On the Joke of the Megillah

Translated by Levi Morrow

Translated by Levi Morrow, first published in the blog kavvanah.wordpress.com. The hebrew version was published in the book ‘the Remainder of Faith’.
a sermon for Purim: on irony and parody in the megillah, living with absurd, and a trust in god that does not guarantee anything.

A Sharpened Critique[1]

The megillah is unquestionably a parody. The author shoots the sharp arrows of his irony in every direction.[2] They are aimed, first and foremost, not at Haman but at Aḥashverosh. There are many examples of this, such as the exaggerated description of Aḥashverosh’s feast that opens the megillah:

At the end of this period, the king gave a banquet for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike. [There were hangings of] white cotton and blue wool, caught up by cords of fine linen and purple wool to silver rods and alabaster columns; and there were couches of gold and silver on a pavement of marble, alabaster, mother-of-pearl, and mosaics. Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design. And the rule for the drinking was, “No restrictions!” For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes. (Esther, 1:5-8)

The mocking description of the feast reaches its crescendo when the king is not satisfied with “displaying the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty for one hundred and eighty days” (1:4), for half a year, no less, and his ostentatious urges lead him to command: “bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she is beautiful” (1:11).

At the center of the megillah’s critique stands the law (חוק), “the procedure (דת) of Shushan the capital”. This critique first arises in the narrative of Vashti. Drawing on the Purim-esque spirit of the megillah, the event can be described thusly: An urgent cabinet meeting gathered in the palace of Aḥashverosh with the highest legal forum of the seven officers of Persia and Medea, all well-versed in the laws and procedures, in order to determine “what the correct procedure is for dealing with Queen Vashti” (1:15). Aḥashverosh acts, of course, exclusively within the framework of the law. The conclusion of the legal debate is almost too meaningful; “that every man should wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people” (1:22). Such an important decision, made by such important people and of such great significance, of course had to be distributed via all means of communication available to the empire. “Dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the king, to every province in its own script and to every nation in its own language” (ibid.). The dramatization here is ridiculous and makes fun of itself. They are legislating something so trivial and self-evident. The Persian empire was multi-national, “a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia” (1:1), such that linguistic pluralism was a present reality, and the time was well before the feminist era.

The author of the megillah mocks and derides Aḥashverosh’s devotion to the law, devotion that stands in total contrast to his caprice and hedonism that appear throughout the megillah. The hedonism of the king, of course, is shown in the ridiculous description of the young women being brought to Shushan and waiting in line, cleansing in “the twelve months’ treatment prescribed for women.  That was the period spent on beautifying them: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics” (2:12), and this in order to pleasure the king.[3]

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In the Theater of the Absurd

Exacting in law and acting exclusively via legislation and government, Aḥashverosh enthrones exaggeration, lack of proportion, and kitsch alongside caprice and unrestrained indulgence. The book repeats this depiction throughout the book, this exactingness is combined with the famous Persian bureaucracy, which itself does not escape the irony and joke of the megillah unscathed. The runners and riders of the king’s steeds go to-and-fro, carrying messages from Haman one time and from Mordechai the next; this state is a state of law and “an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (8:8).

Only this joke is not at all funny. A deep terror lies at its foundation. Aḥashverosh’s caprice, anchored in law, is lethal to the point of absurdity. The scariest piece of it all is that the different actors in the megillah – Mordechai and Esther, the youths and the gatekeepers – don’t seem to notice how absurd it all is; they think that the law is as serious and as logical as it gets. The megillah’s parodic depiction only ramps up the dread. A story about a feast, an exiled queen, another crowned in her place, and a man who will not bow yields a cost so heavy and disproportionate to the frivolity and mundanity of the story itself: the decree, enshrined in law, “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women” (3:13).

The joke of the megillah is a response to a deep, bitter, despair over an absurd situation: the author of the megillah discovers that what ought to be serious (the law) is a parody, and the parody, incredibly, makes it all the more funny and absurd. The cost of entry to the megillah’s theater of the absurd is life and death. Where does this lead? To laughter, or perhaps despair.[4]

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So Shall Be Done

On its own, the story that the megillah tells is not at all funny. On the contrary, the threat of genocide inspires fear more than laughter, even if we were ultimately saved. So why does the megillah make all of this into a joke? The danger is tangible and serious; Esther’s fear, Mordechai’s cries, the mourning and the sackcloth, these aren’t nothing. Where did the author get the ability to turn the frightening into the funny? To tear away the mask and reveal the ridiculous in the foolish?

The megillah seems to provide a clear answer.[5] The ability to laugh at all of this comes from the knowledge that the actors are just puppets controlled by a hidden puppeteer, shaping the performance according to his own intentions.

This knowledge does not override the awful human experience of chaotic happenstance and of the total absence of any guiding hand behind events that arises from the megillah. In fact, the reverse is true. Paradoxically, the Divine  decree highlights the human happenstance rather than erasing it.

The story teaches about the incidental and unstable nature of Jewish existence in specific and of human existence in general. For example, regarding Mordechai the Jew who sits at the gate of the king: who is the “man whom the king desires to honor” (6:11), Haman or Mordechai? The clear answer would seem to be Mordechai. He wears the king’s royal clothing, he is led around on a horse, and he is ultimately chosen to be the king’s right hand. However, is he guaranteed a secure and redeemed existence after he rises to greatness? Various verses indicate a parallel between Haman’s position before his fall from grace and Mordechai’s position after his rise, suggesting that he is anything but.

Furthermore, the phrase “So shall be done for the man whom the king desires to honor” (ibid.), describing Mordechai as he rides on the king’s horse, shows up in only one other place in Tanakh[6]: “his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: So shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house” (Devarim 25:9). In light of this, should we not read “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor” as spit in Mordechai’s face?… “Here today, gone the next” as they say; yesterday Haman, today Mordechai, and tomorrow who knows?!

Indeed, Hasidic texts see the phrase “Just so” (ככה) as standing at the center of the megillah. “‘So shall be done for the man whom the king desires to honor’ – the use of “so” is not accidental.”[7] They further expounded: “The word “so” (ככה) should be read with ‘the holiness of the crown’[8] in mind – “so” (ככ״ה) is an acronym for “the crown of all crowns[9] (כתר כל הכתרים).

The fickle caprice of this world, the baseless and meaningless rises and falls, merge with the absolute Divine  decree. There is no attempt to explain the different steps of the narrative individually, rather the entire story is shifted to a different plane. Human happenstance does not reigns in the story, nor a lofty meaning that is hidden from human eyes, but the decree of the king of the universe: “a king’s command is authoritative, and none can say to him, ‘What are you doing?” (Kohelet 8:4). Why does he do what he does? “Just so” (ככה), because this is what he wants. Citing their founder,[10] Habad hasidut says regarding Divine  meaning of, and reason for, creating the world: “Oyf a tayvah iz kain kashya nit” – you can’t interrogate a desire.[11]

Opposite the kingdom of Persia, ruled by the capricious Aḥashverosh, stands the kingdom of God. As Rabbi Yoḥanan taught: “anywhere [the megillah] says “king” without clarifying, it is referring to the king of kings.”[12] The writer of the megillah is not thinking of the happenstance that reigns in the kingdom of Persia but the absolute “just so” of the king of kings.

How does this focus lead to the unrestrained joke about the terrifying situation of the megillah? Isn’t the only laughter possible in this situation the laughter described in the verse, “He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord mocks at them” (Tehillim 2:4)? God sits and laughs, for from heaven the events really are funny. However, “the heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to man” (Tehillim 115:16), and here on the earth the joke is not at all funny!

For the writer of the megillah, the events happen in a different plane, that of the absolute Divine  decree, and the joke also exists on that level. This is an ecstatic joke, in which our awareness is opened to the possibility of its liberation, and the individual accepts the arbitrary “just so” quality of his life. Deep pessimism leads a person to the ecstasy of liberation from the need for proof, liberation from teleological support for reality. Pessimism can liberate us from dependency, because we have despaired of everything.

The pain in the megillah’s joke is not lessened, for the Divine  decree does not comfort; it does not explain or grant meaning to the events that happened or will happen, and it cannot guarantee (להבטיח) that in the future Haman’s plans will not come pass. The joke is fully aware of fate, leading to an ecstasy in which negativity, bitter despair,  and suffering are lived as they are. In the extreme experiences of life, a person discovers that there’s no way to deal with the events of life. But there’s also no need to deal with them, since life happens for itself, entirely for itself.

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If I Am To Perish

The religious feeling of security (בטחון), like the joke, bears within it arbitrariness and dread: Hasidut teaches that this sense of security is the result of passionate commitment (מסירות נפש) and sacrifice. In other words, the sense of security comes after the terror and fear of the incidental and the absurd, not before, it cannot be achieved without them. Moreover, the sense of security is not a support that lends a person strength, turning the whole game into something predetermined; from a certain perspective, this sense of security is the terror itself: “if I am to perish, I shall perish” (4:16), says Esther. What she does not say is “I am certain (בטוחה) of my success;” On the contrary, she expects to die because of her sense of security in her passionate commitment. This sense of security is not free of terror; it is present in the terror itself, since it is open to anything that might happen.[13]

Mordechai also does not promise Esther anything. He does not say, “I am certain (בטוח) that you will succeed,” but “who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (4:14). He is certain (בטוח) that salvation will come for the Jews from somewhere, but in his and Esther’s personal attempt at salvation he is not at all secure. “Who knows?!” he says, and not, “I know.”

Mordechai and Esther’s responses inspire astonishment, and perhaps even a challenge: should they not have believed fully based on the Divine  providence that they could see before their eyes? Esther, beyond surprisingly, was selected as queen at exactly this moment. Everything that was happening pointed to the fact that God “gives the medicine before the disease” and enthroned her in order for her to save the Jews, and despite this the doubt persists – “who knows?!” This is because “who knows” is the flip side of “just so;” in a place where things happen “just so” persists the “who knows.”

The human response to the Divine  “just so,” the response that provides a sense of security, is the human “just so.” This, in short, is the secret of Purim: passionate commitment without any security that has nothing to rely on is in fact what creates the religious sense of security. The sense of security in God does not come from tangible protection and goodness that he gives. On the contrary, the lack of security that people flee from provides an individual with the opportunity to commit and to feel secure in God in anything that he does.

The midrash says, “Why does everyone flee from the apple tree during a heat wave? Because it does not have any shade in which to sit. Similarly the nations of the world fled from sitting in the shade of God at the time of the revelation of the Torah.”[14] The lack of security that comes from the Divine  “just so” is what creates the human ability for passionate commitment, for a sense of security in God that does not give any security regarding the future, nor any sense of meaning or ultimate purpose. This is because the Divine  is beyond human comprehension; not because a person has such a narrow perspective that it cannot encompass the Divine , but because the Divine  Will itself lacks meaning. Correspondingly, security in and devotion to God are illogical processes.

The passionate commitment that life in its arbitrariness invites enables a person to escape the human frameworks that bind him and to cling to the Divine essence. A person who accepts the Divine  “just so” overrides his conceptual, human, consciousness that demands explanation and justification. He accepts his life as it is, in its arbitrariness. Why? Just so!

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APPENDIX: THE LAW AND THE JEW

The author of the megillah emphasizes how Mordechai’s position within the space of the narrative is in direction relationship with the law of the procedures of Persia and Medea. For example, the scene that motivates Haman’s genocidal plot:

All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage. (3:2-5)

Why do the king’s servants get involved? If Haman himself did not notice Mordechai’s disobedience, or if he just was not bothered so much by this behavior, why was it so important for the king’s servants to direct his attention to this critical problem? Moreover, if they are motivated by their commitment to the dignity of the king’s decree, then they should turn to the king himself.

The explanation for the servants’ process is explicit in the text: “they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew.” Mordechai disrupting the order of the kingdom is what bothers them. He tells that that he is a Jew and therefore does not obey and bow, and in this, the Jew functions as one who disrupts the law and the proper order.

Not by accident is the term “Jew” is repeated throughout the megillah; this is the first development of the place of the Jew, his identity and his role in relation to the world. Here we find the roots of anti-semitism. The Jew is the remainder than cannot be accommodated, because by his very appearance, he represents that which does not enter the symbolic order and in this, he destroys and undermines it. Indeed, why did Mordechai endanger the Jews by refusing to bow? Why didn’t he just leave the king’s gate? Did he have provocative aims? Either way, this is his identity as a Jew, and in this Haman and the king’s servants are correct: Mordechai has a loyalty that precedes his loyalty to the king.[15]

To be clear: Mordechai’s disloyalty is a complex disloyalty, and he thus appears as a pure disruption of the order of the kingdom. On the one hand, Mordechai is loyal to the king and reports on Bigtan and Teresh, the two servants of the king that attempted to assassinate Aḥashverosh. On the other hand, Mordechai ultimately has a greater loyalty to his nation and his God, and in this he shatters the law. This is a disloyal loyalty, something that disturbs more than anything else a law and order that attempt to determine “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” (Yehoshua 5:13).

Esther also manifests this sort of existence, validating Haman’s claim to Aḥashverosh “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” (3:8). She enters the court of the king without receiving the king’s permission. Vashti refused to come, and Esther came uncalled; Vashti is entirely outside, while Esther is simultaneously inside and out.

In general, the Jew who does not bow disrupts the orderly world of “servants of the king,” and Haman chief among them – they are devoted to the law of the kingdom by virtue of it being law. They cannot tolerate the anomaly of Jewish existence; this is actually Haman’s basic claim: difference and lack of obedience threaten and reject the decree of the king.

“That day Haman went out happy and lighthearted. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the palace gate, and Mordecai did not rise or even stir on his account, Haman was filled with rage at him. And Haman controlled himself and went home” (5:9-10). Haman’s serenity is disturbed not because the Jew does not obey but because the Jew rejects the entire principle upon which his happiness is based: the king’s decree. This is why it was not enough to just get rid of Mordechai alone; the problem is the very presence of the Jew – “he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6).

Further, the megillah notes that Haman “controlled himself.” As angry as he was with Mordechai, he did not respond immediately. Why was it important to the writer of the megillah to note this? Was Haman afraid that if he killed Mordechai in anger he would be punished? Seemingly, Haman  knew that if he did that, he would not succeed in freeing himself from the Jew, and Mordechai’s death would chase after him.[16] Only if he arranges Mordechai’s destruction in the framework of the law will he succeed in ridding himself of Mordechai and the disruption that he embodies. Law fights by way of the law itself, via legislation. One cannot ignore the violence inherent in legislation. The megillah reveals, in a painful and sarcastic form, the very basis of sovereignty, the violence that founds its laws:

What manifests itself as the law’s inner decay is the fact that rule of law is, in the final analysis, without ultimate justification or legitimation, […] At its foundation, the rule of law is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation—‘The law is the law![17]

As far as I am concerned, the mindset of the writer of the megillah lays bare the foundation that underlies the events we will undergo this summer. The disengagement plan symbolizes for me, more than anything else, the crime that is in legislation, the violence subsumed within it; the recognition that the violence of transgressing the law is less than the crime of legislating the law. The inner decay that exists in the rule of law comes to the fore in the claim heard constantly in the mouths of the supporters of the law of the removal: this is the law, and the law is the law! – and therefore it must be respected. The tautology of the law is strengthened by the arbitrariness of its legislation; the “judicial wisdom” that would be able to justify it is entirely lacking, and now its justification is simply the legality of the process: the process is legal, it is confirmed and organized in the Knesset. The law is justified not by ethics or judicial wisdom but by the simple fact of its legislation at the hands of the majority. The violence required to enact this law, removing people from their land, is not the extraneous remainder of the process but the very heart of law: the violent claim that the law is law.

If he was with us today, how would the author of the megillah write the story that we are a part of? Where would he aim the sharp arrows of his irony?

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[1] [These words were written in 2005, against the background of the decision of the government, headed by Ariel Sharon, to enact “The Disengagement Plan” from northern Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The plan brought the meaning of law and justice and their validity to the fore of communal debate.]

[2] In light of this ironic character, the serious way in which halakhah relates to the megillah is basically a second-order joke. In order to notice this joke, one simply has to look at people sitting in shul, with me among them, reading and listening to the megillah, terrified of missing a single word and thereby failing to fulfill their obligation, for “it is a mitsvah to read all of it” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah, 1:3).

[3] The irony is expressed in the comparison alluded to between the verses of the megillah and their parallels in the Torah. David Henkesheh finds a playful example in the formulation “for that was the full period spent on beautifying them” (2:11), which shows up only one other time in Scripture, in the story of the death of Yaakov in Egypt: “for that was the full period of embalming” (Bereshit 50:3).; The women are embalmed in their perfumes. See David Henkesheh, “Megillat Esther: Literary Disguise” (Hebrew), in Amnon Bazak (ed.), “Hadassah is Esther: Essays on Megillat Esther” (Hebrew), Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 1997, pp.93-106.

[4] Here we must ask, is it possible to look at the Nazis with a parodic gaze? To turn them into the object of a joke? Is it possible that, despite the terror that wells up within us when we remember them, they are simply ridiculous, and that this ridiculousness heightens the absurd and the terror in their actions?

[5] Particularly after its combination with the holy books that make up the Tanakh.

[6] This was also noted by Henkesheh.

[7] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Tzemach Tzedek), Yahel Ohr Al Tehillim (Hebrew), New York: Kehat, 1953, ch.144, p.533.

[8] [The ‘holiness of the crown’ is a prayer said on Shabbat and holidays by the community as it prays and is considered one of the peaks of prayer. “We will crown you, Lord our God; the angels, the hosts above, with your nation Israel, the masses below.”]

[9] Said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. see “Things I Heard from my Teacher,” in “Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohen of Poland, Toldot Yaakov Yosef (Hebrew), Warsaw 1941, p.209

[10] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). Involved in halakhah and kabbalah, founder of Habad Hasidut.

[11] Quoted in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Lubavitcher Rebbe), Torat Menachem: Hitvaaduyot (Hebrew), 1953, Brooklyn: Otzar HaHasidim, p.31.

[12] “Anywhere in Megillat Esther where it says “King Aḥashverosh,” the text is referring to Aḥashverosh; anywhere it simply says “king,” the text is referring to the king of kings” (Midrash Aba Gurion [Buber edition], 1, on the verse “like the joy of a king after wine”).

[13] If we turn this discussion to the actual situation that crouches by our door, Esther would not have said “I am certain, the “disengagement” definitely won’t come to pass”…

[14] Midrash Shir HaShirim, 2:1.

[15] Similarly, Esther remains loyal to Mordechai and follows his commands even after she marries Aḥashverosh.

[16] Just like the oedipal killing of the father, that traps the son through guilt.

[17] Eric Santner, “On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig,” Chicago, University of Chicago, 2001, pp.56-57. See also Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” (Hebrew), trans. Danit Dotan, Tel Aviv: Resling, 2006.

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