Feasting, Fasting and Forgetting

And the King and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Shushan was bewildered.
— Esther 3:15

Scholars have long regarded the Megillah, the scroll of Esther, as a story told between feasting and fasting. Food, that constant draw for our people, often tells us a great deal about daily life and special occasions. The Book of Esther is no different. We begin with a 187-day drinking binge at Ahashverosh’s palace then fast for 3 days with Esther and her maidens. We join Esther in her triangle of intrigue with Haman and the King over libations and eat with merriment and share gifts of food over our triumph. Basically, we cannot stop eating. 

But in this festival of food, there is one small oft-neglected scene that reveals a great deal about its central characters. After Haman has petitioned the King to annihilate the Jews and was given his ring as a stamp of approval and power, Haman and the King toasted their wicked decision: “The couriers went out, spurred on by the King’s command, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Shushan. The King and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Shushan was bewildered.” [3:15] Rashi states that those who were confused were the Jews of Shushan – good, law-abiding citizens were totally blind-sided. But why only Jews? Confusion spread about who this king was; one day he invites his kingdom to party with him and the next, it’s off with your heads. Royal flip-flopping makes for bad governance.

There are many ways to view this postscript to their decree. Perhaps the King and Haman were drinking to forget, to blur the momentousness or potency of this decision. After all, what king would so ruthlessly subject one of his peoples to destruction without creating agitation throughout his entire empire? This decree was not only of interest to the Jews but to everyone in the king’s 127 provinces. What real benefit would such havoc wreak when his own capital city was already confused and perhaps dazed by what this unpredictable king had in store for the future?

None of the traditional commentators, however, comment on the fact that this scene is reminiscent of what Joseph’s brothers did right after they deposited him in a pit: “And they took him and threw him into the pit; and the pit was empty. There was no water in it. And then they sat down to a meal…”[Gen. 37:25] The13th century exegete, the Hizkuni, writes: “They sat at a distance but not that far away, lest they be able to hear his cries from there.” They would enjoy their meal all the more knowing that they finally rid themselves of this troubling brother who stole all their father’s love. Or they lacked even the smallest degree of empathy and had no trouble enjoying themselves at a heart-wrenching moment for their brother.

The Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, says that throwing Joseph in a pit presented no difficulty for them, nor did it prevent them from enjoying a pleasant repast. Nahum Sarna is sharper in his comments, contending that they had “callous indifference to their brother’s anguished pleas. The action allows time for further discussion of Joesph’s fate in the absence of Reuben. At the same time, it provides an interlude until a fresh and final opportunity for vengeance develops.”

It is heartless to drink and be merry upon signing a decree to murder an entire nation without cause. Perhaps more than the decree itself is this act an indication of how murder can take place only at the hands of those who lack any compassion, who can dull themselves to the pain of others.

The author Marty Rubin writes that, “A heart that can break is better than no heart at all.” Having had our hearts so badly broken in this story, we of all people understand that only those who experience true sorrow have a chance at true compassion and happiness, the kind of joy we experience at the end of the Megilla. It is this joy that we pack up and deliver to others on Purim, and it is this joy that we swallow in large gulps as we enjoy a festive meal in community. If theirs was the sin of callousness, we redeem the Purim story when we serve food to stranger and friend with extra love and care. 

So this year, redeem this moment. Give one food package – mishloah manot – to someone who is not expecting it.

Happy Purim. Shabbat Shalom