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The Purim story, as told in the biblical Megillat Esther, offers a picture of a world turned upside down–in which a Jewish orphan becomes a Persian queen, the architect of a plan to kill the Jews dies at the hands of his primary target, and an assimilated diaspora community institutes a new holiday for Jews everywhere. Appropriately, the annual celebration of this upside-down-ness involves donning costumes, which allow us to be someone else for the day; the suspension of certain laws; parodies of everyone and everything; and much drinking, eating, and merriment.
At the same time as it invites lighthearted fun, the Purim story contains within it a dark side, in which the oppressed seem to become the oppressor. Megillat Esther ends with the Jews carrying out a bloody battle, in which more than 75,000 people lose their lives, and in which fear of death prompts countless others to feign Jewishness.
It is easy to regard the ending of Megillat Esther only as an exaggerated parody not meant to be taken at face value. However, this dismissal negates the extent to which this story has sometimes been understood as a justification of violence against other enemies or supposed enemies of the Jews.
The ending of the Purim story can certainly be read as a legitimate battle of self-defense in which the Jews kill those who were instructed to destroy them; indeed, this is the way that most traditional Bible commentators have understood the episode. This understanding eases concerns about the nature of the violence, but does not fully respond either to the bloodiness of the battle or to the textual ambiguity about the identity of the victims.
A Historic Enemy
The issue of how we are to understanding the ending of the megillah is made more complex by the fact that on the Shabbat preceding Purim, Jews read parshat zakhor, the story of the defeat of Amalek, an early enemy of the Jews and the nation that produced Haman, the villain of the Purim story. This reading concludes with a command to wipe out Amalek in every generation. The juxtaposition of the reading of parshat zakhor with the reading of the megillah transforms the Purim story from a one-time event to a paradigm for using violence to respond to any opponent.
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