Click here for or a short description of the Purim plot.
It’s Purim, time to get out your silly costume and your favorite noisemaker to drown out the name of Haman, that evil bureaucrat who plots to destroy the Jews of Persia because he hates Mordechai. As a kid, I loved Purim with its permission to be silly and noisy in public. But I was always a little confused by the issue of power in the story. I never really understood why King Achashverus, upon learning that his beloved Esther is part of the Jewish people, doesn’t just reverse his order and save the Jews himself. Isn’t he the king? Isn’t he the one in charge?
Now as an adult, I’ve learned more about the dynamics of power, privilege and oppression; and, I have different questions about the Purim narrative. Why is it that only Haman’s name is drowned out by the sound of shouting and stomping? Isn’t Haman just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to oppressive actors in this story? There’s no doubt that Haman is a scheming bigot whose personal hatred of Mordechai becomes fodder for state-supported violence. But if we look at the story as a whole, I believe there is more to learn about how an oppressive system stays in place, and why we sometimes act against our own best interests.
Well before Haman is appointed head minister, before he meets Mordechai and hatches his evil plot, there is already something rotten in Shushan. The opening story about Vashti is more than a plot device to create room for Esther. The opening story reveals the character of the oppressive society. Vashti is exiled not simply for refusing the king, but also because of what her refusal means for the continued enforcement of male-dominance. The King is angry; but, it’s his ministers who demand her exile because they reason, “It is not the King alone that Queen Vashti has offended, but all the ministers and all the nations in all the provinces of King Achashverus.” These ministers understand that maintaining strict patriarchal rule demands vigilance against any sign of rebellion. They express worry that when the women of the kingdom hear about Vashti’s action, “it will belittle their husbands in their eyes…and there will be much disgrace and anger.” So, they convince the king to rid himself of Vashti and “confer her royal title upon another woman who is better than she.” (Read: More obedient.)
This isn’t about an individual woman standing up to an individual man. It’s about the possibility that her action will create a rupture in the system that benefits all the men in Persia. The response of the oppressive system when someone—even someone in the ruling class—dares to rebel is to publicly strip her of her power, banish her from the kingdom, and replace her.
So, is it any surprise that when Haman feels his own power threatened by Mordechai, he makes use of this very same system to target Mordechai and his people? Having witnessed how the king and his court manage threats to their power, Haman guesses that portraying the Jews as a threat to the ruling class will win him support for his genocidal plot. He tells Achashverus, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom: and their laws are different from all the people: nor do they keep the kings laws therefore it is of no benefit to the king to tolerate them.” Haman uses his wealth, his power, and his relationship with the king to turn a case of interpersonal hatred and cultural misunderstanding into legally sanctioned violence against a marginalized minority. And having been raised in an oppressive society where the ruling class uses humiliation and shame to maintain power, how could we expect Haman to act any differently?
Don’t get me wrong. I hold Haman responsible for his actions, including the way he manipulates the system to exercise his power over others. But, why aren’t we also holding the whole system accountable? Isn’t it King Achashverus who sanctions the murder all the Jews in his kingdom? What about all the ministers, scribes and other functionaries who simply go along with Haman’s plot? Aren’t they all complicit? It’s easy to point to the unrepentant bigots who promote an obviously racist agenda. It’s comforting to imagine that if we could just drown out their voices then we could end oppression. But it’s not that simple.
Even once Haman is revealed and punished, the laws he put into place, with the support of the King, are still in effect. The day of violence and murder against the Jews of Persia is still on the calendar. The text tells us explicitly that King can’t simply revoke his earlier edict. There is a moment of crisis and also potential for transformation. Esther has powerfully thwarted the system, first by going to the king unbidden and then by revealing Haman. There are so many possible outcomes here if the actors could think creatively. But they don’t. Esther and Mordechai use their new power to arm the Jews, and the end of the megillah is full of the numbers of people killed by armed Jews in retaliation for the attempted slaughter. As contemporary Jews, many of us cringe. So let’s look at the moment of crisis through the lens of power, privilege and oppression asking “why didn’t they act differently?” Acheshverus doesn’t because as the one in power it’s not in his interest to find a peaceful solution. Esther and Mordechai don’t because as representatives of a minority threatened with existential violence using borrowed power, it is really hard to think clearly and creatively. So, here are the questions I want to ask this year as we read the Purim narrative again: What does it mean to hold everyone and the entire system accountable? And, what is the work we need to do to decolonize our own minds so we can think clearly and creatively about ways to dismantle the oppressive systems that govern every aspect of our lives?