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Fragility and Fear in the Purim Story

This week’s drash on Parashat Terumah, but mostly on the Purim Story.

Over the last few weeks, you’ve heard me talk quite a bit about the Purim story, particularly about Queen Vashti’s bold refusal to appear before the king.

But tonight, as Purim approaches, we should probably talk about King Ahashuerus.

King A. is a misogynist, a xenophobe, a drunk, and a buffoon. He is also, at least on paper, the most powerful man in his region. He is easily manipulated by his advisors. And he’s terrified of his own wife.

There are many theories—including my own—on what exactly the King asked Queen Vashti to do and why exactly she refused. However, the reason for her punishment is crystal clear.

When Queen Vashti refuses the king’s order, he is furious. He consults his seven advisors as to how to handle the situation. While asking people for advice is a hallmark of good leadership, the King has clearly surrounded himself with people who are just as fearful as he is. They tell the king to banish the queen, not because her behavior is unbefitting of her office, but because of the influence she might have on other women. His advisor Memuchan explains:

“Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!” (Esther 1:16-19).

The king and his advisors are afraid, not only of an opinionated queen, but of upsetting the current power balance. If one woman gets away with saying, “No,” then other women might consider refusing orders from the men in their lives. Hence the king banishes Queen Vashti, not only to replace her with someone more obedient, but to make an example of her, so that: “all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike” (Esther 1:20).

We see this same pattern play out in the king’s advisor, Haman, may his name be erased. After his promotion to chief advisor, he enjoys the privilege of having ordinary Shushanites bow to him in the street. Only one man refuses, our hero, Mordechai. In this case, we know why he refuses: he is a Jew, and Jews do not bow to human beings or idols. Haman, like the king before him, is enraged by what he perceives as a public humiliation. And he convinces the King that this is also bad for the balance of power, saying:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury” (Esther 3: 8-9).

Even with his “generous” offer accepted and the edict drawn up, Haman continues to be consumed by his rage. Even when the new Queen, Esther, invites him to dine with her and the King, his joy is tempered by Mordechai’s continued refusal to bow to him. The only thing that brings him comfort is to build the gallows for Mordechai’s execution (Esther 5:9-14).

Haman cannot even enjoy his own tremendous privileges, knowing that his authority is not total.

This is not so different from when Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews because he fears an uprising or an alliance with one of Egypt’s enemies. But the King’s fear and Haman’s fear are almost a parody of this. One person’s (perfectly reasonable) disobedience leads to mistrust of an entire gender or ethnicity. They are fearful, not of a military attack, but of a chipping away at their own privileged positions. And they act on that fear, even when it doesn’t serve them.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve offered a sermon, and I could connect this to any number of events that occurred in that time. But if I were to look for a common thread that binds much of it together, it is that people who are accustomed to being in power do not like feeling that their hold on power is tenuous. It follows that those in a position of privilege will often go to extreme lengths to defend their position, even when it doesn’t serve them.

Much has been written on this phenomenon, including Isabel Wilkerson’s incredible book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontentswhich will be the subject of the Old York Road Kehillah’s racial justice book group next month. Wilkerson draws parallels between the racial divide in America, the persecution of Jews and minorities in Europe during World War II, and the caste system in India. Each system was intentionally designed to elevate certain groups at the expense of others, and was maintained, in part, by convincing those in higher castes to fear the advancement of those beneath them. She writes:

“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

In a system such as this, something as simple as failing to consistently treat the dominant caste as superior will be perceived as a dire threat. Just like it was for King Ahashuerus. Just like it was for Haman.

And the reactions of the dominant caste are often no less ridiculous, or dangerous, than the decrees these two villains enacted. Slavery and Jim Crow, school segregation and real estate redlining, mass incarceration and police brutality: all of these were put in place to maintain the status of one caste over another. It could be argued that the political and racial tensions of the last twelve years were also grounded in the belief that one group’s advancement, in this case, to the presidency, will lead to their own loss of power. It has gotten to the point where many in the dominant caste fail to enact policies and programs that will benefit everyone, because they might result in the advancement of those we consider “beneath us.”

We as a society tend to indulge these feelings in those in the dominant caste. Ijeoma Oluo encapsulates this perfectly in her book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America:

“How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not “shock” society? Who is the “society” that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly? How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?”

I hesitated about including that last line and the full title of Oluo’s book, because I don’t think this only applies to white men. It applies to anyone in a dominant position who is afraid of their perceived subordinates gaining power. Most of us have probably experienced being on both sides of this dynamic. And it would benefit all of us to understand this system better, and to be a part of breaking it down.

We can see that in the Purim story, where each of the fragile men from the dominant caste meets with a different end. Ironically, in a story initiated by fear of insubordinate women and Jews, it is a Jewish woman who reverses the course and ends up on top. Haman clings desperately to his position and is wiped out along with his sons.

But the King shows himself to not be so foolish after all. At least, he is smart enough to know when ceding power will save his kingdom. He gives Esther and Mordechai the power to fight back against his initial decree, and they are victorious. They do not oppress their former oppressors, rather they celebrate their win by declaring a holiday, sending gifts to the poor, and dispatching a message of shalom v’emet, “equity and honesty,” throughout the provinces. The King, ultimately, loses nothing. In fact, it appears that the entire kingdom is richer for it.

Our Torah portion speaks of the construction of the mishkan, a sacred space composed of gifts from every Israelite. In this project, there is no special status afforded to who has more to give and who has less. Rather, the worth of their possessions is measured by what they can build together.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz