Don’t Just Change Rulers, Change the System: A Cautionary Tale at Purim

By Vincent Calabrese

This week, Jewish communities around the world will celebrate Purim. During this festival we remember the heroism of Queen Esther and Mordecai, the leaders of the Jewish community in ancient Persia who frustrated the attempts of Haman, a counselor of the emperor Achashverosh, to massacre the Jewish people and loot their wealth. Purim has a carnivalesque atmosphere, through which we express our wonder and gratitude at the sudden and unexpected reversals of fortune in which we sometimes feel that we can see providence. The world inhabited by the characters of the Book of Esther, which famously contains no explicit mention of God, is not so different from our own; and the celebration of Purim can be a reminder that it is possible to find God even in a world that so often seems random and chaotic.

Alongside the deep affection that Jews hold for this holiday, however, there exists an awareness that this redemption story is in some sense flawed and incomplete. One striking expression of this sentiment is found in the Babylonian Talmud, in a discussion of why, unlike on Passover, Jews do not recite the collection of festive Psalms known as Hallel on Purim. There we read the following: “Rava stated: It makes sense to recite Hallel on Passover, and to say ‘The servants of God sing praise’ [a quotation from one of the psalms] — the Israelites leaving Egypt were servants of God, and no longer the servants of Pharaoh. However, on Purim, can we really say ‘The servants of God sing praise’— implying that we are servants of God, but not the servants of Achashverosh? For we are still servants of Achashverosh” (Megillah 14a).

Rava’s statement is far from literally true. The Purim story is set in the Achaemenid Empire, which fell in 330 BCE, and Rava himself lived in the 4th century of the Common Era — some seven hundred years after Achashverosh’s regime ceased to exist. But Rava’s point, about the contrast between the Passover and Purim stories, is profound. In both Passover and Purim, the Jewish people are saved from the tyranny of a wicked empire, but the character of these episodes of salvation could not be more different. In Exodus we see a destruction of the Egyptian state and the Israelites striking out on a new path, independent from the structures of oppression under which they toiled. In the Purim story, the Jews are saved through the deft machinations of Mordecai and Esther, in a process which ultimately does nothing to challenge the system which came so close to destroying the Jewish people.

The wicked Haman is deposed and executed — and succeeded in his role as vizier by Mordecai himself. The Book of Esther concludes in a pean to Mordecai’s newly integral role in the regime: “King Achashverosh imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands. All his mighty and powerful acts, and a full account of the greatness to which the king advanced Mordecai, are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Media and Persia. For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Achashverosh and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred” (Esther 10:1-3). Rather than being overthrown, the system which oppressed the Jewish people has been strengthened — but Jews, now a protected class, are numbered its administrators. So, hundreds of years later, though he lived under a different dynasty, Rava could say truthfully that he was in some sense still a servant of the old regime.

The pattern is one that is all too familiar to a student of revolutions and the history of attempts to rid the world of oppression. Revolutionary movements are often are captured by the states they seek to overthrow and the systems they seek to replace. Although in the moment the fact that righteous people have become managers of the system may be cause for celebration, in the long term it is only too easy for that system to smother the revolutionary impulse in those who thought themselves its conquerors, and little by little to transform one-time revolutionaries into its servants. In order to avoid this fate, rebels against oppression need a deep faith that a really new way of living is possible; courage to persevere in their pursuit of that future; and the discernment to know when they are sinking back into old patterns. Servants as we all still are of the modern-day regime of Achashverosh, we can throw ourselves into the festivities of Purim, reliving those moments when things were turned upside-down and drawing from them renewed strength in our own struggle to transform the world.

Vincent Calabrese is a doctoral candidate in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a rabbinical student at the Hadar Institute.

Image: The Triumph of Mordecai (1736) by Jean Francois de Troy, via Wikimedia Commons