Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Perfection Through Suffering

"In the days of Ahasuerus," when the monarchy of Persia and Media began its peaceful development, those Jews who remained in the territory of Persia and Medea were to learn what they might expect if they assimilated into the life of such an alien nation.  All the people of the empire had access to the king's court and this included the Jews.   A Jewish woman became queen, a Jew became the king's minister, and the Jews were given entrance into the inner circles of royal politics and court life.

Th elegance displayed at the royal banquet suggests no small degree of culture and refinement, and the state, with its complex hierarchy of officials, its provincial governments, and its sophisticated network of communications, appears to us a well-organized entity.  No attempt was made to eliminate ethnic differences within the empire but rather, every province was most generously granted the right to preserve its own individuality and language.

We refer particularly to the emphasis that was placed throughout the empire on "law and judgment" (Esther 1:13).  By no means do we observe an absolute Oriental dictatorship.  Rather, we see before us a political entity with its written "Common Law of the Persians and the Medes" and its judges and jurists, and its "chronicles and chroniclers who knew the times," a state based on the rules of law and well aware of its place in history.

Ahasuerus himself does not appear all that evil.  He seems to have had a penchant for luxury, but then nations tend to fare better if their princes take pride in the development of royal pomp in an atmosphere of peace than if they aspire to the blood-soaked laurels of military glory.  Ahasueras likes to drink, but he never drinks alone.  It does not merely please him to have all his princes and nobles dine with him but he is so gracious and affable - a quality not often found among rulers of his day - that he does not think that he has done enough for "the people" if he and his companions feast at an open banquet and merely permit the people to watch them dine.

He invites all his subjects to be his guests at the palace, where he entertains them with royal hospitality.  He is careful to observe the forms of law in whatever he does.  He keeps near him at all times his experts on national history, the writers of the chronicles, those who know "law and judgment."  His choice of queen might suggest that he is free of racial and social prejudice.  He generously shows his gratitude for personal service rendered to him.

And yet, all this culture and refinement has one denominator: the craving for worldly delights.  It is completely subservient to the objects of sensuality which are accorded the same serious thought as the most important affairs of state.

And what about the role of law and justice in the empire of the Persian king?  These laws are little more than meaningless rules mainly enacted to serve the passions, feelings, and moods of the king.  With all its executors and interpreters, this "law and judgment" affords very little security to the people of Persia and Medea.  If a queen commits a breach of court etiquette, her case is heard by jurists and wise men who know historical precedent.  But if an ordinary human being has incurred the displeasure of one of the king's favorites, it takes little effort to have the offender hanged.  In fact, a simple decree signed and sealed  in the name of the king is sufficient to permit the slaughter of an entire population, including women and children, "for political reasons."

And Ahusueras himself, who seems rather good-natured, becomes a completely different man when he is aroused by anger and strong drink.  Everything hinges on his mood and temper of the moment.  If the queen wishes to plead with the king, in the name of justice and humanity, to spare the lives of thousands of innocent people, she must give a banquet and wait for a moment when the king is in a good mood before she may safely dare to state her request.

In reality, Ahasueras himself has very little control over his empire.  How little of the evil that is done in his name is really his work.  This man who reigns over 127 provinces can be swayed easily by courtiers.  Ahasueras is dominated by that very same all-powerful favorite who rules in the king's name.  Haman, casting lots in the name of the king to decide the life and death of the king's subjects, misuses his position of supreme power to satisfy his own base lust for revenge under the guise of protecting the welfare of the State.

All this time the heart of the man upon whom the nation's fate depends remains aloof from his subjects in unapproachable majesty.  Whoever comes near him without being summoned is condemned to death and summarily executed.  No one may appear in the king's presence in sackcloth and mourning; the sorrows of the world outside must not encroach upon the rooms of the royal palace.  Any order written in the name of the king is irrevocable, so that not even the king may change a decree once issued in his name, and he nonchalantly allows others to write and to seal in his name documents  which he has never seen.

Haman has nothing but contempt for the king who has elevated him.  He considers this king incapable and corruptible.  He delivers to the king a most statesmanlike lecture on the pernicious character of a people on whom he wants to take his personal revenge, and he explains to the king how the welfare of the state requires that this people be annihilated.  Haman knows only too well how little the welfare of the state means to the king.  To lend emphasis to his sinister plan, Haman has the effrontery to offer the king a generous donation bribe of 10,000 pieces of silver for the royal treasure.  The mere fact that Haman made such an offer, and that he expected the king to accept it, is perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of this treacherous story.

The Jews were taught an unforgettable lesson by the events of Purim.  They experienced the full impact of the misery that lies in store for them wherever the weal and woe of men depend on the pleasure or displeasure, or the moods and whims of the ruler.

However, at the same time, the Jews came to know the faithfulness of the King in heaven Who protects them.  They came to know the one sole path in which they would have to walk through the centuries amidst the misery of exile.  They learned to rejoice with redoubled fervor in the light of their own truths, their own festivals, and in the ultimate satisfaction in their covenant that bound them to their G-d.

Much suffering lay in store for them over the centuries that were to follow.  The story of Ahasueras and Haman would repeat itself countless times throughout history.  But even in the darkest periods G-d preserved for the Jews their own light and joy, their own salvation and honor.  And this could come to pass only because, as history, unfolding before our eyes from year to year, tells us: They learned this lesson from the days of Ahasueras.

Happy Purim!

[Adapted from the Collected Writings of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Volume II]

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