Jews around the world will gather this weekend for the Purim tradition of reading the biblical Book of Esther. Despite the book’s antiquity and its often-farcical tone, there could not be a more relevant text for our time. At its core, Esther is a cautionary tale about money’s corrosive effect on politics.
The story’s pivotal scene occurs in chapter three. Haman, the emperor’s chief lieutenant, is offended when Mordechai, a Jew, publicly and repeatedly refuses to bow before him. For this violation of royal law, Haman resolves to execute not only Mordechai, but all the Jews of Persia.
In order to slaughter a populous ethnic group that has spread throughout the empire, Haman needs royal authorization, so he lobbies the emperor to destroy them:
“There is a certain people scattered, yet unassimilated, among the peoples throughout the provinces of your kingdom whose laws are different from every other people’s. They do not observe even the emperor’s laws! Therefore, it is not appropriate for the emperor to tolerate them. If it please the emperor, let it be recorded that they are to be destroyed.” (Esther 3:8-9)
The emperor quickly assents to the plot. But why? Haman’s argument for genocide is pretty weak when you think about it. Why doesn’t the emperor ask Haman to identify these “certain people”? Why doesn’t he demand some examples of how this people’s laws differ from the emperor’s? Why doesn’t he inquire about specific instances of disobedience? Why doesn’t he seek out the other side of the story?
The reason, it seems, is because Haman’s money speaks louder than his argument. Before the emperor has a chance to probe deeper, Haman pledges, “I shall pay ten thousand silver talents to the proper officials to deposit in the emperor’s treasury.” Ten thousand silver talents was a very large sum of money (according to some scholars, it may have equaled nearly two-thirds of the annual income of the entire Persian empire). And immediately after Haman offers this large contribution, Ahasuerus agrees to Haman’s plan. No wonder Esther feels that her people have been “sold” (7:4): Haman’s jaw-dropping contribution outbid the Jews’ interests.
By today’s legal standards, Haman did not technically bribe the emperor. Despite his personal stake in the fate of the Jews, Haman did not couch his request as a favor or as something from which he would directly benefit. He argued that exterminating the Jews was good for the empire. And he did not offer the emperor a gift. Rather, he volunteered a hefty donation to the empire – one that, presumably, would bankroll his proposed legislation and also help the emperor pay for other programs.
The deal between Haman and Ahasuerus resembles arrangements that are legal and commonplace in politics today. Wealthy individuals volunteer sizable campaign contributions to politicians who enact legislation championed by those individuals. CEOs agree to put their corporations’ cash and muscle behind initiatives if the politicians responsible support other policies that are friendly to their interests. Special interest groups dramatically outspend opposing groups in trying to sway lawmakers to support their causes.
These transactions are not bribes, which the Torah expressly forbids (Deuteronomy 16:19), but their impact is no different; they privilege moneyed interests over the public good. They tempt lawmakers to give the debate to the side with the deepest pockets rather than the side with the best argument.
This reality has become even bleaker in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In Citizens United, the court ruled that limiting spending in elections is tantamount to limiting speech, and that corporations, like individuals, have a constitutional right to free speech.
As a result, Citizens United empowered individuals and corporations to spend virtually limitlessly in order to influence elections. This all but guarantees that officials will be elected and laws will be passed not on their merits, but on how well they have been bankrolled. The ruling effectively enabled the wealthiest few to drown out everyone else’s speech and, therefore, their interests as well.
Additionally, as moneyed interests silence those without the means to garner influence, favor, and access, their power becomes entrenched. As those without means see their leaders prioritizing moneyed interests over their own, they become disillusioned and increasingly disengage from the political process.
That’s precisely what happens in the Book of Esther. As the decree against the Jews is disseminated, people panic and mourn – signs of their impotence and resignation. Even high-ranking officials like Esther feel powerless to reverse the decree. Meanwhile, “the emperor and Haman sat down to drink,” presumably in some opulent palatial wine room, insulated from the outcries of ordinary Persians (3:15). The same dynamic is at work in today’s United States. The more politicians appear to strike legal deals with moneyed interests in ritzy back rooms, the more average Americans become cynical and disaffected with politics.
The Book of Esther, then, offers a serious warning about money’s impact on politics. A system that enables wealth to garner influence is the surest way to empower Hamans. The Jews of Persia were lucky that the one thing Ahasuerus liked more than Haman’s money was Esther’s beauty. Will the rest of us be as lucky if our interests are sold out to the highest bidder? I don’t know about you, but that gamble is too rich for my blood.