…the more they stay the same.
From Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant
Purim is a’comin this Wednesday eve to Thursday eve. The megillah (the scroll of the biblical book of Esther) is read on the eve of Purim. If you’re Jewish you may have such associations with this holiday as the dreidel (the spinning top) and hamentaschen (the tasty delicacy). But the book of Esther is the historical basis of this occasion. Much information is available on the internet. I took a slightly different slant on this book last year and have updated it to be shared with my family. You may also have a peek here:
Josephus, a first century Jewish historian resided in Judea which was, at that time, part of the Roman Empire. He has a spotty history, having first fought against the Roman military during the first of two wars. No match against the Roman legions, the Jews were defeated and,, subsequently, many were either slaughtered or enslaved. Josephus began as a slave, but being well educated and paying homage to Vespasian who became Rome’s next emperor (69 CE), Josephus gained his freedom and later became Vespasian’s interpreter and a friend to his son, Titus. Josephus was now at liberty to devote his life to writing historical accounts, notably The Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews.
In Antiquities (book eleven, chapter 6), Josephus elaborates on the biblical book, Esther. Esther is a historical narrative serving as the basis for the Jewish festival, Purim, which is celebrated this year on March 21, 2019. Purim is overshadowed by the more widely celebrated Passover occurring only a month later. Still, there are important lessons to be learned from the reading of Esther, which is readily accessible as a part of the Bible. However, the less accessible and rarely read writings of Josephus bear some relevance to persons and events of the present day Trump era.
On my reading of the following passage in Josephus’ Antiquities in regard to one of the principle characters in the book of Esther, Haman, I was struck by the words put into the mouth of King Artaxerxes I who reigned 486 to 465 over ancient Persia (present day Iran). The following, according to Josephus, is the king’s description of Haman, who was later hanged because of his plot to destroy all the Jews – the foreigners/immigrants of that day – throughout the kingdom:
Many men there are who, on account of the greatness of the benefits bestowed on them, and because of the honor which they have obtained from the wonderful treatment of those that bestowed it, are not only injurious to their inferiors, but do not scruple to do evil to those that have been their benefactors… and by their insolent abuse of such benefits… they turn their abundance against those that are the authors of it. Further, they suppose they shall lie concealed from others and avoid that very vengeance which comes from him.
Some of these men, when they have had the management of affairs committed to them by their friends, bear private malice against others. By Haman [the king’s prime minister ] deceiving those [e.g. Artaxerxes, the king] that have the power, and persuade them [the king, himself] to be angry at such as have done them no harm [the Jews i.e. the immigrant population], till they are in danger of perishing – and this by laying accusations and calumnies. We have learned of such things not only by report, but by some examples of such impudent attempts under our own eyes! Therefore, it is not fit to attend any longer to calumnies and accusations, nor to the persuasions of others, but to determine what anyone knows for himself to be done: to punish what justly deserves it, and to grant favors to such as are innocent…
I should make it clear that by including this passage from Josephus, I am in no way advocating the assassination of any of our political figures. Though assassinations of members of royalty by those wishing to either retain or gain power, were quite common in ancient and mediaeval times and those holding high office in modern times. The victims often were made martyrs and subsequently revered by their followers.
That, in fact, is not the message to be carried away from a reading of the Book of Esther; rather, irony is its chief literary theme. That is to say, the hanging planned by Haman for Mordecai, the Jew, reverted to Haman himself by order of the king. Conversely, when Mordecai’s discovery of an earlier plot to assassinate the king was revealed to the king. (Ahasuerus is the name by which the king is called in Esther. As noted above, his historic counterpart, according to most scholars, is Xerxes I, who ruled between 486 and 465 BCE). Upon uncovering their plot, the thwarted assassins were executed and Mordecai was later rewarded.
However, I am not speaking merely of a literary theme, but rather of what often occurs on the broader stage of human history. That is, the author of malicious acts frequently suffers the consequences of his actions – sooner or later. I say “frequently” because it is not always the case. When it does occur, it is viewed as a vindication by those who have either witnessed or suffered the consequences of the perpetrator’s actions. In this case, justice prevailed!
But now we are witnessing the callous actions of those in responsible positions, not only in America, but throughout the world, who wittingly or unwittingly have incited hate-mongering individuals and groups to vicious acts of violence. The most recent such acts have been perpetrated by virulent White Nationalists on the innocent and unwary communities of the “Tree of Life” synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of the Al Noor Mosque and Lynwood Mosque in New Zealand, of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. During their unguarded moment of prayer, Jews, Muslims and Christians – white and black – had become the targets by White Supremacists – or whatever label they might choose or under what banner they might march.
We can – and should – take action, sometimes legal but always moral, to remove them from the seat of power to be replaced by persons who strive for the good and well-being of all people – the poor, the oppressed, the workers, the immigrant population, people of color. By such concerted action justice compassion and empathy will prevail when we finally overcome bigotry and prejudice so as to preserve the foundations of a thriving and vibrant democracy.