Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 4 March 2023 / 11 Adar 5783

From Luxury to Light

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The story of a Purim is a story that would repeat itself many times in our history. During the flowering of the Persian Empire, the Jews came into close contact with the political and cultural life of their host country and were exposed to all the temptations of the grandeur and splendor of this alien empire. Even amidst these influences, the Jewish People was expected to remain aware of its own light and joy, of its own salvation and dignity, and to find its light only in Torah and its joy in service of Hashem.

The Persian Empire, as it is described in the Book of Esther, was marked by elegance, culture and refinement. Its state, with its complex hierarchy of officials, its provincial governments and its sophisticated semi-global network of communications, appears as a well-organized entity. No attempt was made to eliminate ethnic differences, and every province was generously granted the right to preserve its individuality and language.

Achashverosh himself does not appear all that evil. While he has a penchant for luxury, he is gracious and affable, inviting all of the people — or least the entire population of his capital — to feast in an open banquet, entertaining them with truly royal hospitality. Whenever he celebrates a joyous occasion in his personal household, he grants his people tax remissions and he gives them royal gifts so they may share in his happiness. He is careful to observe the forms of law in whatever he does. He surrounds himself with advisers and experts of history and law. His choice of queen might indicate that he is free of all racial and social prejudice. It seems that it could not get any better.

And yet, all this culture and refinement has one denominator: the craving for worldly delights. All the culture and refinement are completely subservient to the objects of sensuality.

If the whim rules, there can be no security in any law and judgment — no matter how faithfully the letter of the law is adhered to. The laws are reduced to meaningless rules that give way to the feelings and moods of the king. So, while the case of the queen’s breach is heard by jurists and wise men, an ordinary human being, having incurred the displeasure of one of the king’s favorites, would be hanged as a matter of course. A simple decree, signed and sealed in the name of the king, is sufficient to permit the slaughter of an entire population, including women and children, for “political reasons.”

And for Achashverosh, all that stands between his good-natured, gracious temperament and raving fury is a strong drink. Everything hinges on his mood and temper. So much so that if the queen should wish to plead with him, in the name of justice and humanity, she must first give a banquet and wait for the moment when the king is in a good mood before she may dare state her request.

The Jewish nation was taught an unforgettable lesson in the Purim story. They basked in royal splendor, tasted its delights and blossomed in its goodwill — so much so that a Jewish woman was queen, a Jew was the king’s minister, and the Jews were given entrance into the inner circles of royal politics. But, they soon experienced the full impact of the misery that lies in store whenever the weal and woe of men depend on the pleasure or displeasure of a whimsical ruler.

At that time, the Jews came to know the unchanging faithfulness of the King in Heaven who protects them. They learned to rejoice in the light of their own truths, in the Torah and its laws. They rediscovered the joy in their own festivals. This was a lesson for the ages. Even in the darkest periods of history, the Jew can and will find this light: “The Jews had light and joy, and gladness and honor.”

  • Sources: Collected Writings, Vol. II, pp. 401-404

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