Does Esther Matter?
Purim 2014 - Sample Playlist for joined videos
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this video, Rabbi Fohrman draws attention to the interaction between Mordecai and Esther that leads to her approaching the king, labeling it as the turning point of the narrative, and drawing a comparison between the words that Mordecai uses and the words used in discussing the laws of vows in Numbers.
In order to get some understanding about Purim's strange name, let me turn to a want to a second question with you; this question has always troubled me. I want to look with you at the turning point probably, of the entire Megillah; it's the speech that Mordecai gives to Esther just before she first goes to the king.Mordecai has found out about Haman's genocidal decree. He sends word to Esther that it;s time for her to go to the king, she needs to reveal her true identity that she herself is a Jew and beg him to save her people. But to Mordecai chagrin, she sends back word to him that she can't do it; it' s too dangerous. She hasn't been called to the king for thirty days. Everyone knows that if you invades the king's chamber without being called, he can kill you instantly. And the king hasn't asked to see her for thirty days; she would be taking her life in her own hands to go into his private room. If you were Mordecai, what would you say to her? You know that the fate of the Jews rests in her hands and she says she can't do it because it's too dangerous? You would say "Esther look, what's the worst thing that could happen? Alright so they'll kill you, so they'll name high schools after you; but Esther we need you, your people need you, this is no time to think about your own life! Sacrifice yourself if needs be for the good of your people! Esther, we need you!"
If you look at what Mordecai actually says, he says the exact opposite. He says " Esther, you think we need you? We don't need you! Im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot - "if you keep silent at this time" revach v'hatzalah yaamod layehudim mimkom acher - "we'll be just fine! Salvation will come to the Jews from some other place! Don't you worry about us Esther; we'll be just fine without you. You know why you should act? Because if you keep silent now at ubeit-avich tovedu - it's going to be you who is going to go down in flame, you and your father's house will be destroyed." Umi yodea im-liet kazot higaat lamalchut - "Who knows if was for this moment that you were destined to become queen?" Mordecai's words to Esther here are full of puzzles.
First of all, it seems to be a very dangerous game of reversed psychology that he is playing with her -"'we don't need you Esther." Does he really means that? And if he really does mean that, if he truly believes one way or the other the Jews are going to be saved, that God is going to come to the rescue of the Jews, either through Esther or through someone else, then what does he mean to tell her when he says " and if you don't act" at ubeit-avich tovedu "you're going to be destroyed". Then why should she be destroyed if one way or the other the Jews are going to be saved? I mean, if I was Esther I would say " you've just given me the way out that I was looking for. You just told me this does not all ride on me -that one way or the other the Jews are going to be fine so you know what Mordecai, I'm a little scared. I am going to bow out of this one;you know what, have somebody else do it. I would love to help if it was absolutely necessary; it looks like you have other ways of making it work - make it work the other way." What's the rationale for saying that " yes, the Jews are going to be saved one way or the other - but if you don't choose to save them you are going to be destroyed." All of this is really part of a larger question maybe - the real paradox that seems to kind of come through in Mordecai's words is " Is Esther significant or is she not significant?" First he seems to tell her you are not really significant; one way or the other the Jews are going to be saved. But then at the very end he says "and who knows if it was for this moment that you became queen?" Well now Esther seems very significant, it seems to all ride on her. So which is it? Does she matter or does she not matters? What's going on with this speech?
If you really want to understand Mordecia's speech, you have to understand that you've heard it somewhere before. Everything that he's saying comes from something that was said centuries before Mordecai and Esther were even a gleam in the eye of history. All of the language of his speech is quoted from a section of the Torah itself - deep in the Book of Numbers . There was a deal with a young woman, a naarah. The word naarah is also used by the Megillah to describe Esther but when the Torah talks about this naarah, it's a naarah who is married - the Torah is talking about the naarah in relationship to the man in her life; Mordecai is talking to Esther about what she needs to do about the man in her life, the one who's made her a queen - King Achashverosh.
That section of the book of Numbers that talks about this married naarah gives a certain specialized kind of guidance about her relationship with her husband much as how Mordecai is now giving Esther a certain specialized kind of guidance about how she must deal with the king. That section in the book of Numbers speak of this naarahas being bebeit aviha - "in her father's house'. And look at Mordecai's words, at the very end he says " And esther if you don't act, at ubeit-avich tovedu - "you and your father's house will be destroyed."
That section of the Book of Numbers speaks about the possibility of silence'; Mordecai also tells Esther " if you keep silent right now, salvation will come to us from some other place." That section of the Book of Numbers that speaks about the married naarah in her father's house that talks about silence, also talks about there being a crucial short window of time in which a spouse must act. Mordecai also talks about a crucial short window of time, im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot - " if you keep silent right now, who knows if right now is the moment for which you become queen? You have to cease the moment, the moment will soon pass."
And one more thing, when Mordecai talks about silence, he says to Esther im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot - " if you keep silent at this time", but the particular word for silence that he uses lehacharish - he uses it in double form im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot- "if you keep silent, yes, silent at this time", it turns out that there is only one other time in the entire Tanach where that verb lehacharish, "to keep silent," appeared as a double verb other than Mordecai's words to Esther is in that other section of the Book of Numbers. Where is that other section? It is the Laws of the Annulment of Vows. An obscured set of laws, that we don't think about much these days, that everything Mordecai says is taken from there. What are these strange Laws of Annulment of Vows and what do they have to do with Mordecai and Esther? Why is Mordecai constantly referencing these ideas? We need to go back to the Book of Numbers and look at those laws and we may well find that they help us understand not just Mordecai's speech to Esther but the very name of the holiday Purim itself.