Parashat Shabbat Zachor / ‘Shushan Was Perplexed’

The Book of Esther is a song of praise to the city as a form of human habitation, and with the intrigues, wickedness and kindness the city contains, as a microcosm of all existence.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

The first mishnah in Tractate Megillah of the Mishna opens with these words: “The Megillah [the Scroll of Esther] is read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th of Adar – but neither before nor after those dates.” The optional range when the Megillah can be read on Purim is far greater than that of Passover, which is a holiday when all Jews are commanded to hold the festive seder together – and, during the era of the Temple in Jerusalem, in one place.

The above text goes on to explain: “In cities that have been surrounded by a wall since the time of Joshua bin Nun, the Megillah is read on Adar 15, while in larger towns it is read on the 14th; in villages it is read earlier, on a weekly market day [Monday or Thursday].”

The Mishnah goes on to say, for example, that if Adar 14 falls on a Sabbath, the Megillah is read in villages on the preceding Thursday, or on Adar 12; if Adar 14 falls on a Sunday, the Megillah is read in villages on the preceding Thursday, or on Adar 11.

The Gemara section of the Talmud explains why the reading of the Megillah must take place on a market day: “The rabbinical authorities allowed the Megillah to be read earlier in villages, on a market day, so that villagers would then be able to supply water and food to their brothers and sisters in the cities” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, 2a).

The liquidity of time and space on Purim creates a hierarchy among the celebrants: This is essentially a festival for town- and city-dwellers, not villagers. The distribution of dates is intended to enable the villagers to serve urban Jews. Apparently, the city is the focus of Purim, while the village is on the holiday’s margins.

The allocation of separate days for the reading of the Megillah is naturally suited to the fabric of its plot. The Book of Esther is a song of praise to the city as a form of human habitation, and with the intrigues, wickedness and kindness the city contains, as a microcosm of all existence. Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible whose plot unfolds entirely within the boundaries of a city, which, in a metonymy of civilization as a whole, is personified in Esther: “but the city of Shushan was perplexed” (Esther 3:15), and later, “but the city of Shushan was perplexed” (8:15).

The conflict between Mordecai and Haman is described in terms of what the proper attire is for a city-dweller: “Now when Mordecai knew all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry; and he came even before the king’s gate; for none might enter within the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth” (4:1-2).

In his mourning for the fate of his people, Mordecai dons sackcloth, forbidden attire for anyone entering the king’s gate – the heart of the city. That is also the very spot where Mordecai and Haman have their first abrasive encounter, which leads to the issuing of a royal decree of death for the Persia’s Jews: “And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed down, and prostrated themselves before Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him” (3:2).

It is in the streets of the city where Haman thinks his fantasy of mastery will be enacted: He believes King Ahasuerus wants to honor him, and proposes that the monarch allow an honored subject to ride through the streets wearing royal garments, on a royal steed, while a person appointed by the king proclaims: “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor” (6:9).

Haman is mistaken: The king wishes to honor Haman’s nemesis, Mordecai. Haman’s humiliation and symbolic defeat at Mordecai’s hands occur in the very location he fantasized as the place of his aggrandizement: “Then took Haman the apparel and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and caused him to ride through the street of the city, and proclaimed before him: ‘Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honor’” (6:11).

Tomorrow morning – on Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath preceding Purim – a special passage will read from the Torah: “Remember [zachor] what Amalek did unto thee” (Deuteronomy 25:17). Amalek’s attack on the Israelites in the Sinai desert is perceived as a harbinger of Haman’s attempt to systematically annihilate the Jews of Persia.

There is, however, an immense difference between the two episodes. Amalek attacks Israel “by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God” (Deut. 25:17-18). Although the Torah does not specify why Amalek attacks the Israelites’ rear flank, the manner of the offensive perhaps alludes to the motive: Amalek seeks to annihilate the Israelites, exploiting the fact that they are far from civilization and are weary from their journey.

The desert is a natural habitat and the antithesis of civilization; furthermore, it is the place where Israel was created. The Israelites journey in the desert, where they receive the Torah from God; when they are finally about to enter the Promised Land, the process of their being molded into a nation ends, and the process of their becoming members of an urban culture begins.

Amalek seeks to destroy that Jewish civilization even before it begins to consolidate itself. In contrast, Haman seeks to destroy the Jews after they have formed a civilization, represented in the city of Shushan’s urban landscape. To use Zygmunt Baumann’s terminology, Haman’s attempt at annihilation is aimed at the height of the development of a civilization process rather than as a move against the process of development.

As a locale where a civilization’s social structure is fully represented, the city inevitably engenders conflicts. Hatred leads to destruction as an act of industrialization, as the exploitation of the crowded urban fabric, to improve the economy of the social classes forming that fabric. The Jews’ reaction also has an urban nature: “that the king had granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey” (Esther 8:11).

The Jews form small communities within the urban framework in order to replace Haman’s capitalistic market economy of death with a protected guild economy.

The city enables the creation of layers of cultural depth and the internalization of the violence, conflicts, intrigues, racism and plots that have accompanied human civilization from its beginnings – together with the love, beauty, art and ceremony that are a part of that civilization. The result is the creation of layers of cultural subconsciousness on which the city is built.

The crowding of humanity into cities creates strange combinations: filth around skyscrapers, and pockets of prostitution and crime among centers of culture and art. In this sense, the city is the most precise reflection of the ego in which abysses of evil and heights of spiritual refinement alternate with each other, in transitions from one “internal” street to another.

This is Purim, the holiday of the urbanites, the festival of those in whose souls the mottos “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai” alternate on a daily basis and fight for representation in the streets of the inner city. For those urbanites – among whom these mottoes stubbornly struggle for dominion over the human soul – their brothers and sisters in the villages must supply water and food, so that the urbanites can celebrate Purim properly.

“The Triumph of Mordechai,” by Pieter Lastman (1624).