Revenge–the Unconscious Subtext of the Scroll of Purim by Michael Kagan, Jerusalem
Revenge – the Unscrolling of Purim
What you’re about to read does not make pleasant reading. It defies the usual acceptance of Purim as the forces of good overcoming the forces of evil, of us against them, of the imminent destruction of the innocent by the wicked. It may appear that what I am about to describe comes from a desire to ruin the Purim spirit in a similar way that post-modern accounts of the Zionist endeavor have undermined the stories that we have grown up with. But my exploration is motivated by three simple questions that arose while listening to the recitation of the Megillah; questions that I had never asked before; questions that arise from the p’shat (literal) meaning of the text; questions that do not rely on imaginative midrash to answer; questions that bother me.
Here they are:
- Why does Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman?
- Why does Haman consequently decide to annihilate the entire Jewish people?
- Why in the final chapter does it emphasize the imposition of taxes?
Simple questions that cut to the heart of the story, questions to which we intuitively know the answers, that come in our mother’s milk (or kindergarten’s milk).
So why did Mordechai not bow down and thereby risk the lives of all his people, men, women, children? Because Jews don’t bow down – to anyone? Because we are a stiff-kneed people who do not like to kneel even on Yom Kippur? But the halacha is very clear: it is permissible, even obligatory, to kneel in front of a king, out of respect and out of concern for the welfare of the people. So what’s going on here? That this is a good, problematic question we know by the fantastical answers that the classical commentators have thought up. For instance: because Haman wore a cloak covered with images of idols and Jews must not, on pain of death, bow to an idol. Could be, but that’s not the direction I wish to pursue.
So what happened?
Before trying to answer this question let’s turn to the second question. What was it that incensed Haman to the point of genocide? The refusal of one man to kneel before him? Isn’t that a bit of an exaggerated response? Note that Haman did not at first even notice that Mordechai remained upright: Now it came to pass, when they (the king’s servants) spoke daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordechai’s words would stand; for he had told them that he was a Jew (3:4).
Was Haman a rabid anti-Semite waiting for the opportunity and now that he was in power he could carry out his desire to rid the world of the Jewish scum? Doesn’t look like it from the story. Was it Mordechai’s refusal to bow before him that set things in motion, that released the innate wickedness of this man towards an innocent people? Clearly Mordechia’s refusal triggered something but I want to suggest another answer.
When Mordechai is introduced into the story it is as: There was a certain Jew in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai the son of Yair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite (2:5). When Haman is introduced it is as: After these things did King Ahashverus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite …(3:1). When Haman hears that someone is not bowing down to him he could have simply ordered his death. That would have been justified according to the law of the land where everyone has to bow to the king or his viceroy. And that’s what he would have done until he heard that this man was not just any man but a Jew. And not just any Jew but a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, of the family of Kish.
My midrash says:
When Haman heard this he began to tremble a great tremble and fell to his knees, lifted up his hands to heaven and cried out: “Thank you, O mighty god, thank you. For now I understand my destiny. It is not by chance that I have been raised to this high and exalted position. It is not for my sake that I am here but it is for the sake of my people. For I am to be their avenger.”
To what is he referring? To the genocide of his people, the Amalekites, of whom Agag was the last king, by King Saul way back when (1 Samuel 15: 1-34). And who was this Saul? Now there was a man of Benjamin, whose name was Kish, … the son of a Benjamite, a mighty man of valor. And he had a son, whose name was Saul, young and goodly… (1 Samuel 9:1-2). In other words, Haman suddenly realizes that this very man, the man who refuses to bow down to him, is of the same people, the same tribe, the same family as the man responsible for slaughtering every man, woman, and child of his people approximately 500 years earlier. Now is the time for revenge. It is not enough just to kill Mordechai, revenge demands quid pro quo, an eye for an eye, a people for a people. So Haman begins to plot for the destruction of the entire Jewish people – man, woman and child. A rightful (sic and sick) act of revenge.
Now let’s go back 500 years or so to a village of the Amalekites. Imagine a woman, say with a little baby, who is warned that the army of the Israelites is approaching. She asks what that has to do with her since soldiers fight wars. She is told that this time it will be different, this time the army of the Israelites is coming to destroy them all. And the woman cried out and said: “But I am innocent and so is my baby. What have we done that is deserving of this punishment?” And this woman cried out to her people and said: “Let us fast for three days. Let us wear sackcloth. Let us pray to our god for mercy and deliverance.” And they did. But it didn’t help and they were slaughtered, every one of them, except the king – Agag.
And if you were to ask a soldier in that Israelite army why he was going to war against this people, he might have answered thus: “Revenge. Revenge for what they did to us when we came out of Egypt 500 years ago. The ancestors of this very same people randomly attacked us in the desert when we came out of slavery. They killed our old people, our weak people, the ones left unguarded, the ones at the back. We remember and never forget.”
Now let’s go back a further 500 years and ask a warrior in the Amalek forces that attacked the Children of Israel in the desert, why he did it? Why did he fall upon these innocent people who had suffered so badly at the hands of the Egyptians, had come out into freedom, had done him no harm? Why? And you might have received the answer: “Revenge!” Revenge? What for? “Revenge for what your ancestor Jacob did to our ancestor Esav about 500 years previous when he cheated and lied and stole the blessing from our common father Isaac. That’s why.”
And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek (Gen 36:12).
Or, alternatively, there’s the answer that the midrash brings to the same dilemma:
Timna was a royal princess. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of the other nation.” From her Amalek descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)
And so it goes on and on and on.
And so Haman plots his revenge against the people that he hates, the same people that he heard talked about as a small child, the same hateful people that killed his people.
But to carry out such a plot he needs permission from the king. This he easily obtains with the promise that his coffers will overflow with the bounty accrued from the dead Jews.
Now back to question No. 1. Why did Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman? Not because Jews don’t bow down, but because Jews do not bow down to their mortal enemies, the descendants of Agag, the king the Amalekites.
And we all know what happened: A daughter of Israel who ‘happened’ to become queen called upon her people to fast for three days, to wear sackcloth and to pray to God for mercy and deliverance. And lo and behold it worked. Miracle of miracles they were saved. [And there are some who say that in the battle the Jews also avenged themselves, as it is said: And the other Jews that were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand–but on the spoil they laid not their hand(9:16).]
So there we have it – intergenerational revenge, perpetuation of hate. And it continues right now, right here. By this I don’t mean that the people of Amalek is still around, I mean that we are caught, still in our generation, in cycles of violence, revenge and hate, and I cannot see the way out.
Ironically the events that engulfed our people in the 20th century by an enemy that wished to wipe us out from off the face of the earth was not met with revenge. True, the fledging Mossad hunted down Nazis directly responsible for mass murder but no call was made and no call carried out for revenge against the entire German people, man, woman and child. Perhaps we will have to wait for the 500 year cycle to come round before that happens (God forbid). So if the Germans do not deserve the fury of our revenge, and the Torah forbids revenge, and the Psalms call upon us to leave revenge to Godly justice (O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth Psalm 94:1) how are we going to stop the bloodshed and suffering that is taking place around us? Perhaps it’s time for Nahafochu – turn things around and break out of the traditional victim/victimizer patterns. How to do that? By stepping down from self-righteousness, by taking responsibility, by seeing the pain and distress of the other, by giving to the poor with open hearts. Do not misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that we should cease celebrating Purim, for we are commanded to celebrate salvation, for it is natural to celebrate redemption, but I am suggesting that remembering the bigger picture should sober us up a bit.
And finally the third question. Why in the tenth and final chapter, a chapter consisting of only three verses, is there mention of a tax that the king imposed on his subjects when the fighting was over? Because, I suggest, after the appointment of Mordechai as viceroy to the king in place of Haman, he gave the king some very wise, Jewish advise: you don’t have to go to war in order to fill the royal coffers – just impose a tax, it’s more efficient and less bloody.