A Violent Ending

Despite its uplifting ending, the Book of Esther's ending is violent and troubling.

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Seeking Explanations

A few details within the megillah challenge the traditional understanding of the battle as one of self-defense. First, the sheer number of deaths is shocking; surely, simple self-defense would not require the killing of such large numbers of people. Second, there is little suggestion elsewhere in the megillah that Haman's feelings toward the Jews reflect the popular attitude. Indeed, the extent to which Jews appear to be assimilated into Persian society suggests quite the opposite. Even Haman's hatred of the Jewish people is presented as an extension of his anger at Mordecai, who refuses to bow down to him, and not as abstract anti-Semitism. If other citizens of Shushan plan to participate in the slaying of the Jews, they will presumably do so out of obedience for the king's order, and not primarily as a result of their own independent hatred of this people. 

Accordingly, some commentators attempt to lessen the scale of the massacre or to restrict it to those actively involved in Haman's plot.  Addressing the verse, "And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did as they wished to those who hated them" (Esther 9:5), Malbim--Rabbi Meir Leibush (1809-1879)--distinguishes between the "enemies" whom the Jews had permission to kill and the "haters" to whom the Jews only did "as they wished." 

He writes:

"Of course, the Jews were not given permission to kill anyone they wished, for it was only written in the books that they could take revenge on their oppressors... they only killed their enemies whose animosity toward the Jews was public and who threatened evil against them, but not their haters (for the difference between an "enemy" and a "hater" is that an enemy's hatred is evident, whereas a hater's hatred is hidden), for they only did to their haters "as they wished," that is--they were able to rob them and to degrade them." 

With this distinction, Malbim reduces the scope of the massacre to those who actively plotted against the Jews, and not to those who simply harbored a passive dislike of the people. The Vilna Gaon--or G'ra (R. Elijah ben Solomon, 1720-1797)--also distinguishes between "enemies" and "haters," saying that an "enemy" is one who "wants to do evil himself," whereas a hater is a bystander--one who "is happy when evil is done but who doesn't personally do anything." 

In contrast to Malbim, the G'ra considers the bystanders in the Purim story to have suffered the same fate as the "enemies." This reading softens the impact of the story only by emphasizing the textual comment that the Jews did not take the spoils of their victims. This restraint, the G'ra explains, indicates that the Jews carried out their massacre only in fulfillment of the king's orders, and not for any monetary gain. At the same time, the G'ra's condemnation of bystanders--a category with which contemporary history has made us intimately familiar--challenges us to consider our own roles as observers, if not initiators, of the widespread violence of the world. 

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.