Category: not about disability rights

My Favorite Part of the Purim Story

Last week was Purim, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from the genocidal Haman in the ancient Persian empire. Purim happens to be one of my favorite holidays, not least because it involves dressing up in funny costumes, performing plays that parody current events and whatever your favorite alcoholic beverage of choice is. Still, without a doubt, my favorite part of the Purim holiday is the reading of Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther), the story of how Esther and Mordechai saved the Jewish people from Haman’s plot to wipe us out.

The story is well known to most Jews, and very enjoyable in both the hearing and the telling (though some tellings are more creative than others). My favorite part is about halfway through, when the King can’t sleep, so has one of his servants begin reading to him from the book of records (presumably with the hope that this would conk him right out – Ahasuerus is very obviously not a policy wonk). The records reflect that some years previously, Mordechai had informed the Palace of a plot by two of the King’s chamberlains to murder the King. This being behavior that royalty likes to reward (in the quite understandable hope to remain thoroughly un-murdered), the King asks, “What Honour and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this?” and is quite shocked to discover that the answer is precisely bupkis.

Not one to let insomnia hold him back from affairs of state, the King summons Haman into his room. Haman has been loitering in the courtyard preparing to ask the King for permission to hang Mordechai, for the unpardonable crime of not bowing down to the man who would most certainly Make Shushan Great Again. This is after he has already convinced the King at the beginning of the tale to endorse a decree that marked the Jewish residents of his empire for genocide on a date he appoints. Before he can make the request to execute Mordechai in particular, however, the King queries him, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?”

Haman, being the down to earth guy that he is, thinks to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honour besides myself?” and describes his own perfect day out on the town. “For the Man Whom the king Delighteth to Honour, let royal apparel be Brought Which the king Useth to wear, and the horse That the king Rideth upon, and on Whose head a crown royal is set and let the apparel and the horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes, That They may array the man Therewith Whom the king Delighteth to Honour, and cause Him to ride on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him: Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour!”

The King is overjoyed with Haman’s response, and immediately cries out, “Make haste, and take the apparel and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew!” What followed was most definitively not Haman’s best day, as he led Mordechai through the streets, delivering to the pious and unbowed Mordechai his own lusted for ego trip.

Why do I love this story? Because it’s funny, certainly. And also because it involves an unprincipled power-seeker receiving an ironic comeuppance. Speaking as someone who works in a city filled with unprincipled power-seekers, that’s quite a draw. But there’s another reason I love it. You see, the truth is that this part of the story is unnecessary to the narrative. It’s an interlude in the larger Purim tale, which is much more about Queen Esther’s courage to use the privilege and power of her position to save her people, even at great personal risk to her life. You could tell that whole story without this amusing tale of Haman’s humiliation. Yet the Megillah includes it, and I have a theory as to why.

Megillat Esther is somewhat unique among Jewish holiday narratives in that it lacks any form of direct divine intervention. Passover comes with the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea; Shavout has the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Even Hannukah, which is primarily about a secular military victory and, like Purim, is not biblical in origin, has the ‘miracle’ of the oil which lasted for eight days when only enough for one was left. Purim has no such miracles, no direct divine intervention. When the Jewish people are finally saved thanks to Esther denouncing Haman and enlisting the support of the rather flighty Ahasuerus in enabling the Jews to fight for their lives, there is no violation of the laws of nature to bring about this victory. It is a small win, and one entirely attributable to human efforts.

So also is Haman’s humiliation and Mordechai’s unwitting elevation, even if it is a sidenote in the more important story of Esther’s bravery. Indeed, this part of the story seems to be the result of neither human will or divine intervention. Instead, it’s just pure dumb luck. Events transpire in just the right way, from the King’s insomnia to Haman’s loitering in the courtyard at just the right time, to enable this cherry on the sundae of the Jews’ deliverance.

Though it is less impressive than the parting of the sea or raining down mana from above, this is much more like how we look for G-d in the modern era. The Talmud teaches us that it is forbidden to rely on miracles – that we must live our lives with the expectation that it will be our choices and our efforts that will lead to our success or failure. To sit around and wait for G-d to elevate you – or to be foolhardy with ones life in the confidence that a miracle will preserve you – is strictly prohibited. Joshua could count on G-d to halt the sun in the sky to win a battle and Moses could use the tools that G-d gave him as proof of his divine mandate. We just have to do our very bests, hoping for an outcome that will likely be indistinguishable from a lucky break.

But sometimes, despite not lounging about in expectation, we succeed against truly shocking odds. Sometimes this happens through the success of a dangerous gambit we only took because our moral obligations left us no choice, like Queen Esther risking it all to approach the King and ask for the salvation of the Jewish people. Sometimes it comes through no particular plan of ours, when a good deed from long ago comes back to reward us when we least expect it, as it did for Mordechai. In these moments, I feel the divine presence. I don’t mean it in a proselytizing sense – we Jews don’t do that, and everyone should feel free to interpret the world in the way that helps them manage life’s challenges best for them. But for me, there is something profoundly meaningful in seeing G-d when I find success despite long odds – especially when I know that any success is an interlude between past and future failures. The story of Esther serves as a bridge between the biblical age of miracles and the world we have now. In the world we live in, stuck relying on our own efforts and dumb luck to save us and those we care about, it helps a lot to feel G-d at ones back when we finally eke out a win.

Jefferson, Jabotinsky and the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post, this being a personal blog I will on occasion write about things that interest me and perhaps few others. The internet being a vast and bizarre place, maybe someone of similar interests will stumble across this post.

Thanks to my newfound love of the hip hop musical history Hamilton, I’ve been reading some of the Founding Father’s correspondence on founders.archives.gov. I’d recommend the hobby to anyone. Few pleasures compare to going through someone else’s mail – all the more so if they happened to have started your country.

There’s a lot worth writing about in those archives, but one thing that jumped out of me in particular was a letter Jefferson wrote to John Jay on September 19th, 1789 while America’s Minister to France. Shortly before his departure, Jefferson began writing regular updates on the state of internal politics in Revolutionary France to John Jay, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the nascent United States.

“Civil war is much talked of and expected: and this talk and expectation has a tendency to beget it. What are the events which may produce it? The want of bread… A public bankruptcy…[and] the absconding of the king from Versailles. 

This [last] has for some time been apprehended as possible. In consequence of this apprehension, a person whose information would have weight, wrote to the Count de Montmorin adjuring him to prevent it by every possible means, and assuring him that the flight of the king would be the signal of a St. Barthelemi against the aristocrats in Paris and perhaps thro the kingdom. M. de Montmorin shewed the letter to the queen, who assured him solemnly that no such thing was in contemplation. His shewing it to the queen proves he entertained the same distrust with the public. It may be asked what is the queen disposed to do in the present situation of things? Whatever rage, pride and fear can dictate in a breast which never knew the presence of one moral restraint.”

There is much of interest in this correspondence – the casual contempt Jefferson possesses for the morals of the 33-year old Marie Antoinette and the perilous political situation in France are both crystal clear. But neither of these things are new for any reasonably educated student of history. No, what I find fascinating is the particular reference Jefferson uses to warn of a potential massacre of the French aristocracy.

“The flight of the king would be the signal of a St. Barthelemi against the aristocrats in Paris and perhaps thro the kingdom”

What is this St. Barthelemi that Jefferson and the French aristocracy feared? How well known must it have been that he felt he could drop it casually into an official diplomatic communication to his superiors in the new American government?

As it happens, I had heard the term previously – in Hillel Halkin’s excellent recent biography of Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. In 1898, over a hundred years after Jefferson’s letter, Jabotinsky attended a lecture by Nachum Syrkin, an early proponent of socialist Zionism. Jabotinsky, then an 18-year old law student at the University of Berne with little prior knowledge of Zionism, commented that he had insufficient knowledge of socialism to commit to that ideology, but he felt that Europe’s Jews must make plans to flee to Palestine as “the only hope of avoiding a Bartholomew’s Night”. 

What was this St. Bartholomew’s Massacre? More importantly, how was it so well known that a world renowned statesman like Jefferson and a Jewish teenager like Jabotinsky could each casually drop it into conversation a century apart from each other, both with a perfect expectation of being understood by those around them?

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place in 1572 during a brief interlude in the French Wars of Religion between the Catholic establishment and the Protestant Huguenots. Huguenot leaders had gathered in Paris, a rabidly Catholic city, to celebrate the upcoming wedding of the King’s sister Margaret, a Catholic, to the Protestant prince Henry of Navarre. The marriage was designed to cement a fragile peace between the warring factions. 

Unfortunately, several days after the wedding, the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was shot by an assassin working for parties still unknown. The bullet failed to inflict life-threatening injuries, but Catholic leaders feared retaliation from the Huguenots and decided to preemptively kill their leadership. Acting on instructions from the King and his mother, Catherine de’Medici, the King’s Guard engaged in a coordinated assassination of several dozen Huguenot leaders in the early hours of the morning. 

Seeing that the King was ready to sanction violence against Protestants, Parisian mobs quickly formed to hunt them down throughout the city. For the next three days, mass slaughters ensued throughout Paris, with men, women and children murdered in their homes and in the streets, their bodies then dumped into the river Seine. Elsewhere in France, similar events took place over the next several weeks. Modern historians place the death toll somewhere between 5,000 to 30,000 people. After the Paris massacre, the city had to pay workmen to bury and pull from the banks of the Seine over a thousand bodies.

These grisly details certainly justify the use of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre as a natural allusion for mass violence against a specific group. But how to explain the persistence of this reference, centuries after the event? 

This is what I find truly striking, and indicative of the degree to which 1898 and 1789 (and perhaps even 1572) belonged to the same era in a way that 2015 does not. The St. Bartholomew’s Massacre remained a common reference as late as 1916, when the famous (and incredibly racist) filmmaker D.W. Griffith incorporated it as a major part of the narrative in one his films. But as World War One raged on, it would soon become irrelevant as a symbol for mass slaughter.

In the end, the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre could persist for three hundred years as an easy reference for horrifying violence because it was relatively rare in European history that such violence took place against a group that was accepted as part of the European polity. While Jews were regularly subject to such massacres, most European nations legally prohibited Jews from citizenship till the 19th century, with horrifying anti-semitism continuing (and in some places, intensifying) well beyond that. Europe’s pervasive and institutionalized anti-semitism prevented such events from being seen with horror in the historical record. 

Ditto colonial massacres or the many and varied forms of violence that accompanied the slave trade. Europeans did not see violence against Jews or Africans as truly capable of motivating any form of visceral horror. St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, taking place as it did against a European Christian population (albeit a minority one rabidly hated by the French populace), carried more resonance. After all, it was very unusual to see violence on that scale against people who “mattered”.

The 20th century brought a succession of sectarian massacres that made insignificant the mere tens of thousands of victims of St. Bartholomew’s. After Gallipoli or the trench warfare of France in World War One, let alone the industrialized murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, the St Bartholomew’s massacre no longer stood out. Even Jabotinsky, who foresaw the danger and spent his entire adult life attempting to open the gates of Palestine to allow Europe’s Jews to escape before it was too late, would have had a hard time imagining the depths of horror that the 20th century would bring. No modern commentator would reference St. Barthelemi as the archetype of eliminationist violence. Terrible as it is to realize, the 20th century made small potatoes of the most horrifying event that 18th and 19th century thinkers could think of.