A Violent Ending

Despite its uplifting ending, the Book of Esther's ending is violent and troubling.

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Without protesting against the murders in Megillat Esther, the Esh Kodesh (Rabbi Kalonimus Kalmish Shapiro, 1889-1943), writing against the backdrop of the Holocaust, suggests that this type of revenge may be specific to the Purim story, and should not be expected or desired at other moments in history. Thus, he writes, in the story of Hanukkah, the villains are not killed en masse, as God does only what is necessary to free the Jews and to restore the Temple. The massacre that concludes the Purim story, he suggests, is a necessary means of ensuring the security of the Jews, and not simply gratuitous revenge.

Purim & Amalek

As indicated earlier, the story of Purim becomes most ethically problematic when read in conjunction with the command to wipe out Amalek in every generation. To reduce the extent to which the megillah can be used to condone violence in the contemporary world, we might refer to certain interpretations of the struggle against Amalek as a metaphor for an inward struggle. One passage in the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, understands Amalek as the "grave evil" that leads to dissatisfaction with one's lot. 

Similarly, a number of Hasidic writers interpret Amalek as the yetzer hara--the evil instinct. The commandment to wipe out Amalek, according to these readings, cannot be used to justify a massacre such as that described by the megillah, but should instead be understood as a challenge for self-purification. Without making the megillah any less bloody, such understandings of Amalek at least reduce the Purim story to a one-time occurrence and refuse to allow it to become a model for future revenge. The suggestion that the Jews of the megillah kill only in self defense similarly precludes using the megillah as a paradigm for the way that we should act in the world. 

For me, none of these attempts to lessen or to justify the deaths of more than 75,000 people fully responds to the question, well-known to us also from human history, of how an oppressed people can go on to oppress another people. 

In the end, perhaps we might respond to the massacre in accordance with Esther Rabbah, the major collection of midrash on the book of Esther. The last midrash of this collection begins with an appreciation of awe for God, who allows "the murdered to kill their murderers, the crucified to crucify their crucifiers, and the drowned to drown their drowners" (the latter being a reference to the crossing of the Red Sea) and then goes on to declare God's abundance of mercy, loving-kindness, justice, and goodness. The midrash closes with an extended ode to peace, perhaps intended as a subtle critique of the bloodshed with which Megillat Esther itself concludes.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.