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How The Fight Against Hamas Is Like The Fight Against Haman

This is not the first time Israel has been drawn into a conflict that resulted in tragic deaths of civilians on the other side, nor is it the first time those tragic deaths have sparked heated battles not just in Gaza but on the web and in the streets. It’s not the first time we (and, proud and grateful American though I am, “we” here refers unabashedly to Israel) have been accused, at best, of not doing enough to prevent these deaths, and at worst, of actively seeking them.

Those accusations make me ill. So do the deaths. 

I don’t know anything about politics and I don’t know anything about warfare, but it seems to me that we don’t have a choice but to go after Hamas with everything we’ve got. It seems to me that we go above and beyond to prevent civilian deaths, as we should and must. It seems to me that the best avenue to really prevent civilian deaths would be for Hamas to give back our people and stop trying to kill us.

I don’t know anything about politics and I don’t know anything about warfare, but it seems to me that we are not the ones looking to kill. 

We (read: Israel) are only looking to protect, to defend. It’s right there in the name – the Israel Defense Forces. 

This is true in current events, as it was at the time of the Purim story we commemorate each year. 

It’s so very clear; all one has to do is read the book. 

What’s the story about? In a nutshell, this guy named Haman convinced the Persian king to let him make a decree that all the Jews in all his 127 provinces should be killed on a particular day – but Esther, the Jewish queen, intervened (remember, this is the short, short version), and her cousin Mordechai crafted a new decree, with the king’s signature, that saved the Jews.

Let’s take a closer look at the two decrees: 

Haman’s letters said:

To destroy, to kill, and to wipe out all the Jews, from young to old, children and women, on one day – on the 13th of the 12th month, which is the month of Adar – and to take their spoils as plunder. The text of the document, to be given as law in each and every province, revealed to all the peoples, to be ready for that day. (Esther 3:13-14) 

The situation was as bleak as it sounds, but Esther prevailed and Haman was killed. Once they had the king on their side, Esther and Mordechai hoped he would simply cancel that terrible decree; however, apparently, cancelling a royal decree was unheard of and simply couldn’t be done, so they had to find a creative solution (8:8). 

Mordechai’s letters said:

That the king gave to the Jews in each and every city to gather and to stand for their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to wipe out the entire armed force of every people or province that attacks them, children and women, and to take their spoils as plunder. On one day, in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh, on the 13th of the 12th month, which is the month of Adar. The text of the document, to be given as law in each and every province, revealed to all the peoples, and for the Jews to be ready for that day to avenge themselves from their enemies. (Esther 8:11-13)

The similarities are striking, and so are the differences. Most obviously: the Jews are to be killed, in Haman’s decree, for…no stated reason at all. The Jews are to kill, in Mordechai’s decree, purely in response to attack. 

Purim and current events. Indeed, there is much that connects these topics. 

Commentaries point out all sorts of further nuances in the differences and similarities in the phrasing of these decrees and their promulgation, with lots of subtle explanations of Haman’s and Mordechai’s different goals and strategies. One of these similarities struck me in particular, in my own reading of the megillah, in light of the very clear differences in their respective motivations to fight. 

“And to take their spoils as plunder.” While Haman’s letters don’t state his reason for killing the Jews, they do imply a motivation to comply. Free reign not just to kill, whether you’ve ever had a beef with your Jewish neighbors or not, but to take what you want! Way to stimulate antisemitic sentiments, right? Any given Persian-on-the-street may not have had any problem with Jewish people before, but given some time to contemplate the neighbor’s silver candlesticks, perhaps, or a colleague’s beautiful necklace… maybe that decree starts to sound pretty good. 

But Mordechai? Why does Mordechai tell the Jews to take plunder? Is that part of self-defense? Is any material motivation necessary when faced with a threat to one’s life? Is it admirable?

Certainly not. That one line of Mordechai’s letter is nothing like what I’d expect from Jewish lovers and protectors of life, from the nation charged with representing ethical monotheism to the world. 

Why did he include it? 

Some commentaries seem to take this line at face value, as a reasonable element of the coming warfare; for instance, the 16th-century Portuguese commentator Yosef ibn Yachya simply comments “midah keneged midah” (measure for measure), implying that he sees the inclusion of plunder in Mordechai’s decree as just recompense for their enemies’ attempt to plunder them. The Maharal, in his commentary Ohr Chadash, suggests that taking plunder would enhance public perception of the Jewish victory and complete overturning of Haman’s decree. 

Of course, while we certainly want to publicize our miraculous victories and the implicit Divine providence behind them (indeed, that’s a key theme in our Purim celebrations), we care about much more than just public perception. In any conflict, we need to remain true to our values.  

And in fact, the Maharal goes on to suggest that subtle distinctions in the wording of Haman’s and Mordechai’s letters highlight the priority Mordechai placed on Jewish lives over the acquisition of spoils – unlike Haman. The Maharal also emphasizes, as do other scholars (and anyone who pays attention to the megillah), that the entire goal of the Jewish license to kill was for the sake of “standing for their lives,” and that had there been a way to rescind Haman’s decree without any killing at all, they would have done that. (Just note how many times it’s specified that they killed “their enemies,” or “those who sought their harm,” etc.) 

Because it’s not just about what others think of the Jews, but about who we are, and what we value. It’s not just a question of whether others will condone or condemn us for fighting back; we, too, cry for the lives we are forced to take. 

On a similar note, Malbim highlights nuances in Mordechai’s wording that he thinks were designed to convey that he did not want the Jews to actually take plunder, as it would be beneath them to even give the impression that that was their motivation; the line was included because Mordechai felt he could not deviate too much from the original decree, but the Jews were to realize they should stay away from the spoils. (See Ibn Ezra and Immanuel of Rome for a fascinating explanation of why Mordechai kept the wording of his letters so close to Haman’s.)  

And indeed, if we’re surprised to find “and to take their spoils as plunder” in a directive to the Jews of ancient Persia, we should make sure to keep reading – because we are told no less than three times that as it happened, they didn’t touch it (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). As Rashi notes, “they demonstrated to all that it was not done for the sake of money” (Rashi on 8:11). 

We never want to kill; when we’re forced to, it is upon us to make very clear – to ourselves as well as to the world – that we are doing only what we must, because we must. 

It is probably the context of current events (read: the war in Gaza, and the hostage situation) that made another line jump out to me this year more poignantly than it ever has before. When Esther reveals her identity and the threat of Haman’s plans to the king, she says something very odd: 

For I and my people have been sold to destroy, to kill, and to wipe out – and if we had [only] been sold as slaves and handmaids, I would have kept silent, for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble. (Esther 7:4)

What a terrible way to feel – that our freedom and quality of life aren’t worth speaking up about, that all we deserve to plead for is to be able to keep breathing, that we have to apologize even for asking that much. And yet, here we are, again. 

As we approach Purim, I pray that these recurring themes in the story of Purim, in current events, and in so much of history along the way, will be overturned as completely as Haman’s decree. I pray that we will return to “words of peace and truth” like those Esther disseminated after the battles of Purim (Esther 9:30). I pray that we will be allowed to live, in safety and security – not “only sold” into oppression – and with the freedom to refrain from killing and to focus instead on gathering in joy and light, as in those days at this time. 

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