On Purim and taxes

The tax collector must love poor people; he’s creating so many of them.

Bill Vaughan

Benjamin Franklin, in his letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, stated that “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Will Rogers added that at least death does not get worse every time that congress meets.

The first known system of taxation was in Ancient Egypt around 3000–2800 BC in the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom. The earliest and most widespread form of taxation was the corvée and tithe. The corvée was forced labor provided to the state by peasants too poor to pay other forms of taxation, labor in ancient Egyptian being a synonym for taxes.

Megilat Esther, which is read in the synagogue on Purim, is full of intriguing narratives and is a web of a plot which unravels into an almost fairy tale like happy ending, with the death of the bad guy and the emergence of the unlikely proletariat to hero. Interestingly though, within the described events of the Jews being able to retaliate against their enemies, one verse repeats itself over and over again “they did not plunder or help themselves to the spoils of their battles”. The constant repetition of these verses is highly questionable and it seems that the text is definitely stressing, even overplaying, this fact.

Shortly after, out the blue, another extraordinary fact is pointed out. The king levied a tax on his empire. This may well coincide with the known taxes levied by the Persian King Darius, as the first regulated and sustainable tax system known in history, based on levels of production. This would make it the first system which turned taxes from being a measure of cruelty by a ruthless leader, to a social tariff aimed at increasing social equality.

The verse seems very out of place and context. We are not told anything about Achashverosh’s internal or external policies, his military methods or even his manner of ruling the nations of his empire. Why are we told of his tax policy?

Maybe one question answers the other. The story of Megillat Esther is about ruthless leaders with no sense of human rights who see murder, homicide and plunder as an acceptable way of instilling fear into their subjects, and exerting power as method of rule. Later this concept would become known as social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. They are not the exception, this is the acceptable manner of rule of the region and period. In our story the Jews are the victims, but assumedly there are many such stories with other minorities.

The events of Megillat Esther are not just a one-time event. They changed the course of economic history and manner of rule. The Jews never plundered or enriched themselves after overpowering their enemies. That was not their goal at all, they just wanted to defend themselves. At the same time, they passed on the message that society does not have to plagued by constant power struggles and needless killings, with aim to enrich oneself and seek further dominance. A new social system was initiated, which gives individual equality and rights, and protects the vulnerable from the callous and ruthless. It empowers the weak and reduces the power of the strong.

It is called taxation.

No-one, barring governments and accountants, likes taxes. However, when cursedly filling out IRS or Inland Revenue documents and paying taxes, maybe the memory that the alternative to the tax system is far worse will make this woe a little less painful.

Happy Purim

 

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