By: Meira Weber
The Book of Esther – and the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim – opens with this scene:
King Ahasuerus, ruler of 127 provinces and monarch of the great empire of Persia and Media, declares a lavish victory banquet in his capital city of Shushan, inviting all his citizens to partake of the decadent food and drink, and to bask in the glory of his riches and splendor. The banquet is set to last for one hundred and eighty days, and promises to be an excessive display of unbelievable wealth and luxury. The King will revel in the strength of his kingdom – it will be a pagan festivity to match all festivities.
It’s the party of a lifetime, and you, citizen of Shushan, wouldn’t want to miss it.
At this time, the Jewish People have been exiled from their homeland in Israel after the destruction of the first Temple. The Second Temple has been rebuilt, but only a small number of Jews have returned to their homeland of Israel – most are scattered across Ahasuerus’s vast empire, with a strong concentration of them making their lives in the capital city of Shushan. King Ahasuerus is probably aware of the Jewish presence in his capital city, and he does not exclude them from his banquet.
I can only imagine such an event. I can imagine the vast marble throne rooms wafting with rich and fragrant perfumes, golden goblets brimming with the deepest wines and spilling dark plum drops onto tablecloths that glitter with jewels. I can see the hangings of deep indigo and ivory white draping alabaster columns and walls, plush carpets and sofas arranged around tables piled high with juicy, exotic meats and delicate baked desserts, servants and courtesans flitting between guests and serving them delicious foods on jeweled platters, offering up all the worldly pleasures of the senses and the flesh. I can see the King, robed and crowned, lounging in a golden-stepped throne amid the vast splendor of his people, his land, and his kingdom. I can picture the hedonistic revelry of the day, taste the heavy scent of wine and perfume, hear the roaring adoration of his subjects, and understand the power of the man on that throne.
I can understand his triumph.
You see, the legacy of the Jewish People has always relied on remaining a cohesive nation – resisting assimilation into the greater culture of the Diaspora, going by Hebrew names, and continuing to observe Shabbat and the other holidays. It is only by maintaining that separation that the Jewish People have persisted as long as we have, even in spite of exile, attempted genocide, and war. Throughout Jewish history, the one thing that has helped most to preserve Jews as a People has been maintaining that separation and resisting the pull of assimilation into the larger society.
The kingdom of Ahasuerus, by contrast, was an ultra-liberal society of hedonism and paganism. Our Sages tell us how there was no such thing as “separation” in Persian society. All the cultures of all of Ahasuerus’s 127 provinces came together to become an amalgamation of “culture” wherein every citizen was an equal citizen of Persia. There was no separation (or boundary) at all – nothing between desire and action, between one person and another person. So why should a Jew hold himself back from the desire to desecrate Shabbat, or to eat non-Kosher food? Nobody else was bothered about Shabbat and Kosher and aren’t we all the same?
And so the banquet commenced with a level of unbridled physical and material indulgence and sin unrivaled by any celebration in history. The Jews of Shushan allowed all the things that kept them separate – their holidays, traditions, even their Hebrew names – to gradually slip away, and many of them assimilated into the greater pagan culture. Israel and the Second Temple were far from Shushan, far in every sense of the word.
It’s eerie how closely the assimilation of Persian Jews resembles the assimilation of German Jews before the Holocaust. The situations were almost identical: the promotion of nationalism, the unification (and erasure) of all cultures into one national culture, and the removal of God and religion in favor of human beings in power. And yet, even among this cultureless blend, somehow even the most assimilated Jews were still singled out as Jews – people to be inexplicably hated, feared, and wiped out.
As we know, the would-be genocide of the Purim story never came to fruition, but it’s scary how close we came to it. Through the hand of God, Queen Esther married the King and helped to bring about the redemption and freedom of the Jews along with her cousin Mordechai, a prominent leader of the Jewish Diaspora community.
But the banquet of Ahasuerus marks the beginning of this process, the start of the assimilation of the Diaspora Jews. The scene of the banquet has always sent a chill down my spine. The description of his parties spans only a few verses in the Book of Esther, but the objective has always struck me as too familiar to ignore.
Israel is a place of spirituality, regardless of religion. It is so apparent that it’s tangible. The society in Israel is built around the values of family, love, kindness, joy, and worship. Materialism is in short supply here, and wealth is measured not in money but in happiness.
Unfortunately, those attitudes aren’t necessarily reflected outside of Israel. Secular society is a feast for the senses; materialism, excessive physicality, and promiscuity are in abundance, and with far-left mentalities on the rise, people are far more likely to loudly indulge rather than keep a quiet, level head. As liberalism rises, Judeo-Christian values fade away. Spirituality is a falling commodity in the Western world, much to the detriment – in my opinion – of society as a whole.
I read about the lavish parties of King Ahasuerus and I see the traps of Western society. I hear the arguments of my family and friends who would prefer to stay in America than come to Israel, and I know they attend a banquet of their own. The decadent wine and drink of Ahasuerus’s party are the Las Vegas and Hollywood of Western society, the pull of the media influence and the draw to keep up with the proverbial Joneses. Where is the Messiah? they ask. If we were meant to be in Israel, wouldn’t we be there by now?
The banquet didn’t end with the Book of Esther, and the struggle to return to Israel did not end after the victory of Purim. Jews the world over are attending their own banquets every day, waving away thoughts of their Homeland, plying the same excuses used by the exiled Jews in Persia: “We’re here, and God has left us. Why shouldn’t we indulge?”
But we know the truth. You and I, we know – God hasn’t left us, any of us. It’s been seventy years since the establishment of the State of Israel, and the land has flourished under the care of her people. Israel’s people are coming home, and with your help and the help of people like you, we are rebuilding the Biblical Land that lies at the heart of all our Scripture, all our holidays, all of our history.
Slowly, we are leaving the banquet.
One of the central themes of the Book of Esther is God’s tendency to work through messengers and hidden miracles, and I believe that is exactly what is happening today. CFOIC Heartland is one of the avenues through which hidden messengers of God can do their work, helping to build up the land and the people, and eventually, God willing, the Third and Final Temple.
As we head into the holiday of Purim, I hope that each of us finds the inner strength to be true to ourselves, and leave our own banquets of temptations, protestations, and excuses behind. It’s a time to rise above the Ahasueruses of our generation. And yes, it is a time to celebrate, to rejoice in how far we’ve come – and to look ahead with hope and determination at how far we still have to go.