Sometimes great reservoirs of meaning reside in a single word.
There is an Aramaic word that appears every once in a great while in the Hebrew Bible. It appears once in Deuteronomy, here and there in the Book of Daniel — and no fewer than 12 times in the Scroll of Esther, or the Purim Megillah. The word is “dat” — Aramaic for “law” or “binding custom.”
Everything that happens in ancient Persia happens according to dat. Ancient Persia, as governed by King Ahasuerus, was a society that, according to the Scroll of Esther, worshipped law to such an extent that edicts passed by a monarch could never be revoked, even by the monarch himself. Yet there was something malevolent with respect to law there. We, as Jews, are taught to revere law — but somehow law, as depicted in the Megillah, gets turned on its head.
The first “dat” mentioned in the Megillah is the edict issued by Ahasuerus that, at his royal party, “the drinking shall be by law — with no limits, in accord with the desires of every man.” Here’s an edict that legislates the abundant consumption of alcohol “without limits.” Seemingly, the function of law is to rein in human desires and passions. But this law provides that “the desires of every man” shall be obeyed — giving passion itself the ultimate say. The law seems an oxymoron, almost an “anti-law.”
The next time we meet dat in the Megillah is when the king’s wife, Vashti, has defied him, refusing to display herself to the leering masses at his party. Ahasuerus is consumed with rage. Yet, instead of decreeing immediately that Vashti be done away with, he convenes his lawyers. They speak in grand terms about the national interest and the social order — and then propose legislation that will get rid of Vashti (by what means is left unclear). The king’s raging emotions have been served, but they have been served through the medium of law.
Something similar happens when Haman perceives that Mordecai will not bow to him. Haman was powerful enough to hang Mordecai on the spot. But, according to the text, this seemed too petty to him. So Haman instead went to the king to get a law passed — a law legislating the demise of all Jews, under the pretense that they are themselves lawbreakers and cannot be tolerated by the state. Haman’s desires will have their way — but law is there to make it all kosher.
A fourth law in the Megillah governs the kinds of perfumes given to the maidens in the king’s harem — and it dictates how long the king’s women must remain steeped in the fragrances.
The pattern is clear: Law is everywhere in Persia — but it is everywhere it doesn’t belong. Law in Persia regulates the trivial — wine drinking and perfume — or it sanctions the perverse. Law becomes a tool used by the powerful to get what they want — without admitting to others, or perhaps even to themselves, what it is they really want. In Ahasuerus’s Persia, law serves as the thinnest of veneers for our darker ambitions.
As Jews, we learn to love law. We study the Torah, God’s law, and seek to build our lives around it. But, as Nachmanides and others state, having law in your life does not, in and of itself, guarantee a well-lived life; it depends on what part of our lives we let law into — what kind of relationship we establish with law. We can allow the Torah’s laws to shape our personality and to chisel the contours of our more primal desires. Or we can stand law on its head, and find ways to use it perversely. We can allow law to inhabit only the surface of our lives, to govern just the trivialities of our actions, while our baser passions proceed unchecked — harming, in subtle and not so subtle ways, ourselves and those around us.
In the Persia of yesteryear, the Megillah holds up to us a twisted vision of law and its place in the human psyche. Implicitly, the Scroll of Esther asks us to look in that mirror and to discern how much of ourselves we see there. Purim beckons us to bring law into our lives with integrity, not sanctimony. Let us have the courage to meet that challenge squarely.
Rabbi David Fohrman directs the Areivim Curriculum Project and is resident scholar at the Young Israel of Woodmere, N.Y. He is the author of “The Queen You Thought You Knew: Unmasking Esther’s Hidden Story” (O.U. Press, 2011).