Friday, March 7, 2014

MEGILAT ESTHER Ch. 3. Megalomania

ויבז בעיניו לשלוח יד במרדכי לבדו

The villain of the story of Purim is Haman ben Hamedata, a descendant of Amaleq. King Ahashverosh appointed Haman as his  Chief of Staff.  The King also issued an unusual order (Esther 3:2) all the officers of the King's court must prostrate to Haman. Everyone followed the King's order except one man: Mordekhay.
According to the rabbis Mordekhay refused to prostrate to Haman not out of disrespect, but because Haman had been also made a priest,  a representative of a Persian idol he was carrying with him. The Rabbis deduced this insight from the special wording the Megila uses to describe the honors due to Haman. The people were ordered to bow down and kneel down to Haman (likhroa' ulhishtahavot). Now, while bowing down is a sign of respect and honor, kneeling down is an unequivocal act of religious worship. Mordekhay made clear that as a Jew he would not kneel down to Haman, even at the expense of his own life. But the unexpected happened.  When Haman learned about Mordekhay's offense, "he felt contempt to kill Mordekhay alone" (3:6), and anticipating the megalomaniac practices of a mob boss,  he decided to teach Mordekhay a lesson by killing all Mordekhay's brothers and sisters living in the Persian Empire. In other words, the entire Jewish nation.
How would Haman execute his plan? To persuade the King was relatively easy. Among other things, because there were zero operating costs involved. On the contrary: in exchange for the King's edict, Haman offered ten thousand talents of silver for the Royal treasury (3:9). Now, how would Haman recruit so many soldiers and forces to persecute, find and execute hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout the huge Persian Empire? 
Haman came up with a shrewd evil plan, which the Megila briefly describes with two key words: ushlalam la-boz. A Royal Decree was sent to all the King's subjects saying: If you kill a Jew on a specific day (Adar 13), you are not to be prosecuted, the police will not oppose you, on the contrary, law-enforcement forces will be on your side. And, on top of that, you can keep for you the Jew's money, his assets and his properties. It was a genius evil plan. There was no need for professional army forces, or trains to transport the Jews to death camps or gas chambers. Our Rabbis explained that there was no shortage of volunteers for the job. Many people, were fighting among themselves to be the first to kill the Jews on the assigned day and keep their money!
Had Haman succeeded (and he was very close!) it would have been the end of the Jewish people, has veShalom.  At the end, as we all know, Mordekhay and Esther devised an effective plan, and HaShem, from behind the scenes, saved us from extinction.


Candle lighting  in NYC:        5:36 pm
Shabbat ends in NYC:             6:35 pm

Thursday, March 6, 2014

MEGILAT ESTHER 3:8, Credit, an old Jewish innovation

ישנו עם אחד מפוזר ומפורד בין העמים בכל מדינות מלכותך
As we explained yesterday, the Jews were deported from Israel in 586 BCE. At that time, more than 100,000 Jews were living in the Babylonian Empire. The Jews were second class citizens, virtual prisoners of war of the Babylonians.  But the Jewish resilience prevailed. Not only they did not assimilate but in a few decades, especially with the surge of the Persian Empire (538 BCE), the Jews began to thrive. While in Israel, for centuries, the Jews dedicated mainly to agriculture, now they discovered a new enterprise: trade.  The huge Persian Empire was a perfect international free-trade-zone. Some examples.

According to Samuel Kurinsky (see below) the Jews discovered how to produce glass (from sand) including ornamental glass-beads. The Jews exported glass-beads to China in exchange for gold and silver mining rights. 

The Jews also exported to China linen, made in Israel, (thus helping their brothers in Yerushalayim) and imported Chinese silk.  Kurinsky explains that Chinese people fancied linen as much as the west fancied Chinese silk.  Because of the international network they developed, Jews were very prominent in the famous Silk Road.  "...the Jewish enclaves within the region, formed the hub of a network of trade routes that fanned out across Asia to the East and West. Jewish merchants and artisans established colonies at strategic points along those routes....".

Jews were also very strong in the spices trade. They imported exotic spices from China and India,  which were in high demand in the west. 
But all scholars agree that the most successful Jewish enterprise was "credit".  We have records, almost 900 clay tablets, of two families of Jewish bankers, among them the Murashu family.  (see this). Imagine promissory notes, written in Hebrew, that were recognized and honored by other Jewish merchants and financiers in the remote corners of the Persian Empire, which extended from India-China to Sudan-Ethiopia. "Jewish bankers made finance capital a factor of Persian industrial development and initiated a system of credit that Jewish traders wove into the world economy. The surviving records of two Jewish banking families are among the most revealing documents of the Persian period. Jews supplied the credit and capital for the expanding economy of the region."
Probably referring to this international trade-hub, Haman described the Jews to Ahashverosh with great accuracy (Esther 3:8)"There is a certain people spread and dispersed among the peoples, in all the provinces of your kingdom..."
It seems that by the time of Ahashverosh, the Jews in the Persian Empire were economically successful. This could also explain why the majority of the Jewish population (probably over 200,000 Jews) choose to remain in the prosperous Diaspora instead of joining those who returned to Erets Israel in 538 BCE.

For more information about the innovations and entrepreneurship of the Jews in their first diaspora read: "Samuel Kurinsky - The eighth day: the hidden history of the Jewish contribution to civilization"

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

MEGILAT ESTHER Chapter 2. The Jews and the Persian Empire (Part 1)

איש יהודי היה בשושן הבירה ושמו מרדכי בן יאיר בן שמעי בן קיש איש ימיני 

To understand the historical background of Megilat Esther, and particularly in order to realize that not just the Jews of Shushan but the whole Jewish nation was at the brink of extinction , it is critical to know where were the Jews living in the times of Ahasheverosh. 

To give the reader a basic idea of the Jewish demography in the Persian Empire, I will begin by explaining very briefly the story of the Jewish population of Erets Israel,  and tomorrow, BH, I will write about the Jews living outside Israel. 

To remind the reader, the events of Purim took place around the year 480 BCE.  

In 597 BCE Yekhonyah (=Yehoyakhin) the King of Judea is exiled by Nebukhadnetsar. Around  20,000 jews were deported to the Babylonian Empire. Among them, Qish, the great-grandfather of Mordekhai.      

In 586 BCE the first Bet haMiqdash is destroyed.  Approximately 70,000 Jews are deported to Babylon.
In 539 BCE the Persians, lead by Cyrus the Great, conquered the Babylonian Empire. 

In 538 BCE Cyrus announces that God has assigned him to build for Him a house in Yerushalayim, so all Jews wishing to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the house, are welcome to do so. (See  below).   

In 538 BCE  42,360 Jews lead by Zerubabel made Aliya and established themselves in Judea, mainly Yerushalayim.  By 520 they begin to build the Second Temple which is finished and dedicated in 516 BCE, fulfilling the Prophecy of Yirmiyahu, that after 70 years of exile the Jews will have a Bet haMiqdash again. 

By 480 BCE, we can assume that the Jewish population in Judea was no less than 50,000-60,000 Jews. 

The Jews living in Israel were very poor.  They also had many security issues. The Samaritans, a mixed population who practiced a syncretistic religion half-pagan, half-Jewish (see this) ,  would constantly attack them, and would especially try to sabotage the construction of the new Bet-haMiqdash. The Samaritans also pressured the Persian authorities, trying to persuade the Persian governor to Judea to stop their supporting of the Jews, arguing that if the Jews rebuild the Bet-haMiqdash they will eventually rebel against the Persians.  The Jews of Erets Israel relied heavily on their natural allies, their Jewish brothers in the Diaspora, for financial and political support. 

In any case, and beyond the fascinating parallelism between then and today, it is important to know that by 480 BCE the Jews in Israel were part of the Persian Empire. Consequently, they were also subject to the decree of Haman (Every Jew in the Kingdom of Ahashverosh will be killed) and the (good?) Samaritans were ready to help Haman to carry out his mission.    

(to be continued…)

Cyrus' Edict (ca. 538 BCE)

 In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: "Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. Also let the gold and silver utensils of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be returned and brought to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; and you shall put them in the house of God." (Ezra 6:3-5)

"Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth had the LORD, the God of heaven given me; and He had charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people - the LORD, his God, be with him - let him go there. (2 Chronicles 36:23)
Haman's edict (ca. 480 BCE) 
"Then Haman said to King Ahashverosh, 'There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king's laws; it is not in the king's best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king's administrators for the royal treasury.'.... On the thirteenth day of the first month the royal secretaries were summoned. They wrote out in the script of each province and in the language of each people all Haman's orders to the king's satraps, the governors of the various provinces and the nobles of the various peoples. These were written in the name of King Ahashverosh himself and sealed with his own ring. Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews-young and old, women and children-on a single day... A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day.". (Esther, Chapter 3)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

MEGILAT ESTHER Chapter 1. Unintended consequences of alcohol abuse

At the very last day of his six-months party, Ahashverosh was completely drunk.  In that state of mind, he sent for his wife, Queen Vashty, who was having a separate feast for women. He summoned Vashty to come to the men's section leharot ha'amim vehasarim et yofiah "to show-off her beauty in front of the populaces and ministers".  The dignified Queen, as expected, refused to come. When Ahashverosh hears of her refusal he exploded "within" (vahamato ba'ara bo). Rabbi Moshe Almosnino (1515-1580) observes that this word "within" is here for a reason.  Ahashverosh did not exteriorize his anger. He actually tried to belittle Vashty's act of subordination, because he loved Queen Vashty. In a moment of sobriety Ahashverosh realized that summoning Vashty by commissioning seven officers for the mission, had the value of a Royal order. And since Queen Vashty ignored one of the King's order, the consequences would be inevitable. In the Persian Empire disobedience to the King's orders carried the capital punishment. Now, the desperate King seeks the counsel of his advisers. Why? Persian Kings did not need any consultations to condemn someone to death. When Ahashverosh ordered to execute Haman, for example, he consulted no one. In the case of Vashty however, Ahashverosh sought the counsel of his advisers because he realized his mistake and now, he was looking desperately for a way out to reverse the decree and save his beloved Vashty.

But it was too late. The King's advisers prevented Ahashverosh from saving the Queen.  One of them, Memukhan, put things in perspective for him. He said to the King: Vashty's disobedience is not a "personal" matter between you, Ahashverosh, and your wife. Rather, this is a matter of state: one of the King's subject, even as prominent as the Queen, contravened an official order coming from the King on-duty.  Legally, Vashty needs to be punished.  As we know from the decree against the Jews, once a Royal order was issued it cannot be reversed. Even if the order was issued while the King was drunk... 

We learn many lessons from Megilat Esther. One of them is that alcohol in your head might bring you to do things you would not do when you are sober. Things which you might actually regret when you recover your sobriety. But then, it might be too late to go back in time and reverse your mistakes.

Have a very happy and sober Purim! 

Monday, March 3, 2014

MEGILAT ESTHER Chapter 1. Ostentation unlimited

On the third year of his kingdom, King Ahashverosh threw a party (=mishte, a drinking party). Ahashverosh party lasted for 187 days.  His empire was so big that he had to set different times to properly entertain all his guests. Each week Ahashverosh would honor guests from different regions of his Empire (me'am lo'ez). The last seven days were dedicated to the people of Shushan, those who live close to his palace.

Why did Ahashverosh throw such a party? Some speculate that it was done to celebrate his conquest of Egypt or his victory over the Babylonians, who tried to rebel against him.  The Megila is very explicit about the inner psychological motives of Ahashverosh to throw the biggest party ever: behar-oto, (1:4) "to display the wealth of his royal glory and the magnificence of his greatness". In other words: to show off.  Ahashverosh was not the first, and for sure not the last, rich or powerful man who throws a lavish party to show-off his wealth. Rabbi Moshe Almosnino in his commentary to Megilat Esther yede moshe explains that for Ahashverosh money was very important, but honor was more important than money. Usually, when a person seeks honor obsessively, he does that to compensate for his low self-esteem or his inferiority complexes. In the case of Ahashverosh it is very clear that the man was terribly insecure, hesitant and doubtful (1:15, 7:7, etc).

The Megila also shows the unlimited nature of showing-off. The text uses this term "lehar-ot", (to display, to show off) one more time (1:11). On the very last day of the 187 days party, Ahashverosh "merry with wine" summoned up his wife. She had to be escorted to his presence dressed only with her crown "to show the commoners and the officers her beauty".

The message is loud, clear and horrendous: this rich but miserable man, cannot control his urge to show-off, and once he was done exhibiting all his riches, he found one more thing to show-off: his trophy wife, Queen Vashty!

Ostentation is self destructive. And not unexpectedly, the end of the party is tragic.  Vashty was executed for refusing to follow the Royal order. And Ahashverosh, who invested so much in a party meant to boost his ego, ended-up disgraced and humiliated by all (היה אחשורוש שחוק לכל העולם. חז"ל).