Why Such a Heavy Punishment?

The holiday of Purim celebrates how “the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand against their enemies.” The Gemara in Megillah asks: Why was such a severe decree issued against the Jews “to destroy, kill and exterminate all Jews, young and old, women and children on one day”? The Talmud answers: “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said: Because they enjoyed Ahasuerus’s feast.”

But the Torah has rules which determine the penalty for each sin, and the sin of eating non-Jewish food — which is a prohibition the Jews committed at Ahasuerus’s feast — does not carry the death penalty, so why were they punished so severely?

A parable will help us understand this. A bank manager was looking for a junior clerk to do standard banking transactions. He interviewed several candidates and in the end selected who he thought was the best candidate. On the first day of work, the employee came late. He was immediately called to the manager who warned him to come on time. But the next day, the employee came late again, and gave the pretext that there was a traffic jam. The manager warned him that this was the second and final warning and excuses for a late arrival would not be accepted any more. If he would come late again, he would be fired immediately.

The bank started interviewing for a clerk who would be responsible for opening new customer accounts. The manager interviewed candidates and hired a person he thought appropriate. On the first day of work, a new client entered and wanted to open an account at the bank. The clerk told him: “Why are you opening an account with this bank? Go to the bank across the street, they give better conditions, they don’t charge fees and they give higher interest rates. It’s not worth your while to open an account with us.” When the client heard that, he immediately left the bank. This was repeated with every new customer that entered the bank. They all immediately left for the bank across the street.

The bank manager saw that no new account had been opened that day and every new client that entered, left immediately. He watched a new customer speak with the clerk and when he was about to leave, the bank manager called him over and asked him, “Why are you leaving and not opening an account?” The customer replied: “Your clerk recommended that I go to the bank across the street, because I will get better terms there.” The bank manager became furious and immediately fired the new clerk and ordered him to immediately leave the bank.

One of those present asked the manager, “Why did you give a warning and a second chance to improve to the clerk who was late, but this clerk you fired at once?” The manager replied: “It’s obvious. The first clerk is dedicated to our bank, and he only came late, so I gave him another chance. But this employee is sending customers to our rivals! He shows that he couldn’t care less about our bank. There is no justification to keep him here for even one moment more, and I won’t give him another chance. You can’t compare the two cases at all.”

The moral is simple: When a Jew is happy to be part of the people of Israel, and only occasionally does sins because of his evil inclination — he shows that he is part of the Jewish people, and the normative rules of crime and punishment apply to him. But during the exile in Persia, it does not say that they ate at Ahasuerus’s party but they “enjoyed” it. This means that they felt it was “fun” to be with the gentiles. They were not participating in the party because they had no choice but because they enjoyed the feeling of associating with the locals. That showed that they had leanings to “another bank” — to another people. They left the Rock who had created them and dug for themselves broken cisterns. In such a situation, their status is not that of a Jew who sinned, but of one who was tinkering with going over to another religion, which carries with it a completely different ruling. That is why they were dealt such severe punishment.

After they fasted as Esther and Mordechai had instructed them, the verse says, “they accepted upon themselves” — they undertook to fulfill the Torah out of love rather than coercion. They thereby returned to G-d, and a miracle occurred. “The tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand against their enemies.”

If we accept upon ourselves to learn Torah and keep commandments out of love for G-d, we will merit again G-d’s miracles and wonders.

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