Jewish Power and Vulnerability: Purim and the Ever-Present Possibility of a Sea Change

Jewish Power and Vulnerability: Purim and the Ever-Present Possibility of a Sea Change
Jewish Power and Vulnerability:
Purim and the Ever-Present Possibility of a Sea Change

                              Joshua Ladon

                         IACT Coordinators Pilot
                            February 2, 2021

 1.   Esther 4                                                         1
 2.   Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a-b                                2
 3.   Babylonian Talmud Megillah 16b                                   2
 4.   Yossi Klein HaLevi,
      “Passover Jews vs. Purim Jews: The Agony of Our Dilemma,” 2013   3
Rabbi Joshua Ladon is the West Coast Director of Education for the Shalom Hartman Institute of
North America, where he oversees educational and programmatic activity in the San Francisco
Bay area.

Joshua received a BA from Washington University in St. Louis and subsequently lived in Jerusalem
for seven years, completing an MA in Jewish Thought at Tel Aviv University. He received rabbinic
ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is currently a Doctoral student in Jewish
Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Joshua joined SHI North America from San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay,
where he served as Dean of Student Life and Jewish Life with great distinction, including receiving
the Diller Award for outstanding teaching.

 The Shalom Hartman Institute is a leading center of Jewish thought and education, serving Israel and
North America. Our mission is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism; to enhance the
      Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling force
                                      for good in the 21st century.

                             Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
                                  475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1450
                                       New York, NY 10115
1.     Esther 4

When Mordecai learned all that had happened, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on
sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly, until he came
in front of the palace gate; for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth.—

Also, in every province that the king’s command and decree reached, there was great
mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing, and everybody lay in
sackcloth and ashes.— When Esther’s maidens and eunuchs came and informed her, the
queen was greatly agitated. She sent clothing for Mordecai to wear, so that he might take
off his sackcloth; but he refused.

Thereupon Esther summoned Hathach, one of the eunuchs whom the king had appointed
to serve her, and sent him to Mordecai to learn the why and wherefore of it all. Hathach
went out to Mordecai in the city square in front of the palace gate; and Mordecai told him
all that had happened to him, and all about the money that Haman had offered to pay into
the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews.

He also gave him the written text of the law that had been proclaimed in Shushan for their
destruction. [He bade him] show it to Esther and inform her, and charge her to go to the
king and to appeal to him and to plead with him for her people. When Hathach came and
delivered Mordecai’s message to Esther,

Esther told Hathach to take back to Mordecai the following reply: “All the king’s courtiers
and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any person, man or woman, enters the
king’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for
him—that he be put to death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter to him may he
live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the king for the last thirty days.”

When Mordecai was told what Esther had said, Mordecai had this message delivered to
Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the
king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will
come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And
who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Then Esther sent back this answer to Mordecai: “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in
Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my
maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the
law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

So Mordecai went about [the city] and did just as Esther had commanded him.

2.     Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a-b

‫אמר ר' יוחנן משום ר"ש בן יהוצדק נימנו וגמרו בעליית בית נתזה בלוד כל עבירות שבתורה‬
‫אם אומרין לאדם עבור ואל תהרג יעבור ואל יהרג חוץ מעבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות‬
‫ כי אתא רב דימי א"ר יוחנן לא שנו אלא שלא בשעת גזרת המלכות אבל‬...‫ושפיכות דמים‬
'‫בשעת גזרת המלכות אפי 'מצוה קלה יהרג ואל יעבור כי אתא רבין אמר רבי יוחנן אפי‬
‫שלא בשעת גזרת מלכות לא אמרו אלא בצינעא אבל בפרהסיא אפי' מצוה קלה יהרג ואל‬
‫ והא אסתר פרהסיא הואי אמר אביי אסתר קרקע עולם היתה רבא אמר הנאת‬...‫יעבור‬
                                                                      .‫עצמן שאני‬
Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Simon son of Yehozadak: They voted and
concluded in the attic of the House of Nitzeh in Lod: Concerning all transgression in the
Torah, if they tell someone, “Transgress so as not to be killed,” one should violate rather
than be killed except for idolatry, licentiousness and murder...When Rav Dimmi came,
Rabbi Yohanan said: This is the case only when there is no decree by the monarchy, but
when there is a decree by the monarchy, one should be killed rather than transgress even
a slight commandment. When Ravin came, Rabbi Yohanan said: Even not in a situation of
royal decree, this is only the case in private, but in public one should be killed rather than
transgress even a slight commandment...But was not Esther in public? Abaye said: Esther
was passive. Rava said: When they do it for their own enjoyment, the ruling is different.

3.     Babylonian Talmud Megillah 16b

‫ויאמר המלך לאסתר המלכה בשושן הבירה הרגו היהודים אמר רבי אבהו מלמד שבא‬
                                                      ‫מלאך וסטרו על פיו‬
The verse states: “And the king said to Esther the queen: The Jews have slain and
destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the capital, and also the ten sons of Haman; what
have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition and it shall
be granted to you; and what more do you request, and it shall be done” (Esther 9:12). Rabbi
Abbahu said: This teaches that an angel came and slapped him on his mouth, so that he
was unable to finish what he was saying; he started with a complaint about what the Jews
were doing, but ended on an entirely different note.

4.     Yossi Klein HaLevi, “Passover Jews vs. Purim Jews: The Agony of Our Dilemma,”

Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to
remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land
of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice
commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while
we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive.

The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim,
commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek.
“Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are
motivated by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an
unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.

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