Purim, Power and Corruption

25 February 2021
By: Margo Hughes-Robinson

Purim is a time of topsy-turvy, of seeking out the hidden and for remembering that liberation can be found waiting just under our subverted expectations. Even the Divine is concealed in Purim’s narrative, this central text of Megillat Esther regaling us with the twists and turns concerning the fate of the Jews of Persia. In spite of this, much of the palace intrigue in the Megillah revolves around questions of holiness and proximity to power. It is only in her role as queen that Esther can save her people, and her uncle Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to honor the story’s villain Haman sets much of the text’s central drama in motion. Rooted in a kind of productive ambiguity, the Megillah and its midrashim lift up questions about how to use resources and about proximity to power.

In the late midrashic work Pirkei Rebbe Eliezer, the Purim story is retold with the issue of power even more directly at its center. Haman, the midrash says, makes the image of an idol and embroiders it on his robes, so that everyone who bows down to him must also pay homage to the idol.1 Haman used his power and influence not only for self-aggrandizement, but also to promote a darker agenda. In our own day, we too can see these dynamics in how political leaders marry their pursuit of power to abuses like illegal weapons sales, human rights violations, and conspiracy theories.

Why was Haman put in this position in the first place? The midrash asserts that this evil and destructive man drew his political power from his material wealth. “When the king saw [Haman’s] wealth… [the king] exalted him, and aggrandized him,”2 says the midrash, culminating in the command that all who see Haman must bow down to him directly.

What are our sacred texts trying to say by highlighting how Haman was able to access and influence royal power through his wealth?

We might find the answer in the peshat, the explicit narrative of the Megillah itself. Haman, enraged by Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to him, goes to King Ahashveros and functionally purchases the fate of the entire Jewish community, offering his sovereign ten thousand talents of silver to be deposited into the royal treasuries if the king will allow Haman to destroy Mordechai’s people. It is financial corruption at the heart of ancient Persia’s government that puts the Purim story’s heroes at risk, when those who are entrusted with upholding the public welfare disregard their duties in order to seek personal financial gain.

Today, government corruption is a global issue. International organizations note the inverse relationship that corruption and financial abuse have to the health of functioning democracies. “Corruption chips away at democracy,” asserts Transparency International, a government corruption watchdog organization, “to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption.”3 This lack of political accountability often operates without the public’s knowledge, whether because sources of funding for political candidates are under-investigated or because under-the-table deals don’t receive the media scrutiny they deserve. Fortunately, a constellation of civil society organizations like NIF grantees Democratic Bloc/Ha-Bloc, the Movement for Freedom of Information, and the Seventh Eye work to strengthen Israeli democracy through advocating for increased government transparency and guarding the engines of public discourse and policy for a healthier, more open, and more responsible political conversation.

By revealing what is too often concealed — not just on Purim, but every day — these organizations support efforts to forge a more democratic Israel, a place where freedom and public welfare cannot be bought and sold, but are instead built up together.

1 Pirkei Rebbe Eliezer 50
2 Ibid
3 How Corruption Weakens Democracy, Transparency International

Margo Hughes-Robinson

Margo Hughes-Robinson is a 2020-21 NIF Froman Fellow and a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (‘21), where she is also pursuing an MA in Midrash. A New Yorker by birth, she attended Clark University, where she graduated with degrees in Theatre and in Jewish Studies. During her time in rabbinical school, Margo has enjoyed professional endeavors with Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Avodah, T’ruah, Fort Tryon Jewish Center in New York City, Adat Israel in Guatemala City, and served as the Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York.