What Is The Theme Of The Book of Esther?
Divine Lottery: Fate, Chance And Themes
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How can we define the main themes of Purim that emerge from the Book of Esther? In this audio recording, Rabbi Fohrman starts by addressing the big questions in the Book of Esther, and attempts to answer them by dissecting the main themes of Purim.
[Introduction] The following series of lectures is entitled: Divine Lottery; Fate, Chance and the Book of Esther. I delivered these lectures before live audiences in the winter of1999. The tapes were then edited and augmented to create the set that you have before you today. There are three tapes in the series, this is the first of them. I hope you enjoy listening.
It seems to me that there is fundamental problem with the entire holiday of Purim and the problem centers on its name – I think it's a good place to begin any discussion of this holiday. The problem is the following. As you probably know the name is Purim is Aramaic actually for a Hebrew word Goral which means lots. We name the holiday Lots. Now the question is the following, why is that we name the holiday Lots? The apparent and clear answer to this is that the lots played a very important role in the holiday, and that is that Haman cast lots when he decided that he was going to destroy the Jews, in order to determine the day in which he would kill us all out.
But the question is the following, let's pretend that there was no name for the holiday and that you were in charge of naming this holiday. Let's say this is a nameless holiday, we've decided that we want to make a holiday on the Jewish calendar to commemorate the Jews' near destruction in a total pogrom, they were saved, we're very happy about it. Now we have a naming committee for the holiday. So we're all here gathered in this room, we're trying to figure out what it is that we are going to name this holiday. So what kinds of names would you give it? I don't know, you'd come up with, you'd have, Jews Saved Day. You might call it Esther Day or Mordechai Day – those would be important things that you could call the holiday. You might come up with all sorts of nice names commemorating the fact that we were saved.
But let's say one person in the back of the room raises their hand and says, you know, I really think that the best name for this holiday would be Lots. Let's call it Lots. We would all be very puzzled, so we'll ask him, so why would you call this holiday Lots? He would answer to us, well you see when our archenemy decided that he was going to destroy us he casts lots and that's how he figured out the day that he was going to kill us out, so let's call the holiday Lots after the lots that he cast in order to destroy us.
So how would we react to that suggestion? It seems to me we would not accept it very well at all. There's a couple of problems with it. Problem number 1 is why would we name the holiday after something the bad guy did? I mean, this is like commemorating the bad guy – the bad guy is the person that we don't want to commemorate. We're told that Amalek, that nation which is the enemy of the Jews is the source of Haman, he came from Amalek, he came from Agog, the King of Amalek. Amalek is something which we try and blot out – the Torah says you try and blot out the memory of Amalek, never to remember them again. It looks like we're really kicking ourselves in the foot, here we are, we name the holiday which will be an eternal holiday – the Torah tells us that Purim is the one holiday that will be eternal, that will never be Nitbatel, that will never be overturned – and that eternal holiday we call Purim – Lots, memorializing Haman. It seems very difficult. Why memorialize Haman? And why memorialize the bad guy?
Yet in fact this suggestion wins the day and we call the holiday Purim after those lots. Very, very strange indeed. How do we understand that?
The second problem with the name is that if anything it appears to be a triviality. You try to name the holiday after something important, something very significant that happened on that day. You know, Esther Day you could call it, Saved from Pogrom Day, but to name it after the lots is a detail, it's a very tiny detail, why are we focusing on that? Unless the detail is somehow symbolic, in which case it's not just a detail but it comes to symbolize something, but then what does it symbolize?
Does it symbolize chance? Perhaps what it symbolizes is this notion of chance, of chaos? But then the name of the holiday becomes very problematic indeed, because Purim is a holiday where there's a lot of apparently chance events, a lot of things serendipitously come together in a nice way to make things work out nicely for the Jews. But as Jews, as religious people, would we say that the best description of those events is chance? Would we say that things just happen to fall into place? Presumably we would say no, that it wasn't chance, it was G-d. Well if it was G-d then why are you naming the holiday chance? A holiday with a bunch of fortuitous chance events, you name it chance, you again seem to be hitting yourself in the foot, and calling the holiday after something that you believe it's not. You call it after what the enemy is, and you call it after a phenomenon – chance – which you don't believe was operative in the holiday. Why call the holiday Purim? Very, very strange.
Questions About Purim: Problem 1That, I think, is problem number 1. The truth is in looking at problem number 1 we don't have to look very far because if we look at the Megillah itself – the Megillah that's read on Purim – the Book of Esther, we can find in the Megillah the Megillah's own explanation of why this holiday is in fact called Lots. The Megillah tells us why it thinks the holiday is called Lots. We find this at the very end of the Megillah, you can look if you have a Megillah in front of you, look in Chapter 9, verse 24, and the Megillah tells you why this holiday forever more was called Purim. I'm going to quote from the verse in Hebrew and I'll translate freely.
Here's what the verse says – as you listen to the verse try and figure out what you think is problematic about the verse, because the apparently simple explanation of the verse, as to why this holiday is in fact called Purim, is a very difficult explanation. The verse does not seem to make a lot of sense, although it can kind of lull you into a sort of sleep if you want to read the verse quickly and superficially.
So here's the verse, what is the problem in the verse? Chapter 9, verse 24; Ki Haman ben Hammedatha – because Haman, the son of Hammedatha; Ha'Agagi – the Agagite; Tzorer kol ha'yehudim – the enemy of all the Jews; Chashav al ha'yehudim l'abdam – thought concerning the Jews to destroy them. V'hipil pur hu ha'goral l'humam ul'abdam – and he casts lots which is the Goral; L'humam ul'abdam – to terrify them and to destroy them. Verse 25; U'bevo'ah lifnei ha'melech – but when she, that is Esther, came before the king; Amar im ha'sefer yashuv machashavto hara'ah asher chashav al ha'yehudim al rosho – things worked out in a way that Haman's thoughts, evil thoughts, which he thought upon the Jews, were turned over upon his own head; V'talu oto v'et banav al ha'etz – and they hung him and his children upon the tree. Verse 26; Al kein koru la'yamim ha'eileh Purim – that's why they named these days Purim; Al shem ha'pur – because of the lots.
Now, does that make any sense? What's wrong with these verses? Listen to them carefully one more time and you tell me what is problematic about these verses? Verse 24 – in other words, if you would have to structure this in A, B, and C, there are three things here. There's thing A, there's thing B, and thing C. What are A, B and C? Listen again. Because Haman the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, thought upon the Jews to destroy them, and he cast lots – that is the Goral – to terrify them and destroy them. But when she came before the queen – excuse me, but when the queen came before the king – Haman's thoughts were turned over upon his head, that which he had said to do to the Jews, and he and his children were hung upon a tree. And that's why they call these days Purim, because of the lots.
Thing (A) is Haman was going to destroy the Jews and he casts lots.
Thing (B), the next thing that the verse talks about, is when Esther came before the king everything got turned around and Haman and his children were destroyed.
Thing [C 7:58] is that's why they call the holiday Lots.
Now is that accurate? In other words, that's an accurate version of what the verses say, but is the verses' description of why we call the holiday Purim accurate?
If this was your Seventh Grader, and your Seventh Grader handed in this essay – this was a little, three-sentence essay – to his teacher, and you were redlining it so he would get a better grade, I would venture to say that you would take your red pen to this and you would switch verses around, you would switch this around. Why? You might say to your Seventh Grader, what do you mean, 'that's why they call the holiday Lots'? Why is it that we call the holiday Lots? He might answer because Haman cast lots. Well if so, the verses are out of order. The verses should have said, Haman casts lots to destroy us, that's why they called the holiday Lots because Haman cast lots, but in the end everything worked out okay. You should transpose verse 26 and put it before verse 25. Verse 26 says, that's why they call these days Purim, and that should come right after verse 24 when it says that Haman cast a Pur – cast lots. But in fact that's not the case.
So you might say to your Seventh Grader, why do you say; Al kein koru la'yamim ha'eileh Purim – that's why they call the holiday Purim, immediately after you said that Esther made things turn out differently? That's not why you call the holiday Purim, you call it Purim because of what happens in verse 24, not verse 25. So problem number 1 is that the verses are out of order – seem to be out of order.
Questions About Purim: Problem 2Problem number 2 is if you look carefully at the verses as to Haman's intent, as to why it is that he cast lots, you find something interesting. When Haman cast the lots, he does not just cast the lots to decide the date to destroy the Jews. If you look at the Hebrew carefully he says; Hipil pur hu ha'goral – in verse 24, he cast the lots that is the Goral; L'humam ul'abdam – not just; L'abdam – to destroy them, but; L'humam – to terrify them. L'humam also seems to be a takeoff on the word Haman. L'humam means to terrify them or to confuse them, it has a sense of chaos. What exactly is this? Is this some sort of psychological warfare in the lots, that somehow there was another agenda in the lots, not just to figure out the day that the Jews would be destroyed, but also it was a method of warfare itself? It wasn't just a tactical move to figure out a day, it was actually warfare itself. It was part of the intent of what Haman was deciding to do with the Jews. So how do we put this all together?
[Live recording] Okay, so [Jan 10:27] just to review we have two basic questions which we'll want to know about at the end of the story. The end of story tells us two strange things. As [Rich] says, there is a summary here; we have a short summary of the Purim story; Chapter 9, verses 24 and 25. In that short summary we're told a couple of important things. We're told a roundup of the Purim story and we're told why the holiday is called Purim. It says that Haman cast lots in order to terrify in some way the Jews and in order to destroy them. It then says; however, Esther managed to avert the decree and Haman was killed in the end. Then it says, and that's why they call the holiday Lots. As if to imply that that's why they call the holiday Lots, because of Esther, even more than because of Haman, as it comes right after what Esther said. As we mentioned, the verses seem out of order. 'That's why they call the holiday Lots', seems as if it should come after what Haman did, casting the lots, not after what Esther did.
In addition, what bears notice is this notion of the lots as an instrument of psychological warfare. These are things which we will come back to.
In addition to that, we have the theological problem why call the holiday Lots at all? It would be like calling July 4, King George Day. That's what it would be like; or it would be like calling Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Arab Massacre Day because that's what the Arabs wanted to do. Or even, no, the instrument of the massacre, so you might call it, Kalashnikov Day, because they were going to use Kalashnikovs to kill all the Jews. That would be a very strange way of naming Yom Ha'atzma'ut. But that seems to be the equivalent of what we're doing with Purim. It's the same thing. Purim was the instrument by which he was going to destroy us, and that's what you're naming the day.
Now you only say it's a stretch because you feel how repulsive it would be to call Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Kalashnikov Day, I agree it's repulsive. The only reason why you don't think this is repulsive is because it happened a long time ago and you're conditioned since you were four years old to think of Purim as Purim. But imagine you were conditioned to think of Purim as Esther Day, and all of a sudden somebody comes along when you're the age we are now and says no, I have an idea, let's change it to Pur because that's what Haman was going to use to kill us. So you'd think he's crazy and you'd say, what, you're going to call it Kalashnikov Day? You'd have the same reaction. It's just because we're so used to the name that we don't see it.
A Contemporary Question About PurimOkay, there's another contemporary issue which I'd like to deal with more globally in this whole picture, and that is the following. This question was brought up to me by a friend of mine – a very close friend of mine who is now off heading an educational institution in Columbus, Ohio. It was – must have been about 10 years ago – it was Purim, I was at Ner Israel, up here, as a student, and my friend, [Hanoch Morris 13:22] raised this question to me.
He was sitting in the Beis Midrash – in the big study hall and there was no one there, everybody was off at various Purim parties – and he was there and he was looking kind of forlorn. The last thing you want to be on Purim is forlorn because it's a happy day, and he said to me, how is it that we can celebrate Purim nowadays? You know, we just came through the Holocaust and the Holocaust was almost like a replay of the Purim story, but it didn't have such a happy ending. It's true that we weren't utterly destroyed but we lost one-third of our people in the Holocaust. How can we read this story and say that the moral is that it all works out okay when it doesn't seem to all work out okay? We just came through another story like this where it didn't work out so okay.
The question he had was does Purim have a message to the post-Holocaust generation? Or does the post-Holocaust generation look at Purim and say that was then and this is now? I think that that's a challenging question. How is it that in the wake of the Holocaust you can look at Purim and celebrate Purim? Does Purim have a message to this generation as well? I believe that it does. There's a strong message in Purim to the pre-Holocaust generation and to the post-Holocaust generation; Purim speaks equally to both, and I think it's tied in with this question of lots also. That's an issue that I want to get back to: the contemporary relevance of Purim, how, in the wake of the Holocaust, we celebrate this holiday. What does it mean to us?
What I'd like to do with you now is the following. When we try to find depth in the Bible, when we try to read a story and look beyond its superficial meaning, to discern a deeper, richer, more three-dimensional world, how is it that we go about that process? I think there's lots of things we can do but there's one technique I'd like to focus on with you today. If you try and find depth – even in anything, music, sound, even sight – one of the things you can do is try to integrate two different visions of something into a single vision.
For example, how do we find depth when we look at something? You can try this at home. But one of the reasons why we have two eyes is because the ability to see with two eyes from slightly different vantage points but to see the same image, gives us a sensation of depth. If you close one eye and you look out at something you'll be able to see the same thing essentially as two eyes. It's just that what you will see will lack a sense of depth, you won't really be able to perceive how far away things are; you can guess but you can't really see how far away things are. When you open up a second eye, all of a sudden you begin to see depth.
The idea behind it, is what's happening is that each eye is looking from a slightly different vantage point and really sees a slightly different picture. Your brain then integrates the two pictures into one and when you integrate the two, slightly differing pictures, the sense that you have, the startling sense that you have, is one of depth. You can see how far things [are away 16:19]. And what happens is that a one-dimensional world becomes transformed – or a two-dimensional world becomes transformed into a three-dimensional world.
The same thing is true in the sense of sound. When you listen, for example, to music, the difference between listening to something in mono or listening to it in stereo, is that in stereo you have a sense of depth. What happens in stereo? What happens is that the sound that's coming to each ear is a slightly different sound, but your brain integrates the two sounds to make it one, but in the process of integration it creates the illusion of three dimensions. So you feel like you're sitting inside the orchestra hall and listening to the music in all of its richness and depth as if you were there.
In Search of Answers About PurimHow is it that we go about sort of constructing depth in studying Torah? I think one of the things that we can do is look for that same kind of technique. You all know the basic story of the Megillah; it's pretty plain, it's pretty basic, you've probably known it since you were kids. But the question is, is there another story – is there a harmony, so to speak, is there another sound – in the Megillah which we can integrate into the basic story, that gives us that sense of depth?
I think there is, and maybe the best analogy comes from the two kinds of sounds, really, when we play a piano; the right hand and the left hand. The melody, as it were, and the harmony. The melody I would think is the plain meaning of the text, just the story as it unfolds with all of its political intrigue. But what is the harmony? When you listen for harmony what is it that you listen for?
It's an interesting thing, when you think about harmony, if you ever watch someone playing piano and you watch the way their right hand moves and their left hand moves, the right hand of course carries the melody and the left hand would carry the harmony. You find actually that they move at different rates. The right hand will move relatively quickly and the left hand moves relatively slowly. What the left hand really does is it holds down chords, and while the left hand is holding down a chord the right hand will play five, six, seven, 10, 15 notes. Then the left hand will move and it will hold down a different chord which sort of provides a background for a whole new set of notes in the melody.
There are times really where you can hold one chord down and almost forget about it for just a long, long time, but still in the back of your mind it's providing that background for a whole long series of notes. I remember listening to, I think it was Mahler's First Symphony, and if you listen to Mahler's First Symphony it just begins with that one, little note. There is this one background note held by a violin and the violin just keeps on holding that note and slowly other parts of the orchestra begin to come in, begin to come in. If you look 20 minutes later, the violin is still holding that one note, it's the background for the whole orchestra, and it's fantastic. But – and you almost forget about it but it's still there – it's still there in the background and it's providing a kind of three-dimensional sense for the whole piece.
I think something like that is happening in the Megillah as well. There's a melody for the Megillah, there's a story itself, but there's also a harmony, there's background notes. There is this left-hand that is just holding down chords. I think that in text, in the Torah, in text study, you can sense the background notes, and you can sense the chords, they're really – in much the same way, there's just this background note that's being hammered over and over and over again – it's almost subliminal but you're hearing it over and over again. What they are, are these themes, these repetitive themes.
Oftentimes in the Megillah you'll read – really any piece of text – you'll find that the Torah will create this kind of background harmony. There will be this note that you'll hear over and over again. Sometimes the note is a word that appears over and over and over again. Sometimes it's a concept, sometimes it's a kind of thing that keeps on happening over and over and over. And it's sort of the chord for that part of the Megillah. If we can hear the chords, if we can tune in to what the chords are in the background of the Megillah, and put them together with the melody, I think we can be well on our way towards constructing really, a three-dimensional view on this.
Identifying the Main Themes of Purim in the Book of EstherSo here is what I'd like to ask you as you begin to look at the Megillah. I'd like to ask you are there any themes that stand out for you in the story of the Megillah? Certain kinds of events, certain kinds of patterns, certain stuff, certain words, anything, that seems to happen consistently over and over again in the Megillah. Is there any stuff that seems to happen over and over again in the Megillah? Not just once, not just twice.
Now, before you answer that question, I'm just going to give you the quick summary of the Megillah, listen to this summary, and as you listen to it just see if you can pick out if there's any themes that strike you as important.
The story starts off with a party; we have Achashverosh reigning over 127 kingdoms, ruler over the world. Recently conquered Babylonia by the way, Persia was the new kid on the block, they just conquered the Babylonian kingdom, the Jews were in Babylonia so part of the people who were conquered were the Jewish people. Achashverosh decides it's, meanwhile it's just about 70 years after the exile of the Jews since the destruction of the First Temple, and the Jews had been promised that after 70 years they come back. Time is almost up. Meanwhile, they're in Persia under the reign of Achashverosh. He throws a party and invites everybody to come – specifically he invites his servants and advisers and then there's another party for everybody.
At the party he gets it into his head that he would like his queen, Vashti, to appear and to show off her beauty before everyone; Vashti decides nothing doing, and the king is enraged. The king convenes his advisers. One of the advisers he convenes is a man by the name of Memuchan – whose name does that sound like? Memuchan? A little bit like Haman. As it were, the Sages identify him with Haman and say, that was actually Haman in disguise, it was before he was elevated to power.
So Memuchan speaks up and says, I have an idea. I don't think that it's a very good idea what Vashti did, she did not just insult the king here; the king should not think that this is just a personal insult, this was a national crime. Because all men are now going to be threatened by their wives who aren't going to listen to them anymore, because they're going to take advice from the queen. And the king has got to put a stop to this. I suggest banishing Vashti, getting rid of her, and the king should appoint a new queen. The king thinks this is a splendid idea, he banishes Vashti, and then sooner or later his thoughts turn to appointing a new queen.
Now meanwhile – just to give you a little Midrashic twist on this – the Sages do say in the Tractate Megillah, that Haman had his own motives for advancing such a plot, and his own motives were the following. Historically at the time, as I mentioned, Babylonia was the Ancient Kingdom, the old regime, as it were, and Persia was the new kid on the block and Achashverosh was a Persian king, just having conquered Babylonia. At the time, royalty and anything really royal was associated with Babylonia. Now Achashverosh in order to solidify his reign had married Vashti who was the scion of a Babylonian dynasty. She was a Babylonian princess and he had married her. Haman, the Sages say that Haman had his own, self-serving motives for getting rid of Vashti, because he had his eye on the crown and he knew that as long as there was Babylonian influence in the line of Achashverosh so there would be no way that he could really advance his own claim, as a Persian, to the crown. He had to get rid of all Babylonian influence before Haman had a chance to really ascend. That was his own, self-serving motives.
In any case, Haman suggested that Vashti be gotten rid of, Vashti is gotten rid of and the kind decides to convene a beauty contest. So as we know, Esther just happens to win the beauty contest, she's a secret Jewess, she keeps her identity secret, and she is picked. Now meanwhile there are two assassins that are plotting to kill the king, Mordechai overhears the assassins, foils the plot and the deed is duly recorded in the book of records. However, Mordechai is never rewarded for that deed.
Well, around this time Haman decides that – Haman, having been elevated to the post of second in charge to the king – has decided that he is going to demand that everybody bow to him as he walks past. There's one person who won't bow and that is Mordechai. Eventually Haman notices that Mordechai is not bowing to him, he figures out that Mordechai is a Jew, he decides that it's not enough to just kill Mordechai for this offense but he's got to kill all the Jews.
So Haman goes to the king and asks the king in a very surreptitious way to destroy the Jews. The way he asks the king is a model for any anti-Semite looking to figure out a way to exert his power. He says a clever mix of truth and lies; leaving out the gory details and using the method of euphemism to describe his acts, much in the way that Nazi Germany would use later to cover up its crimes. The Nazi Germany speaks of a Final Solution, they don't speak about extermination and killing and murder, so too, Haman speaks about getting rid of the Jews and providing a bounty that the doers of the work – Osei ha'melacha – the people who do the work, will get. The king is promised that there will be a sizeable bounty that will go into his pocket, although, and the reasons for killing the Jews is that they're different.
Yeshno am echad mephuzar u'mephorad bein ha'amim – there's one nation that is scattered among all the other nations; V'dateihem shonot mikol am – and their laws are different from all the other nations – which is true, the Jews have their own set of laws. But the next words that seem so logical are not true; V'et datei ha'melech einam osim – and they're disloyal to the king and they don't keep the king's laws. And therefore you ought to be getting rid of them.
Achashverosh says, look Haman, whatever you'd like to do, you do – by the way, Haman never names the Jews as a people, he just says, there is a certain people, he doesn't even name the Jews. So Achashverosh says look, I trust you, whatever you'd like to do, you do, here's my signet ring and you take it and destroy whomever you would like. Haman casts his lots, picks the day to destroy the Jews, and the word is sent out that a grand pogrom will be held in Adar, to kill all the Jews. Mordechai hears this, puts on sackcloth and ashes, stands outside the king's court.
Meanwhile, Esther seems oblivious to all that has happened, except that she sees Mordechai out there in sackcloth and ashes, wonders why, sends clean clothes to him and he won't accept it. Sends word back to her what has happened, and then you have a conversation between Mordechai and Esther. Mordechai tells Esther the bad news and tries to convince Esther to go to the king as a last chance to see if she can save the Jews. Esther protests and says, there's no way I can do it, I haven't been called to the king for 30 days, everybody knows that somebody who has not been called to the king is not allowed to approach the king, otherwise it's off with their head. Mordechai says to Esther, Esther, this isn't a time to be thinking about such things, it's time to go to the king. Esther relents, says I'll go, get everybody to fast for me. Everybody fasts, Esther fasts, and Esther goes to the king.
At that audience she doesn't divulge what she's interested in, she simply invites the king to a banquet with Haman. At that point Haman is still going through this ritual of having everyone bow to him, Mordechai doesn't bow to him, he comes home one day, and says, boy am I mad. You know, everything is going my way; the king likes me, the king has appointed me second in charge, there's nobody higher than me, I'm even called to a banquet with the queen, there's only one person who is invited other than that, and that's the king and me. I'm really at the height of my powers but it all means nothing to me whenever I see Mordechai not bowing to me. It all means nothing to me. Zeresh says, oh for psychological therapy treatment, why don't you don't just build a big gallows in our backyard and why don't you ask the king permission to go, hang Mordechai right now? It will make you feel so much better, you'll be able to sleep at night.
So, Haman thinks that's a splendid idea and he's off to consult the king. Meanwhile, the king is having a sleepless night and he can't sleep, so, like anyone who has a sleepless night, they go read a book. The king has books read to him, so he asks for the book of records to be read for him. The book just happens to open up to the page that describes Mordechai's deed in informing the king about the assassination plot and saving the life of the king. He asks, was Mordechai ever rewarded? No, Mordechai was never rewarded.
All of a sudden there's a knock on the door, who is there but Haman. Haman is there to ask for Mordechai's life and to put Mordechai on the gallows. Haman is about to speak but just then the king says no, no, no, before you say anything I have a question for you. What should the king do to the man that he wishes to honor? Well, Haman at this point is so pumped up upon himself says, well who would the king want to honor other than me? Then he says, I have an idea, why don't you ride him through the streets with a horse, and with royal garments upon him, and with the crown, and have it called out before him in a crier in the street, 'thus should be done to the man the king wants to honor'.
You see, by the way, what's on Haman's mind? What's on Haman's mind? The crown. He is dressed up like the king in the streets, is not great advice to give to the king. But the king seems to be – as the king usually is – in a very deferential mood, whatever you'd like to do, do. But then he says, excellent idea Haman, that is really wonderful, see there's this guy Mordechai that I want to honor, please don't say anything Haman, your request can wait, just go, take Mordechai, lead him through the streets, just like you said.
You have the famous Midrash that as Haman was leading him through the streets, Zeresh thought that the wrong person was sitting on the horse, and she poured the bathwater out upon her husband, thinking that it was Mordechai leading Haman through the streets, and he got [unclear 30:00]. So Haman comes home; Avel va'chafuiy rosh – feeling just like he's in mourning and in very terrible shape. He tells Zeresh all the bad things that have happened to him. Vayesaper Haman l'Zeresh ishto ule'kol ohavav et kol asher karahu – he tells them all the bad stuff that's just happened to befall him. And Zeresh says; Oh; Im mi'zerah ha'yehudim Mordechai – if Mordechai is indeed from the Jews so you are not going to be able to destroy him. If you've begun to fall before him you'll continue to fall before him. Just then, who should happen to show up? But the king's messengers to quickly bring Haman to the banquet of the queen – actually the second banquet of the queen.
At that second banquet Esther exposes Haman, says this is the man that, there's a man that's trying to kill all the Jews, and she says if we're going to be sold into slaves it would have been fine, but we're not, we're going to be killed, so I have to bring it to the king. The king says, who is that, who is the person plotting this? Esther stands up and says it's Haman, and the king leaves in anger.
Haman thinks it's his last chance to save himself so he falls upon the couch on which Esther is sitting and is begging for his life, the king walks back in and says, 'and now you're trying to seduce my wife while I'm in the palace?' He becomes very angry. Just then a loyal servant by the name of Charvonah walks in and says, by the way king, I think you should know there happens to be a gallows in the backyard that Haman who wanted to hang Mordechai, what do you think we should do? Achashverosh gets the idea and says, wonderful idea, why don't you hang Haman on the gallows? Haman is hung on the gallows and we basically have the end of the story. There's more to it than that, but that's basically the end of the story.
Now as you're going through this story – this is your very quick wrap-up of the story – as you're going through that story, do you see any themes that seem to jump out at you as the kind of stuff that seems to happen over and over again? Anything that seems to happen over and over again? Yes?
[Response from audience member: I think you can't really count on anything. You think you're going this way and all of a sudden (unclear 32:03)…]
The First Theme of PurimOkay excellent, that's, okay good, so [Joy] is correct. One of the patterns is reversal in this story, that you can't really count on anything, that things can be topsy-turvy. So you have the pattern of reversal in the story.
Let's go to the story, you tell me all the reverses that happen in the story.
[Response from audience member: Vashti from queen to nothing.]
Vashti from queen to nothing.
[Response from audience member: Esther from nothing to queen.]
Esther from nothing to queen.
[Response from audience member: Mordechai from sackcloth to royal…]
Mordechai from sackcloth to royalty. Haman from royalty to sackcloth. Remember he comes home; Avel va'chafuiy rosh – with, in mourning, just as Mordechai previously was in mourning.
Good, anything else?
[Response from audience member: Haman is killed in place of Mordechai. He's hung on the very gallows.]
Haman is hung upon the very gallows that he prepared for Mordechai. That's a reversal. Good.
[Response from audience member: The king reverses the decree.]
Actually he doesn't. The king is asked to reverse the decree but claims that he can't because law is so supreme in Persia that the law can never be rescinded. So he proposes a counter decree. But you might say, the day on which the Jews were going to be killed becomes the day of their salvation and the day that's a great holiday for them.
But hold on for one second, is there any other reversal that happens in the story? Listen to this one. Yeah?
[Response from audience member: I don't know if you call it reversal, but there's this constant miscommunication who the subject is that's being discussed. In the sense that, Haman is thinking that the king is referring to him when in fact he's referring to Mordechai…]
Okay, so that, I mean that is a reversal. Well it kind of is. In other words, Haman is all pumped up and thinks that it's happening to him; in fact, the very reverse is the true, that the enemy who he is seeking to destroy is the one that the king is seeking to elevate.
Some other reverses or similar kinds of things to what you're saying is, for example, do you notice when Haman comes back and he tells his wife that he's at the height of his power, so what does he mention as the crowning glory of his achievement? He says, everything is going my way, there's only one thing that's not going my way and that's Mordechai, but everything is going my way, look, I'm even called to a personal audience with the queen and king. Now is that the pinnacle of what's going Haman's way? No. In fact, that's going to be the seat of his downfall, but to him that's the pinnacle of his success. So it's again a kind of reversal.
One more thing, which I think is an interesting way of looking at it, in the beginning of the story, the king is willing to listen to Haman to kill the queen. Right? The king is willing to listen to Haman to kill the queen. By the end of the story the king is going to listen to the queen to kill Haman. So there's this interesting sort of triangle reversal that's going on.
So good, one of the themes in this story is a sense of constant reversal. Is there another theme that seems to animate this story besides reversal? Another theme that seems to animate the story? Yes?
[Response from audience member: Women have a most important role in the story. Esther, Haman's wife, and if it wouldn't have been for Vashti none of it would have taken place.]
Okay that's true, although that's, that's true, and by the way, it's not true just in the Megillah, it's true often in the Bible. That the women that seem to play behind-the-scenes positions actually have very active roles. It's true with Sarah and Abraham in certain cases, it's certainly true with Rebecca and Isaac. It's true with Rachel and Leah to a great extent. So that's, I would say, a common theme, not necessarily unique to the Megillah.
Anything that in the Megillah itself seems to be the kind of thing that in this story is happening over and over again? What about the name of the holiday?
[Response from audience member: Chance.]
The Second Theme of PurimChance. Doesn't chance seem to have an important role in the holiday? Give me all the examples of chance – or better than chance, I might say, serendipity. Stuff just sort of happening to work out, coincidence, things happening to work out the right way. What are some examples of coincidence in this story?
It just so happens that the king can't sleep the very night that Haman is coming to ask for Mordechai's life. It just so happens that the book of records is read to him, it just so happens that it opens to the right page and it just so happens that Mordechai was never rewarded before that time. Originally it just so happened that Mordechai was in the right place, in the right time, to be able to overhear the plot against the king. Any other just so happens? It just so happens that Esther is picked. I mean, was she really THE most beautiful girl? No. Probably not. She was most beautiful to the king. So out of millions of people the secret Jewess happens to be picked and is the ace in the hole at the right time for the story to come out to a positive ending.
[Response from audience member: One you mentioned earlier, it just so happened when the king came back and saw Haman on the couch, that that's when he was most angry…]
Good. It just so happens – and it's another reversal, reversal and chance together, one might even say – it just so happens that Haman thinks that he's going to be able to advance his cause by pleading for his life before the queen, but the king misinterprets that as seduction. So that is a serendipitous turn of events for the Jews.
Okay, all those factors basically combine to bring about the salvation of the Jews. And the name of the holiday highlights that, this notion of chance, of lots, coming to the fore. So you have two themes, you have chance and reversal. Interestingly, by the way, there is a verse in the Megillah in which these two themes come together in a very interesting way. Anyone know what the verse is? This is your Megillah trivia. Let me see if I wrote it down. Yeah. Take a look for a moment at Chapter 4, verse 7. Okay, could someone read for me the beginning of Chapter 4, verse 7? The setting for this is that all the bad things have now happened to the Jews and Esther is asking about why Mordechai is so downcast. Go ahead.
[Response from audience member: And Mordechai told him?]
[Response from audience member: And Mordechai told him all that had happened to him…]
Stop. And Mordechai told him all that happened to him. Now that sounds very innocuous in English; in Hebrew it's not so innocuous, because the word for 'happened to him' is a very significant word. The word for 'happened to him', can anyone read the Hebrew for the word 'happened to him'? Does anyone know the Hebrew for that word?
[Response from audience member: Karah.]
Karah. Kuf-Reish-Heih. Karah, Kuf-Reish-Heih, sounds a lot like Karah, Kuf-Reish-Alef, but they're very different words. Karah means happened to befall, or happenstance. There actually are two ways that G-d can call out to prophets in the Torah; G-d can either call them Kuf-Reish-Alef which means call, Vayikra, or it can be Karah with a Heih, and the two have very different meanings. One means to call someone, the other means to happen to appear before them. Karah always seems to have the meaning of happenstance, something that happens to happen. So Mordechai tells the messenger that Esther has sent, that the reason he's in sackcloth is because of everything that happened to befall him. But the word is a sense of chance. In other words, fate has decreed. In other words, this has happened by chance. It's a happenstance.
I'd like you to look for a moment at Chapter 6, verse 13. See if this rings a bell. Chapter 6, verse 13.
[Response from audience member: There Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had befallen him.]
It's the same word. Haman, later on when bad things happened to Haman, then tells Zeresh, Et kol asher karahu – everything that happened to befall him. So notice in the beginning of the story when things are happening bad to Mordechai, Mordechai expresses that disappointment with telling everything that happened to befall him, that sense of happenstance. Later on, when things go badly – when the seesaw tips and things go badly for Haman – it's the other way around, and Haman tells about everything that happened to befall him. It's the very same words.
In a certain way it's the sense of reversal and chance combining. It is a, both in the beginning Mordechai seems to sense the role of chance frowning upon him; in the end that role is reversed and Haman senses the role of chance or fate frowning upon him, and both express that with this word [Karah/Karahu 40:07].
Is there a third theme? If theme number 1 is reversal, if theme number 2 is chance, there is a third theme.
The Third Theme of PurimThe third theme has to do with a word. It is a word that perhaps has a Persian origin, it appears very few times in Tanach, but it appears regularly and is almost a theme in the Book of Esther. To my count it appears 13 times in the Book of Esther, it appears only twice or three times elsewhere in the entire Torah; one of them is in Deuteronomy, at the very end of Deuteronomy, anyone know what that word is? I'll give you a quick hint. It appears first having to do with the drinking party of the king, it appears next having to do with Vashti's banishment. It later appears with the decrees that are passed to kill the Jews. It is a word that Haman uses to describe the stuff that Jews won't do and the kind of things that they do adhere to. It is a way that Esther decides to eventually to go into the king. Almost everything that happens in Persia happens according to this word.
[Response from audience member: Das.]
Dat. The word is Dat. Daled-Taf. And it means law or binding custom. Everything that happens in Persia happens Ka'dat – happens according to law. The first example of law in the Megillah is the following. Veha'shetiya ka'dat ein ohness – Chapter 1, verse 8 – the drinking was by law; Ein ohness – there was no boundaries, no limits. Think about this. At the party there's lots of drink to be had and there's a law which is that there's no limits on the drinking, everyone can have as much as possible. Is there anything strange about that law? It's a law of excess. Why is that so strange?
[Response from audience member: (Unclear 42:04) restriction – most laws restrict people.]
Most laws restrict. In other words, the purpose of law in society is to create boundaries and borders, this is a law that removes boundaries and borders. So this is an anti-law law. Most laws create order; this law says there's no restriction, and creates chaos.
All right, then you have your next law. Let's look at the next law. The next time 'law' appears is with the decision to do away with Vashti. Take a look for a moment at the following, Chapter 1, verse 12; Vatema'en ha'malka Vashti lavoh bi'devar ha'melech – Vashti didn't want to come to king and; Vayiktzof ha'melech me'od va'chamaso ba'arah bo – and the king became very angry and his wrath burned inside him. So is the king emotionally involved in the situation?
[Response from audience member: Seems so.]
Seems so. Now look, it's strange what the king asks his advisors. Skip to verse 15, he wants to know; Ka'dat mah la'asot ba'malka Vashti al asher loh astah et ma'amar ha'melech Achashverosh – he wants to know what legally, what by law, I can do against Vashti who didn't listen to the king. Do you see a little switch here? What's going on?
[Response from audience member: (Unclear 43:16)]
In other words, here he is, he's full of wrath, but all of a sudden he wants to know about law. Now is it a little strange – remember a Persian king at the time, if you ever read Montesquieu's Persian Letters or any Persian history at the time, you know…
[Response from audience member: (Unclear 43:26) the law.]
…they don't have to consult law, they can do whatever they darn well please. You're the king in Persia, you are the law, you do whatever you want. But no, the king convenes this court, he wants to do this K'seder – he wants this to be very legal, he wants to know what he can do by law against the queen.
So what happens? Memuchan speaks up. Vayomer Memuchan lifnei ha'melech – so Memuchan, the Sages say Haman, clears his throat and says the following. Listen to this advice. Loh al ha'melech levado avtah Vashti ha'malka – listen king, don't think for a moment that the queen has just committed a sin against you. Ki al kol ha'sarim v'al kol ha'amim asher b'kol medinot ha'melech Achashverosh – she has sinned against all the noblemen, all of the nations, this is a national crime. Why?
Ki yeitzei devar ha'malka al kol ha'nashim lehavzot ba'aleihen b'eineihen – because all the women are going to disrespect all of their husbands, this is a terrible national crisis. B'amram ha'melech Achashverosh amar l'havi et Vashti ha'malka lefanav v'loh ba'ah – the king commanded the queen to come and she didn't come. Veha'yom hazeh tomarnah sarot Paras u'Madai asher shamu et devar ha'malka – pretty soon we're going to have ERA and Women's Lib and everything; U'kedai bizayon va'katzef – and we better cut this off at the bud and make sure that these women don't get too uppity.
Im al ha'melech tov – if it's favorable in the king's eyes; Yeitzei devar malchus lefanav ve'yikatev b'datei Paras u'Madai – let a decree go out, and here's the word again, Ve'yikatev b'datei Paras u'Madai – and let it be written down in the law books of Persia. There's a new amendment to the Constitution, there is a now a new law that is being passed. What is the law? V'loh ya'avor – it's an eternal law. So this is literally an amendment to the Constitution; it's not just a law, there is an eternal law that is about to be passed. Here's the law. Asher loh tavoh Vashti lifnei ha'melech – because the queen did not come before the king; U'malchutah yiten ha'melech l're'utah hatovah mimenah – the king is going to give her away her crown to someone better than she.
Now, listen to this, is there anything strange about this law? Listen. There is an eternal law that is going to be propounded, here is the law, here's the amendment to the Constitution; because the queen did not come before the king, the king decided to give her crown to someone else. What's wrong with that setup? What's wrong? This is a good law? You think, let's just imagine the American Constitution, there's a new, Congress decides to pass an amendment to the Constitution, all the States ratify an amendment that reads, 'because the queen did not want to go before the king, the king decided to appoint another queen'. What's wrong with that notion of an amendment to the Constitution? Does that sound like a good amendment to you? No. Why not?
[Response from audience member: (Unclear 45:58)]
It's too specific. That's not an amendment, that's history, that's a fact, that's something you decided to do, that's not an eternal amendment to a constitution. Something very crazy is going on in the story. If you think about it, there's almost a story behind the story that Haman is propounding here. Listen, it started with what? The king's immediate response to what the queen is doing is what?
[Response from audience member: He's furious.]
He's furious. He's mad at her. So this is personal. This is personal. This is not national. This is personal. However, the king then says, he wants to know; Ka'dat mah la'asot – he wants to know by law what he can do. Well that tips off the adviser; you want to know by law what you can do, you're looking for the law, I'll give you law. Law is national, law isn't personal. So the adviser constructs this whole castle in the air to allow the king to justify in his own mind this legal disposition of Vashti.
And he says; Loh al ha'melech levado avtah Vashti ha'malka – don't think for a minute king that this is just personal between you and Vashti, because the queen didn't just insult you. This is national security, this is everybody, this is all the nations, all the princes, this is feminism, this is ERA, this is problems. Therefore, it's your duty to stand up and propound an amendment to the Constitution. The amendment should be that the queen is banished, and you decided to give her – so the king thinks this is wonderful. He now has his, a motion propounded, propelled into the court of, into the clean court of law, on a national arena, and this is all very clean. So the king, so he thinks this is a wonderful idea and he does away with Vashti.
So that's our second law. The first law we have is an anti-law law about drinking. The second law we have is a law about getting rid of Vashti. The next time we have law is, if you notice in the beauty contest, so everybody sits for six months in this perfume, in six months in this perfume. There seems to be a very regimented perfuming schedule for all of the young ladies who are going before the king. So that is all very regimented and law-like.
The next time we have law is when Haman goes and says, the Jews don't keep the law. He says, the Jews have their own law; V'dateihem shonot mikol am – their Dat is different than everyone else; V'et datei ha'melech einam osim – they don't keep the law, and now, let it be written down in the law books that the Jews are going to be destroyed. It is written down; and law occupies such a central role in Persia that once a law is passed, it is impossible to revoke it. You see that later because when Esther asks for the law to be rescinded, that the Jews are going to be killed, the king says, I can't, in Persia the law is the law.
So you see a very strange common denominator about law in Persia. Law in Persia is what?
[Response from audience member: Permanent.]
Is permanent. It's also…
[Response from audience member: Personal.]
Personal. [Laughs]. It's really the opposite of law. Law is supposed to not be, it's either a pretext for personal desire as it did with the king getting rid of Vashti, or with Haman getting rid of the Jews and he's going to propound a law to do that. Or, it's an anti-law law, laws that take off restrictions instead of putting them on, like in the case of the wine.
So there's something strange going around with law in Persia. Nevertheless, it is the case that the word law is an important theme in the book. So you have the following three themes we've come up with. You have reversal. You have chance or serendipity, chaos, fate, blind fate. And you have, law. And now I have the following question for you. Is it that these three meta themes in the story are just like apples, oranges and elephants, they're just stuff out there that happens to be in the story? Or is there any relationship between these three ideas? Is there any relationship between the themes of reversal, law, and chaos and chance?
Is There a Connection Between Purim's Main Themes?Let me ask you this, hold on for a second, let me just make this clear before you jump in and ruin this for everybody [laughter], just listen carefully. Can you construct an English sentence that uses these three words to describe the relationship between them? Chaos or chance, reversal and law. If this is the SATs and the question on the SAT is take these three words and construct an English sentence that describes the relationship between them, can you construct such a sentence?
There are two people over here who think they have such a sentence. One person over here. Anybody else? Give me a sentence that can be constructed with these three words, describing a relationship between them. All right folks, go.
[Response from audience member: Law is the reversal of chance, or chance is the reversal of law.]
[Response from audience member: Or even more direct; law reverses chance.]
Okay, good, all of the above are true. Law is the reverse of chance, chance is the reverse of law, or law reverses chance. What's the function of law in society? To create order. To create order out of what otherwise would be chaos. If it weren't for law so, Ish et rei'eihu chaim belo'o – in the words of the Sages, one person would swallow another alive. If it weren't for law when you drove out of Stevenson and you got to the beltway and there was no signal so there would be chaos in the intersection, there would be lots of accidents. But if everyone is following the law so you know that you stop at the red and I know with confidence that I can go on the green. If everyone is following the law then I can leave my car in the driveway and I don't have to be scared that it's not going to be there in the morning. To the extent that law isn't followed, so chaos reigns in society and who knows if your car is going to be there in the morning.
So you might say that law is the reverse of chance or law reverses chance or reverses chaos in society. So we have an interesting relationship between these three ideas.
Now the question is what does this have to do with the Megillah? Or does this have anything to do with the Megillah? I think it has a lot to do with the Megillah – and this is your homework for next week. As you read through the Megillah ask yourself how these three themes animate the Megillah.
Specifically, I'd like you to focus on the following thing. The theory that I'd like to present to you is the following. That Mordechai and Haman each have a way of looking at the world, a way of looking at life, a way of looking at history. In the worldview of both Mordechai and Haman, law and chance play important roles. However, in each of their worldviews, law and chance have reverse roles of each other, and in fact, the two worldviews of Mordechai and Haman taken as a whole are each the reverse of each other. So that the point the law occupies in Mordechai's scheme is precisely the point where chaos operates in Haman's scheme. And the point where chaos operates in Haman's scheme is precisely the point where law operates in Mordechai's scheme. But both are valid concepts and both operate in both schemes. You could almost see the two warring over which view of history prevails.
We also find that the Megillah can be read as kind of seesaw. You saw as we summarized the story that in the beginning everything is going badly for the Jews and Haman is on the upswing, and there comes a certain point where the seesaw tips and everything seems to be going downhill for Haman and up for the Jews. The Megillah is a kind of seesaw. First of all, law and chance are on a sort of seesaw, to the extent that there's law in society so then chance does not exert its pull. To the extent that chance exerts its pull, law is reversed in society. But beyond that, the Megillah itself is a kind of seesaw historically. First the Jews are down and Haman is up, and then Haman is down and the Jews are up. Where is the fulcrum, as it were, of that seesaw? Is there a point that you can identify in the Megillah where the seesaw starts to turn? Is there a key event which seems to change things? What is that event? And, how do law and chance operate within that event itself?
So how do law and chance operate in the whole Megillah? How do they operate in the philosophies in the way that Haman pursues things, in the way that Mordechai pursues things? And, what is the fulcrum of the Megillah and why should things be turning there? That is what we will pick up with when I see you next week, and I will see you then.