Megillat Esther: Letting Text Tell the Story
Rabbi Hayyim Angel
In Segment 1, Rabbi Angel introduces Megillat Esther as one of the most well-known books in the Bible, explaining that its familiarity also leads to difficulty in differentiating between the pshat and drash of the text. Rabbi Angel elaborates by showing examples of missing information and references within the text that most readers do not notice, such as what exactly the story is about (showdown between ancient enemies and/or punishment for assimilation) and why Mordecai refuses to bow.
Megillat Esther is one of the most familiar books in the entire Bible, so it's really hard to look at it new. We've learned it since we were little children in many cases, and we have a certain picture of what it's supposed to look like. So much so, that when we start asking questions about what's really in the text anyway, we realize that there's a huge blur between what we call Pshat – what the text itself is trying to teach – and Drash – various Medrashic and other Rabbinic interpretive levels that we very often find imposed onto our text's understanding.
Just to give a couple of quick examples. What is the book about?
What Is Megillat Esther Actually About?One thing that some people might think about is how there's a showdown between the descendants of Agog – who is the king of Amalek, and that's Haman of course – and the descendants of Shaul Hamelech, King Saul, namely Mordechai and Esther, who come from the tribe of Binyamin. The truth is neither Haman nor Mordechai and Esther are identified explicitly with Amalek or with King Shaul. In fact, the fact that Haman is called Ha'Agogi five times – the Agogite – it could mean that he's descended from King Agog, but it also could just be a Persian name. In fact, similar names have been found in ancient Persian documents.
In terms of Mordechai and Esther, the fact that Mordechai has a man named Kish in his ancestry, does not mean that it's the father of Shaul; it might be another man named Kish from the tribe of Binyamin. At any rate, as Ibn Ezra points out, if the Megillah wanted to link Mordechai and Esther to King Shaul, it could have said that they were descended from King Shaul. But of course the Megillah does not do so.
Regardless of whether there's any biological connection at all, it's fair to say that Haman acts like Amalek. He is a truly evil individual, who is attacking the weak and vulnerable, and therefore the point is conceptually correct even if it is not a biological point that the Megillah is trying to make.
Another point that some people like to learn about the Megillah, is to say that the Jews were assimilated. Somehow they were doing terrible things, and then came the threat of annihilation, and then the people repented from this earlier assimilation, and this is why G-d saved them. It's a very nice conceptual model; the main problem with it, is that there is absolutely nothing in Megillat Esther that suggests that the Jews did anything wrong at all. They're incredibly united, they fast when Mordechai and Esther tell them to do so, they're the ones who initiate the holiday altogether later on.
Even when Haman accuses them, he stands in front of Achashveirosh and is accusing them, with the attempt to annihilate them. He says in Chapter 3, verse 8; There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws. It is not in your majesty's interest to tolerate them. Listen to Haman, he's a terrible, terrible, evil man, but when he needs to accuse the Jews he says that the Jews follow their own laws rather than the laws of the king. It sounds very much like the Jews are faithful to their traditions and are distinctive people.
In fact, the very Talmudic passage that often is used to describe how the Jews sinned by attending Achashveirosh's party, actually rejects this very answer. It's in Megillah 12A, in the Talmud. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was asked by his disciples, why were [the enemies 3:17] of Israel in that generation deserving of extermination? He said to them, you should answer that. They said, because they partook of the feast of that wicked one. So there's the answer that many commonly learn, that the Jews participated in Achashveirosh's party and somehow that was sinful, and as a result they deserved Haman's decree.
However, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai rejects his students' answer. He says, if so, those in Shushan should have been killed but not those in other parts. After all, most Jews did not participate in either party. Then they said, okay, you're right, we reject that answer too, give your answer. He said to them, it was because they bowed down to the image – referring according to Rashi, to an idol – three generations ago in the time of Nevuchadnezzar and Daniel. They said to him, did G-d then show them favoritism? Why did G-d reverse the decree? He replied, they only pretended to worship and G-d only pretended to exterminate them.
Now that's an amazing answer, which the theologians among you can go to town with. But on a practical level what this Talmudic passage is saying, is that we have no reference to any sin in the Megillah.
More Missing References in Megillat EstherHere are some other things that are surprisingly missing from the Megillah, as long as we're on the subject of things missing. One, there's no reference to G-d's name, as we all know. G-d's name appears zero times in the Megillah. For that matter, the word Torah is never mentioned and anything distinctly Jewish is never mentioned, other than the word Yehudi; that Mordechai was a Jew. The only religious ritual mentioned at all is fasting, which is universal; many, many other cultures and religious practiced fasting as well.
Here's another thing that's missing from the Megillah, which is maybe even more shocking. The main reason anything happened in our story is because Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. That got him upset and he realized that he wanted to exterminate all the Jews, not just Mordechai, and this caused the main part of the story. Well why exactly did Mordechai refuse? The Megillah in Chapter 3 gives a very, very vague description of the story and it really doesn't give any reason at all. All the king's courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king's order concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel nor bow low. Then the king's courtiers who were in the palace gates said to Mordechai, why do you disobey the king's order? When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman in order to see whether Mordechai's resolve would prevail. For he had explained to them that he was a Jew.
It's all beautiful, but why exactly did Mordechai not bow? The only thing that's mentioned here is that Mordechai doesn't want to obey the king's order. As in Esther Rabbah 6:2 in a Medrash says, was Mordechai then looking for quarrels or disobedient to the king's command? The fact is that when Achashveirosh ordered that all should bow down to Haman, the latter fixed an idolatrous image on his breast for the purpose of making all bow down to an idol. Amazing. The Medrash over here says that Haman was an outreach specialist for idolatry and that's why Mordechai refused to bow.
Okay, so Haman is posing with an idol, we understand why Mordechai would refuse. But of course that is completely absent from the text. Even if you want to say that Haman viewed himself as some kind of deity, which his personality does reveal, it sounds like he's incredibly full of himself, nonetheless Halacha does not necessarily prohibit bowing to another human being. Esther even bows to Achashveirosh a few chapters later in the Megillah. Very often people bow to kings or other high officials in Tanach as a sign of great respect, rather than as a sign of any form of worship.
How Can We Understand Megillat Esther?So let's summarize what's missing from the Megillah. We don't have any clear reference to Amalek or any descent of Mordechai and Esther from Shaul. We have no sign of the Jews sinning; to the contrary, they seem to be very righteous and united throughout the Megillah. There is no mention to G-d's name or any specifically Jewish, religious observance or the Torah itself. There's also, surprisingly, no clear explanation as to why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. Even though the entire story seems to revolve around the outcome of that refusal.
So these are all the things we've discussed in this segment that are not in the Megillah. In our next segment we'll have to figure out, well okay then, what is in the Megillah and what is it coming to teach us after all?