would have implications on High, and whose ramifications would be felt by the Jewish people.
Instead, Mordechai risked his life, and subsequently the lives of all Jews, rather than allow the Jewish people to acquiesce to evil, to acknowledge its 'superiority,' to make believe evil is good.
Mordechai risked his life so we would learn to reject evil, even when that choice is not easy, and even when no one would notice if we did not do so.
The Book of Esther does not mention God. Why?
Because the Book of Esther is not as much a book about Divine miracles as it is a book about the natural functioning of the world and what we humans do, in emulation of the Divine, to make it better.
That is why the primary mitzvot associated with Purim, along with reading the Book of Esther and the celebration of victory over evil, are giving gifts to the poor, and sending prepared food to friends. These mitzvot take place between man and man and involve kindness done with no expectation of return, just as God does kindness for us, without expectation of being "paid back."
Jewish tradition teaches that Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement, is really a day "ki, " like Purim.
How is this so?
How can a day of fasting and solemn prayer be "like" a day of celebration and feasting?
When we do the mitzvot of Purim beyond the measure of the law, sending gifts not just to friends but also to those for whom we have less favor and to those whose perceived societal status is not commensurate with our own, expanding our definition of friendship, we emulate God. And, becuase we do so, Yom HaKippurim will be a day like Purim, a day when God expands his definition and judges us all as righteous.
I would like to ask you all to contrbute now to the Baruch Tegegne Kidney Fund of the Sha'arei Dayah Foundation. (Please see the right sidebar of this page for details.) By doing so you can both fulfill a mitzvah of Purim and also show God that, like him, you have expanded your kindness to help someone truly in need.