Purim: A New Understanding, by Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz

 

The most telling moment presented in the Megillah was when Haman discovered that one of the king’s retainers, Mordechai, would not follow Haman’s decree to bow before him. This was aggravated by the fact that Mordechai let it be known that he was a Jew. According to Jewish tradition, it was not just obeisance that Haman demanded, but he declared himself to be a divinity and thus made it impossible for any Jew to recognize that claim.

The Megillah (3:5-6) describes this critical moment in the following manner:

And Haman saw that Mordechai did not bow or prostrate himself before him, and Haman was filled with rage. It was insignificant in his eyes (vayivez b’einav) to strike a blow at Mordechai alone, for they told him who was the nation of Mordechai, and Haman desired to exterminate all the Jews which existed throughout the empire of Achashverosh, the people of Mordechai.

What was the basis of Haman’s hatred toward the Jews? Of course, we know that as a descendant of Amalek, Haman had an ingrained hatred of Jews. However, by the Torah using the term “vayivez” it seems the Torah is hinting that the reason for Haman’s (and Amalek’s) hatred of Jews is based upon his earlier ancestor Eisav who is described using the same word. (Amalek was the grandson of Eisav.) When Eisav sold his birthright to Yaakov, the Torah (Bereishet 26:34) states, “Vayivez Eisav et Habechora” and Eisav scorned the birthright. The Torah was not talking about Eisav’s physical birthright, but rather his spiritual birthright. The spiritual birthright was for Eisav to follow in the footsteps of his father Yitzchak and his grandfather Avraham to develop a personal relationship with God. Eisav scorned the idea of God. He would rather have a bowl of beans that he could see with eyes, hold in his hands, and taste with his mouth. Eisav was saying that the concept of God was fiction and was not even worth a bowl of beans.

Amalek represents this idea of the denial of God. Amalek was the first nation to attack the children of Israel after they left Egypt in order to show their (Amalek’s) denial of God. To Amalek, human beings have no greater significance than insects whose fate can be decided by the roll of the dice because there is no God who cares for them or gives their lives significance. Thus, there is no moral problem with destroying people, and people’s desires and yearnings in this world can be rendered irrelevant by those who assume power over their lives.

We can thus have a better understanding of the Torah’s commandment to destroy the Amalekites once Israel assumes possession of the land of Israel. Amalek stands in the way of any ability that mankind has to progress and to achieve any understanding of God. Haman believes that people must bow to whomever is in charge. People must do what they are told and there is no higher moral authority. Haman and Amalek wish to keep man in a state of servitude without any thoughts of God or the ethics and morality which God represents. Thus, Haman tried to eradicate not just Mordechai, but the people who represent God on earth – the Jewish people.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim Schertz received his semicha from Yeshiva University in 1969.  He also received masters in Jewish Philosophy from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School.  He has a second Masters in the History of Ideas from New York University, and a Ph.D. from New York University in the History of Western Thought.  He taught Classics at Pennsylvania State University and Philosophy at Regis College in Denver, Colorado. Rabbi Schertz served as the Rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for over 25 years and is currently retired and living in Harrisburg.

 

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