Rabbi Goldschmidt

Purim The Upside-Down World

Recent events within the world such as the Corona Virus have caused us all to ask some very serious questions.

Hopefully within the myriad of all these questions is a prevailing answer: “We are not in full control of our lives” – We exist as independent entities in a world not of our choosing, we are all subject to the whims of political forces, natural phenomena and social issues – none of our choosing – that directly affect us and our plans.

For the Israelites in the book of Esther they lived a dual existence:

The Achaemenid Empire (“əˈkiːmənɪd”; or in Old Persian: “Xšāça”, literally ‘The Empire’), also called the First Persian Empire[1] was larger than any previous civilization in history, spanning 5.5 miilion square kilometers (2.1 million square miles)[2] stretched from the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the west to the Indus Valley in the east, as our verse teaches us[3]:

וַיְהִ֖י בִּימֵ֣י אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ ה֣וּא אֲחַשְׁוֵר֗וֹשׁ הַמֹּלֵךְ֙ מֵהֹ֣דּוּ וְעַד־כּ֔וּשׁ שֶׁ֛בַע וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים וּמֵאָ֖ה מְדִינָֽה׃
It happened in the days of Ahasuerus – the Ahasuerus who reigned over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Nubia.

The historical veracity of the Tanach’s account of the Book of Esther is challenged by many scholars. However, many historical details including the description of the number of provinces and other cultural observations lend considerable evidence towards the historical veracity of the book:

The Empire was first established in the 7th century CE and reigned until its defeat by Alexander the Great in 330 CE and was by our own standards a civilization with very modern features such as centralized government, a multicultural policy including various religions & worldviews; building infrastructure, such as standardized road systems and an integrated postal system; the use of a singular official language across all of its territories ( the language was Elamite: This is primarily attested in the Persepolis fortification and treasury tablets that reveal details of the day-to-day functioning of the empire[4], these rock-face inscriptions of the kings, the Elamite texts are almost always accompanied by Akkadian (an older Babylonian dialect) and Old Persian inscriptions, and it appears that in many of these cases, the Elamite texts are translations of the Older Persian ones).

The Persians perused development of their civil services, including its possession of a large, professional army. The empire’s successes inspired the usage of similar systems in many later empires.

Historically the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther is most identified as with Xerxes I ( reigned: 486 to 465 CE) by the majority of historical scholars, Xerxes I was the son of Darius the Great (reigned: 522–486 CE) and the grandson of Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II who reigned 559-530 CE) who is mentioned multiple times in our Tanach, even referring to him as a Messiah[5]. Cyrus is the only non-Israelite figure in the Tanach to be given this exalted title and also the last person mentioned at the end of the Tanach![6]

The Israelites who lived in the Achaemenid Empire enjoyed relative comfort and even at times prosperity. Like today they lived in a multicultural civilization composed of various races, religions, classes and worldviews and their unique cultural perspective and religion was accepted and cherished as part of the greater society they were so proud of building.

However, in a moment the tide turned against the Israelites in exile much in the same way as the Israelites in Egypt[7]:

וַיָּ֥קׇם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

Many of us are familiar with the famous Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105)[8] on this verse sourced from the Talmud[9]:

אשר לא ידע: עָשָׂה עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ לֹא יְדָעוֹ
He comported himself as though he did not know him.

The switch is immediate, from a prosperous and even favored position to a highly precarious and dangerous situation.
Far from being the realm of the Tanach and Jewish history, we must inscribe on our hearts the obvious:

No matter how secure and affluent the Jewish people may become in a society, things can changes in a heartbeat.

We live in an upside world as the Talmud records the following famous parable[10]:

וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי אָמַר: אֵלּוּ בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁיְּקָרִין הֵן בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, וּקְפוּיִין הֵן לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. כִּי הָא דְּרַב יוֹסֵף בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי חֲלַשׁ וְאִיתְנְגִיד, כִּי הֲדַר, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֲבוּהּ: מַאי חֲזֵית? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: עוֹלָם הָפוּךְ רָאִיתִי, עֶלְיוֹנִים לְמַטָּה, וְתַחְתּוֹנִים לְמַעְלָה. אָמַר לוֹ: בְּנִי, עוֹלָם בָּרוּר רָאִיתָ

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Those are people who are considered important [Yekarim] in this world and unimportant [Ke’fuyim] in the World-to-Come:
This is like the incident involving Rav Yosef, son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who became ill and was about to expire. When he returned to good health, his father said to him: What did you see when you were about to die? He said to him: I saw an inverted world. Those “above” (those who are considered important in this world), were below, insignificant, while those “below” (those who are insignificant in this world) were “above?”:
He (Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi) said to him: My son, you have seen the clear world (the True world).

Whilst the Jewish world certainly has its share of genius inventors, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, academics and others – this is not our primary purpose, rather it is secondary to our actual Divine purpose for which we are here[11]:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥ לִי֙ עֶ֔בֶד לְהָקִים֙ אֶת־שִׁבְטֵ֣י יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב (ונצירי) [וּנְצוּרֵ֥י] יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהָשִׁ֑יב וּנְתַתִּ֙יךָ֙ לְא֣וֹר גּוֹיִ֔ם לִהְי֥וֹת יְשׁוּעָתִ֖י עַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃

For He (Hashem) has said:
“It is too little that you should be My servant
In that I raise up the tribes of Jacob
And restore the survivors of Israel:
I will also make you a light unto nations,
That My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

Our primary role is not in the area of the free market, creation and innovation or even education, but rather to be a moral and spiritual role model:
Although we may fall short of this task at times, that too is a needed element of the process. It cannot happen from the perspective of getting it right all the time, rather it is our failures that spur us onwards towards betterment and to the eventual creation of loving and caring society.

Perhaps the most backwards element of our history is that the Jewish people fail to inculcate the required lesson: too often we focus on the superficial instead of the spiritual, it is perhaps one of the reasons that our Sages instituted the festival of Purim:

[12] “The origin of the word `Pur’ would seem to be Persian. As written in the Book of Esther, it means a “lot”, Purim is the plural form of the word פור `Pur’, and thus means “lots”, The festival is called Purim because of the lots cast by Haman.

“The word Pur is also related to the Hebrew word פורר `Porer’ which means to dismantle, break, destroy, break into crumbs. The word `Efir’, derived from the verb `Pur’, has the sense of cancellation, cessation, breaking of something permanent, such as violating an alliance, breaking a marriage, breaking a strike.

“The earliest meaning of the word “Pur” is small fragments of stones or pottery. This very ancient use of the word has its source in an ancient custom of drawing lots by throwing small stones or stone splinters into an urn. We know of this manner of drawing lots from the Bible. In the book of Joshua, it was discovered that Achan had violated the “Herem” (decree) on Jericho only after lots were drawn on all the people, first by tribes and then within the tribe, by families.

“A similar usage was prevalent in ancient Greece, in the city of Athens:
In order to determine who was undesirable in the city and should be banished, the names were written on potsherds (ostracon) and thrown into an urn. This is the origin of the word ostracism, that means to exclude, by general consent, from society and privileges.”

We can either fall into the illusion that all things are chance or believe they are from Divine decree – the Book of Esther is unique in that it is the only Book of the Tanach in which Hashem’s name is not mentioned once: according to tradition it is because the story of Esther is one of how Hashem works “behind the scenes”, Esther’s own name comes from the same Hebrew root as the word for “hidden”.

I am reminded of a story from a fellow Rabbi who was at the Bimah one Friday night when, whilst busy greeting various members of the community, he was asked the following philosophical question by a 7 year old boy:
“Rabbi, why is G-d invisible?”

The Rabbi in question considered many possible answers to give to the child, thinking of the Rambam or perhaps a traditional answer along the lines of Jewish philosophy, then he asked perhaps the most important (if not unfortunately underused) question in the field of education:

“What do you think?”

The boy smiled and replied:
“If Hashem did not hide, how could we look for him?”

One of the more obvious truths about the Purim narrative is that despite how much we dress it up the reality of the actual terror within the story is inescapable; a tyrannical ­­­­king who has his wife murdered for not being paraded as an object, in response the ministers suggest the forced marriage of hundreds of young girls from across his vast empire. A cruel power hungry minister, Haman, due to personal insult orders an entire people to put to death to satisfy his ego.

The deep dissonance between the tension of the story and the style of festive celebration only further serves the purpose of exploring the confusion between Good and Evil: after all, as we know from the story of Garden of Eden and the Tree[13] of the knowledge of Good and Evil – our world is a constant state of confusion and that our human subjectivity is more often the culprit than the hero of history.

The Talmud[14] suggests that the Jewish people faced annihilation at the hands of Haman in the Purim story because they enjoyed themselves at the party thrown by Achashverosh. We can see this idea also in the Chumash in reference to the Golden Calf[15]:

וַֽיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר קָרַב֙ אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הָעֵ֖גֶל וּמְחֹלֹ֑ת וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֤ךְ מִיָּדָו֙ אֶת־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת וַיְשַׁבֵּ֥ר אֹתָ֖ם תַּ֥חַת הָהָֽר׃

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

In the Purim story the Jews were not required to attend the party, they did so willingly – at the Golden Calf they not only worshipped idols, they did so in joy and merriment. It was the celebration of Evil as Good that ultimately caused the decree to be placed upon the people. On Purim we do the opposite: we take this story with its tension, evil and underlying adult themes and turn it into a happy festival dedicated to Hashem.

The world we experience is spiritually upside down – we prioritise the physical, often transient ideals above the spiritual, we ascribe worth to pop stars, sporting heroes and political persons rather than acts of kindness, morality in the face of evil and Judaism’s primary ethical teaching of the need to be a giver – this world appears as dog eat dog, every man for himself; survival only of the fittest.

Our teaching of community, service, support of the weak and acts of lovingkindness is an act of rebellion against this worldview.

Purim is a time when we put on masks and find meaning in seeking ourselves and each other, it is a time where we can dress up as whatever we please and still be ourselves, because our worth, according to the Torah, is measured not only in our roles, jobs or material success but in our personality and strength of character.

Ultimately being a Jew in an upside down world is actually quite simple, you just have to be prepared to turn yourself the right way round.

Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt 2022 ©

[1] Sampson, Gareth C. (2008). The Defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae and the Invasion of the East. Pen & Sword Books Limited. p. 33.

[2] Taagepera, Rein (1979). “Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 600 B.C. to 600 A.D”. Social Science History. 3 (3/4): 121.

[3] Book of Esther 1:1

[4] Dandamayev, Muhammad (2002). “Persepolis Elamite Tablets”. Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 1 November 2013.

[5] Isaiah 45:1

[6] Chronicles: 36:22-23

[7] Shemot/Exodus: 1:8

[8] Ibid: 1:8

[9] Talmud Bavli: Sotah:11a

[10] Talmud Bavli: Pesachim 50a

[11] Isaiah: 49:6

[12] Dr. Aviv Ekroni & Rafi Banai From: “Hetz”, Journal of the former Department for Jewish Education and Culture in the Diaspora (Jewish Agency: 15 Jun 2005)

[13] Genisis/Bereshit: 1-2

[14] Talmud Balvi: Megillah: 12a

[15] Shemot/Exodus 32:19