Purim 2024

Purim, the Oscars and dying to fit in

Should we choose to abandon our flock to seek membership and acceptance elsewhere, we will again be set upon by the wolves who are all too hungry to devour us in every generation.

“Esther Before Ahasuerus,” oil on canvas, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1547. Credit: Royal Collection, United Kingdom, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Esther Before Ahasuerus,” oil on canvas, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1547. Credit: Royal Collection, United Kingdom, via Wikimedia Commons.
Pinny Arnon. Credit: Courtesy.
Pinny Arnon
Pinny Arnon is the author of Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the depths of human experience based on the esoteric teaching of Torah.

Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish nation from the genocidal decree that was enacted by the Persian King Achashverosh through the dastardly machinations of his wicked advisor Haman. Haman’s plan called for the murder of not only the Jews in the capital city, Shushan, but of the entire Jewish nation throughout the ancient world.

In the Gemara, the sages ask what crime it was that the Jews committed at the time of Purim to render them liable to the death penalty. It is a fundamental premise of Torah theology that anything that happens in this world is an outgrowth of the divine will. Therefore, though Haman’s genocidal decree was not carried out, the fact that it was initially established signifies that there existed a similar edict in the heavenly court above. Through teshuvah, the decree was annulled, but the sages of the Gemara sought to understand what cause there was for such a judgment to have been established in the first place.

Rabbi Shimon asserts that the Jews were guilty of “deriving benefit from the meal of the wicked one” (Megillah 12a). King Achashverosh had made a feast to celebrate the Temples’ destruction, and the Jews of Shushan participated in the celebration. While this was a great violation, the Chassidic masters questioned whether it was deserving of the death penalty, and if so, why the punishment included all of the Jews in all of the lands at the time, even those who had not attended the feast, and even children who were not yet of legal age. The sages offer additional solutions—that the Jews ate non-kosher food at the meal, or that they used the holy vessels from the Temple at the meal, or even that they bowed down to the Babylonians’ idol. But none of these answers satisfy the question of why those who did not sin in these ways should also be liable to the death penalty.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers that the “benefit” that the Jews derived from Achashverosh’s feast was the pride that they felt in being invited. Their invitation was seen as a symbol that they had been successfully assimilated into Babylonian society and thus deemed worthy of the king’s attention. Why is this such a tremendous transgression that it is punishable by death for the entire nation? The answer of the Chassidic masters provides not only a profound insight into the nature of reward and punishment, but it further provides clarity and guidance that is as relevant for the Jew today as it was 2,400 years ago.

The Midrash compares the Jews in exile to “a sheep amongst seventy wolves” (Esther Rabba 10:11). The 70 nations of the world are likened to wolves, and the Jewish nation is like a solitary sheep in their midst. The only explanation for the survival of this sheep is its Divine protection. In the natural course of things, the sheep would be devoured immediately. G-d gives the sheep a choice, whether to avail itself of His guardianship, or whether to take for itself a different shepherd. By “deriving benefit” from Achashverosh’s feast, the Jews chose to be subjects of a king of flesh and blood, and thus rejected the protection of the King of kings. The result of this choice was not punishment, but rather natural consequence. Without G-d’s protection, the sheep was exposed to imminent slaughter. Therefore, subsequent to Achashverosh’s feast, Haman was able to pose an existential threat to the entire Jewish nation. Only through teshuvah, by which the sheep “returned” to its proper King, were the Jews able to restore the supernatural order and avert the mortal decree.

In our present day and age, this lesson is as relevant as ever. We are currently battling an existential threat in Israel, and Jews are facing a dangerous resurgence of hatred and violence around the world. The question is how we will respond. It is no secret that the majority of Jews throughout the past half-century have wandered from the path of their ancestors and sought nothing more than to assimilate and be fully accepted by their non-Jewish peers. Sadly, we have witnessed an example at the recent Academy Awards of a celebrated Jew who chose to utilize the platform of one of the largest international broadcasts to defame the nation of Israel and to assert his rejection of the Jewish people’s right to protect itself against a genocidal enemy. Applauded by the audience, Jonathan Glazer made it clear that his primary interest was the approval of Achashverosh and his court. Eschewing his own people and heritage, he cast his lot with the “Academy,” the majority, the elite glitterati who handed him his small golden idol and exulted in his eagerness to bow to it.

Yet this embarrassing act of capitulation has elicited a powerful and inspiring response. Subsequent to the Oscars, more than 1,000 Jews from the entertainment industry co-signed a letter denouncing Glazer’s speech. The vast majority of the letter’s signatories are not particularly traditional or meticulous in their Jewish observance. Yet like the Purim story nearly two and a half millennia ago, the current existential crisis has reminded Jews who they can and cannot rely on, and it has motivated many to stand up and proudly proclaim their Jewish identity and core.

The message of the Purim story is wondrous, and it reshapes our understanding of our relationship with G-d, and the entire concept of Divine protection and retribution. G-d does not wish to punish. He is not angry or vengeful like a human king. He is a loving and benevolent parent who guards His children against all odds, yet sometimes finds it necessary to allow them to experience the consequences of their choices and actions.

As in Shushan, our choices and devotions will determine the outcome of the conflict we currently face and all conflicts that may present themselves in the future. Should we choose to abandon our flock in order to seek membership and acceptance elsewhere, we will forfeit our Divine protection, and once again be set upon by the wolves who are all too hungry to devour us in every generation. Yet if we choose to admit who and what we are—and to commit ourselves to the sovereignty of the One and only Creator—then, as the Megillah of Esther describes, we will enjoy only light, joy, gladness and honor.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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