The Story of Haman In The Bible: Esther, Mordecai and Purim
Who Was Haman?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
We read the Megillah a bit like a child’s story, starting with the arch villain, Haman the Agagite. We often think of him as a caricature, an evil incarnate twirling his mustache, squinting his eyes, and doing evil things just for fun.
But is that really all there is to Haman? He’s just this flat, one-dimensional villain guy, evil through and through?
Allow us to challenge that idea, just a little. Think about the great villains in Western literature and culture: Darth Vader. Lord Voldemort. Hannibal Lecter. Professor Moriarty. These characters are complex, multi-dimensional. They have struggles. They’re real. So… wouldn’t we at least expect that much when reading about Haman on Purim?
When you read the Megillah with this lens, you open yourself up to an amazing story, one that is hiding just beneath the surface of the text. It’s the real story of Haman, of what motivated him, and what made him tick. And if you want to understand this book, this holiday, you’ve got to know its central villain.
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he examines this question by looking at the Book of Esther (and its mysterious connections to the Garden of Eden!) – and never think about Purim the same way again!
Who Was Haman In The Book of Esther?
Hi everybody this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Aleph Beta. So Purim is a great holiday for kids, lots of dress up, lots of sending around treats, lots of noise-making, and when you get your first look at the book that's read on this day, the Scroll of Esther, it too kind of looks like a child's story, sort of like a fairytale. Look at the arch villain, this man by the name of Haman, sure what he's plotting to do is terribly serious, a genocide carried out on a single day, when all men, women and children from the people of Israel are slated to die. But how we relate to it, it's kind of like a fairytale.
Every time Haman's name comes up he gets booed, we dress up like him, make fun of him. What do we picture him like?
Haman the Agagite
We’re all familiar with ‘Haman the Agagite’, as introduced in the Megillah. He's this guy with this three-cornered hat and he's probably got this waxed mustache that he twirls at the end as he thinks up his diabolical schemes. It's like the ultimate cartoon villain – at least that's often how we relate to him. But what I'd like to do with you today is to sort of take a more grownup's look at the Megillah; looking at this as adults, what does this story look like?
And, let's start with that villain that we love to hate, with Haman himself, is this a real character here? Or is this just a caricature of evil? A guy you know is bad because he twirls his mustache, squints his eyes and wants to do really mean things, for no apparent reason, no real motivation, nothing really going on in his head other than he's the mean guy. Or is there some sort of real world struggle, some sort of conflict that Haman faced and failed at? Yes, he was a terrible guy, but he was terrible because he failed in that struggle. Of course, if we accept that interpretation than the next obvious question is, what was that struggle?
The Story of Haman In The Bible
So what I want to suggest to you in the videos that follow is that we get an unparalleled insight into these questions from a fascinating thing the sages tell us in the Talmud. They talk about the names of the various protagonists in the Megillah, and they ask a strange question about them: Esther min haTorah minayin – they say, where's a hint to Esther in the Five Books of Moses? Now of course Esther lived many, many centuries after the close of the events recounted in the Five Books of Moses. So what the Sages are saying is a bit strange, and yet they ask that question: where is a hint to Esther in the Torah? Where is hint to Haman in the Torah? Where is a hint to Mordechai in the Torah?
So let's leave Esther and Mordechai aside for now. Here's what they say about Haman. The hint to Haman within the Five Books of Moses, according to the Sages, actually comes from one of the very first stories in the entire Torah, the story of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In that story they find a word that's spelled the exact same way as Haman, Hei Mem Nun, and they say that that Hei Mem Nun appearance, that's the hint to Haman in the Torah.
The verse they point to is a short speech made by the Almighty to Adam after he's eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God says: Hamin ha'eitz – have you in fact eaten from the tree I commanded you not to eat from? Those words; Hamin ha'eitz, Hei Mem Nun, are spelled just like Haman, Hei Mem Nun. It's the hint to Haman in the Torah, the Sages tell us.
Who Is Haman?
Now when you think about this, it's kind of rather startling, because you know, Haman is a really bad guy, he plots genocide, he's going to kill us all; and Adam, the person that seemingly the sages are comparing him to, the Adam who is addressed by God, have you eaten from this tree, you know, Adam's not such a bad guy. I mean, we don't think of him as such a bad guy, he's the father of us all, he's a pretty good guy. I mean, he does eat from the tree, that's not so good, but it's not like he's plotting genocide against everybody. What do the Sages have in mind with this sort of outlandish comparison? I mean, Hei Mem Nun appearing with different vowelization earlier in the Torah in the tree of knowledge story, it's not like the greatest of reasons to connect these stories. So where are they coming from?
The Spiritual Meaning of Haman
What I want to show you in the next videos is that there's a tremendous amount of evidence to support what it is that the Sages are saying. What I think they're saying is something very, very deep about the story of the Megillah, something that takes us well beyond the realm of caricatures. We're dealing with real people, issues that all of us struggle with, some of the most important issues we ever struggle with, the kinds of issues that are in play in the story of the Garden of Eden itself.
In order to get some background and to lay the groundwork for the journey I want to take you on, I want to go back with you to the story of the Garden of Eden, to try to get a handle with you on what is going on in that story. Once we've done so, come back to the Megillah and I think we'll see it all with very fresh eyes.
Come with me back into the Garden for a minute. I want to start with you with the most basic, intuitive questions that you can sort of can possibly ask about this story.
I've been teaching this story for a number of years, here are like the top three questions that I tend to get:
- The first, what exactly was the nature of this mysterious tree? A tree of knowledge of good and evil, such a strange thing, what exactly was this knowledge? The text tells us it was something Godly, the serpent says, on the day that you eat from it, you'll become like God, and knowing good and evil. What is this Godly kind of knowledge of good and evil? What does it really mean?
- Here's another question: what really was the temptation here? It just seems so easy. You and I could have withstood this test, right? You're in paradise, here are all these trees, you can have any tree that you want, the only thing you've got to do is avoid the one tree, and what happens? That's the one tree we've got to eat from. I mean, why was it so hard? You can eat from everything, why do you have to have that one?
- Lastly, a third question, what was God thinking here? Why would God put the tree in the garden if He really didn't want us to eat from it? What's the deal with that?
Okay, so you got it? Those are our three questions:
- What exactly was the nature of the tree?
- How could we have failed such an easy test?
- Why did God put the tree there if He doesn't want us to eat from it?
Let's try and take a stab at dealing with these three questions. We'll start with the last one and work our way backwards. Why put the tree in the Garden if He doesn't want mankind to eat from it? So let me ask you a question; you're a parent, you give a gift to a child, what do you want to see from that kid? You really want to see two things – and I think I've talked about this with you earlier, in our videos back in Parshat Bechukotai last year.
The two things you want to see is:
(a) you want to see the kid enjoying the toy. I mean, I give you this beautiful toy, I want to see you enjoy it.
(b) The second is, I want you to understand that it came from me. Sometimes that understanding is conveyed by saying thank you, but it doesn't have to be by saying thank you. I really don't even need you to say thank you, I just need you, when you play with the toy, to understand that that was a gift from me. You shouldn't live in this fantasy world and think that's just the way the world is, that you have these toys, because that destroys the relationship between me and you. I gave you this gift - I want you to enjoy it, knowing that it came from me.
So now let's bring these ideas back into the Garden. God is our parent in heaven, we are His child, He's given us this gift, all of these trees. What does He want? He wants us to enjoy eating from all of these trees. He says: Mikol eitz hagan achal tochel – from all of these trees you shall eat, surely eat. It's the first positive command in the Torah, enjoy all these trees. He just wants us to understand that the trees came from Him. How do we convey that understanding? There's one tree that's His; by honoring the prohibition not to partake of God's own tree, that's the way we convey our understanding that we're guests in the Garden, that we're not the owners, that we're there at God's pleasure. That what He's given us with all these trees are His gifts, and when we enjoy them, we're enjoying what He has lovingly bestowed to us.
Okay, now that we've now laid this groundwork, we're in a position to answer the question, what was the temptation to eat from that one tree we weren't supposed to eat from? The temptation was to see yourself as the owner of the Garden. You know, it's not so convenient to acknowledge you're a guest. If I'm a guest, it can all be taken away from me at some point. If I'm a guest, I owe gratitude, I'm indebted to you, it's not so comfortable to always feel like I'm indebted to you. It's much more fun to be able to pretend that it's all mine. The temptation to eat from that one last tree is the temptation to masquerade as God, as the owner of the Garden, to pretend if only for a moment that it's all mine, that it can't be taken away, that I'm not beholden to the giver. It's the temptation to play God.
Now we're in a position to answer the first of the questions we raised with respect to the Tree of Knowledge, what's the nature of this mysterious, Godly knowledge? If it's just about avoiding one tree that God set aside for Himself, it could have been any tree, it could have been the purple, pink and polka dotted, speckled tree, why does it have to be a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?
So let me articulate a theory for you, it goes like this. One of the great mistakes we make when we read this story is that we overthink it. Yes, there's this Godly knowledge, so we have to think about very deep, theological issues, we have to imagine how a being outside of space and time, who we can't touch, can't feel, would see good and evil. But that's very hard to do.
There's another very simple way, and it's to assume that the Torah gives you all the facts you need to know to understand it right here. So let's assume that that's true for a minute. Let's ask ourselves, here I am, I'm reading just the first couple of chapters of the Book of Genesis and I get to the story of the Tree of Knowledge, what are the only things I really know about God? I really only know two things about Him, I know that He's the Creator, and I know that He's the one who keeps on saying Tov and Lo Tov - good and not good. Yes, after every day of creation; Vayar Elokim ki tov - and God saw that it was good. And, when God created man; Lo tov heyot adam levado - it's not good for a man to be alone. God really is the knower of good and not good, that's the only thing He ever says in the process of creation.
Let's look at this a little bit more closely. What does it mean when God declares something to be good or not good, or even bad - Rah? Think about when God did declare something bad, that happened right before the flood. Instead of; Vayar Elokim ki tov - and God saw that it was good, we have; Vayar Elokim ki - and God saw that; Rabah ra'at ha'adam ba'aretz - the evil of man was very great, and God decided to destroy them. Seeing something as bad if you're the Creator means I'm not going to keep it around anymore, I'm going to get rid of it. Seeing something as good as I'm the Creator, says yeah, I'll keep it. Seeing something as Lo Tov - not good enough, means it needs improvement. Lo tov heyot adam levado - it's not good for man to be alone, oh, I'm going to make it better, I'm going to give him a mate.
Those are the three possible grades: good, not good enough and bad. If you think about those grades, that's the responsibility of a Creator towards its creation. Whenever you create, you have to evaluate, do I think it's good, what I have created? Do I think it's not so good? Should I keep it around? Should I get rid of it? Should I change it? That's Godly knowledge, though, it's not human knowledge, it's the business of a Creator to do that, it's not the business of a creature of the created.
You know, there are certain decisions you get to make as a creature, as the created one, but one of them isn't this is the way things should be, this is the way the world should be. You know, I often give the Monopoly board analogy to creature and Creator. Little hat and little shoe, as they go around the board, they get to decide whether to build a house on Park Place, but they don't get to decide whether Park Place should be on that side of the board or this side of the board. Only Parker gets to decide that, right? The game is made by Parker Brothers.
Now, I think we can understand why eating from the tree is so terribly disastrous. Because Godly knowledge in the hands of mankind is knowledge that doesn't belong, and, knowledge that, quite literally, becomes the root of all human evil. You don't need to be a great theologian to understand that, it's all very intuitive. Here's why. What does eating from the tree do for you? It gives you the feeling that you see things as a Creator does. That you too can make judgments, this is the way the world should be and this is the way it shouldn't be. You have the power to pronounce Tov and Rah, as the Creator does.
But there's a problem here, there's a confusion here, because we human beings - there's another kind of Tov and Rah that we're familiar with, the Tov and Rah of desire. See, Tov and Rah have two meanings, Tov can mean good in the sense of moral right and just, but it could also mean good, as in, the way I like it, the way I desire things. The macaroni and cheese is ‘good’ doesn't mean that its nutritional value is good, necessarily, it means that I like it, it comports with my desire. The broccoli is ‘bad’ is not a judgment about the broccoli in any objective kind of way, it's a judgment about me, what I like and what I don't like. I don't like it, it's bad. Human beings, well, we're very familiar with the Tov and Rah of desires, but when we think we can pronounce Tov and Rah as in the way things should be, we can very easily confuse the two and mix up one for the other.
No greater example of this than the moment that Eve reaches for the tree itself. Listen to the words of the verse; Vatereh ha'isha ki tov ha'eitz lema'achal - and the woman saw that the tree was good to eat. What kind of good? Well, obviously, the context of the verse is the desire kind of good, it was good to eat, she liked it, and it was appealing. But listen to the words; Vatereh ha'isha ki tov - that's just the feminine form of; Vayar Elokim ki tov - and God saw that it was good.
The woman saw that it was good to eat, so what kind of good are we talking about? There's a part of her, a part of mankind that when you look at the thing that you want to eat, says, this is the way it should be, I should be allowed to have this. Because I want it, that's the way it should be. In that kind of world, I can rationalize anything. In that kind of world I'm never wrong, because whatever I want that's the way it should be.
You know, one of the really maddening things about living in the post-tree world is that no one ever thinks they're wrong anymore, no one ever thinks they're evil. You can meet the most evil guy in the world, they don't think they're evil, they think they're doing the world a favor. Hitler himself kills six million Jews, and that's the way the world should be. Desire can now hide behind a smokescreen. It never reveals itself for what it is anymore. It dresses up all high and mighty. There's the other kind of good, the just and moral and true kind of good. This is the distortion of the post-tree world.
It has so many real-world consequences. I mean, every day, it's not just Hitler and Stalin that become possible through this, the destruction of all our interpersonal relationships comes through this. Think about the natural inability to compromise, where does that come from? I get into an argument with you, why is it so hard to get out of arguments? Why is it so hard to compromise? Well, you know, if I understand that I'm little hat and I have one perspective, and that you're little shoe and that you have another perspective, so then, we can compromise.
But if I'm little hat and I think I'm Parker, I have THE way of looking at it, ah, how can I compromise? I mean, the truth is with me! I'd be giving in on the truth; I can't lie! I should back down from what I know to be true and right and good because, what, just to get along with you? Our propensity to dress up our own self-interest, our own desires, in the noble robes of principle and justice and truth and righteousness, is a very poisonous thing.
This easy conflation of the two kinds of good - desire, and that which is noble, right, and true, is the greatest struggle in the Megillah too. Let's go back now to read the Megillah and focus once more on that strange comparison the Sages make between Adam and Haman. What might they mean by that? Let's see.
The Forbidden Fruit
Okay let's go back to that strange statement the Rabbis make where they say that there's a hint to Haman within the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; Hamin ha'eitz - was it from the tree that I told you not to eat from that you in fact ate? The Rabbis seem to be identifying Haman with Adam right after he'd eaten from the tree, what evidence do they have to suggest this? Is there something about Haman's behavior that reminds you of Adam's behavior when eating the forbidden fruit?
So let's try this on for size. Remember Adam and the Garden, God had elevated Adam above all the other creatures of the world, all the other animals, and God, the King of Kings had given Adam everything; Mikol eitz hagan ochol tochel - God had told Adam. From all the trees of the Garden you may surely eat, paradise is open to you. There's just one thing you can't have, it's the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, don't touch that tree, that's My special tree. Then what happens? Adam and Eve who have just been allowed to eat from any possible tree go and just head for the one thing they can't have. It's almost like it all means nothing to them. All of those trees you could have - you know, we don't even have any evidence that they ever ate from one of them, the only thing that mattered to them was the one tree they couldn't have.
Now who does that remind you of in the Megillah? You got it, that is Haman. He was a man elevated above all the other king's servants, he was given power, just as man in the original garden was given power over all. But here was this man who has everything, and listen to what happens. On his way out from the palace one day, as everyone bowed to him, out of the corner of his eye, he spied Mordechai, one person who wouldn't bow. He becomes enraged.
He comes home and gathers all his close friends and family:
Vayesaper lahem Haman – Haman told them that;
Kevod oshro – how rich he was;
V'rov banav – how many children he had.
That, Kol asher gidlo hamelech – and how the king had elevated him.
That, Asher niso al hasarim v'avdei hamelech – how the king had brought him above all of the other servants of the kingdom.
Va'yomer Haman – and then Haman said, you want to hear how great I am?
Af lo hevi'ah Esther hamalka im hamelech – the queen didn't invite anyone else to this great feast that she's making;
Ki im oti – except for me.
Gam lemachar ani karu lah im hamelech – even tomorrow I'm going to eat with her again.
Look at me. I've been exclusively invited to dine with the king. Then, shockingly, he says this:
V'chol zeh einenu shoveh li – and none of this matters a whit to me.
B'chol eit asher ani ro'eh et Mordechai hayehudi yoshev b'sha'ar hamelech – every time I see Mordechai sitting there and not bowing to me, it all means nothing.
This is the Adam situation with the forbidden fruit. I have everything, but it means nothing because there's one thing I can't have.
You know, you've got to kind of feel sorry for the guy, listen to how pathetic he is. I mean he's calling together his wife and family to tell them about how many children he has, how much money he has. It's like he's trying to desperately convince them of his wonderfulness, and he really does have everything. What was the pinnacle of everything for Haman? It was how he was called to dine with the king. You know that was just like Adam too. Adam's great gift is the ability to dine with the King, the King of Kings, he's there in God's Garden, and has all these fruits, all these trees that God made. If he would eat of them in God's presence in the Garden, what he's really doing? He's dining with the King. Both of these people are in exactly the same position, but it all means nothing to them because of the one thing they can't have, how sad.
But I don't think that's all, I think there's more. Let's see if the continuation of that story continues to remind us of the tree of knowledge episode.
So the next thing that happens is that Zeresh, Haman's wife responds to him. She says: Ya'asu eitz gavo'ah chamishim amah – why don't you make a gallows 50 Amot high? Ubaboker emor el hamelech – and in the morning you'll go to the king and you'll ask him permission to hang Mordechai on it. You'll have the one thing that's so far eluded you. What does that remind you of in the Garden? Adam was offered the fruit – the forbidden fruit, the one thing he couldn't have – by Eve, and now Haman's wife Zeresh tells him, well why don't you just have the one thing that you haven't been able to have? But isn't it interesting what the gallows are called in Hebrew? Ya'asu eitz – literally an Eitz is not a gallows, you know what it is? It's a tree. It's the tree of knowledge all over again, it's the one thing you can't have, she's offering him the fruit.
But what are the consequences of eating forbidden fruit back in the Garden? B'yom achalcha mimenu mot tamut – the way the Ramban understands it, God was saying, on the day that you eat from it, you'll become a being that will eventually die. That's exactly what happens to Haman. In his reaching for Mordechai – the one thing he can't have – he also becomes a being who is eventually going to die. He himself is hanged on those gallows at the end of the story.
Why was he hanged on those gallows? Haman meets his end after Esther points him out as the villain who will destroy her and her people. The king is fuming, he goes back into his garden – of all places – to think things over. When he arrives back he's greeted by a certain member of the court named Charvonah. I just need to tell you king that in the backyard of Haman's house, do you know what there is? There's a huge gallows. He was trying to have that one last thing. He was trying to have Mordechai; Asher diber tov al hamelech – Mordechai who had been loyal to you, who had been good to you. When the king hears this, that's the last straw; Teluhu alav – hang him on those gallows. The king's realization that Haman had reached for that fruit becomes the reason Haman will die.
Okay, now having seen all of these tree of knowledge connections within the Haman and Zeresh story, I think we're now in a position to understand the very next scene in the Megillah in a much deeper way. What happens right after this little discussion between Haman and his wife over the gallows upon which Mordechai will be hanged?
The king can't sleep, he asks for the book of records to be open and read before him, and he hears about when Mordechai had saved him from an assassination plot, and he says, was there anything ever done to reward Mordechai for this? The people say, no, there wasn't. Just then he hears that there's somebody out in the courtyard, and who is it? And it just happens to be Haman. Haman is there to ask for Mordechai's head. The king says, bring in Haman, and the king says, what should we do with the man that the king wants to honor?
Va'yomer Haman belibo – Haman said in his heart;
Lemi yachfotz hamelech la'asot yakar yoter mimeni – who would the king want to honor more than me?
Haman says to the king:
Ish asher hamelech chafetz bikaro – the man the king wants to honor, oh;
Yavi'u levush malchut asher lovash bo hamelech – bring in the king's clothes, that the king has already worn.
V'sus asher rachav alav hamelech – and the horse that the king has ridden upon.
V'asher nitan keter malchut b'rosho – and that the crown of the king has been on the horse's head. Have one of the king's servants lead this person through the streets and say, thus should you do, the man the king wants to honor.
I mean you're the king, you're listening to this, you're thinking, it's just king, king, king. This guy wants my job. Haman's transparent desire to be king has never been more evident than this. It's worth wondering why? Why is this the moment in the Megillah where he just can't contain his ambitions anymore? Well, the very last thing that happened is Haman built the gallows for Mordechai, he tried to have the one thing he couldn't have. What's the reason why you reach for the one thing you can't have? So you can pretend that you have no restrictions. So you can pretend that you are king. The act of building the gallows for Mordechai is in effect the same thing as wanting to be king. It's wanting to be entirely unrestricted. So it's no wonder in the very next scene that Haman's obsession with being king simply can't be contained.
Here, by the way, is the real tragedy of it all. He knows he's not king. He's just playing dress up, he's pretending to be king, he's fake king. Everyone's looking at him, so he's king. But that's Adam in the Garden too, right? If you have the forbidden fruit, you think you're going to be king? Or are you going to pretend that you're the owner of the Garden? It's all about pretending, if only for a moment, that all of it is mine and that I have no restrictions.
You know, if you think of it, now, that hope that we could just pretend that we have no restrictions, to pretend that you're a king, is not just about megalomania, it's not just that cartoonish character who says, it's mine, it's mine, it's all mine. There's a reason why you want it to all be yours. There's a subtle but precious prize here to be gotten. You know what's really in it for you? What's really in it for you is that if it's all yours, if you're really the owner of the garden, if you could really pretend you're king, then there's no distinction anymore between the two kinds of good; between good in the sense of what I want, and good in the sense of the way things should be. The two are the same, what I want is the way things should be, I'm king. Everyone would just love it if what you desired was the same as the way things ought to be. You'd never have to feel guilty about pursuing any desire. The good and the true and the just and your desire, it's all the same thing. You make the rules.
By the way, we see little bits of pieces of this everywhere in our own lives. It's the boss who treats everyone around the office like garbage, but no one can call him on it, because he makes the rules, it's just the way it is. He doesn't even have to feel guilty about it, because that's the way it is, what he decides goes.
This issue, this fantasy that you could just conflate the two kinds of good, that there will be no distinction between what you want and what's good and just and right, that, as we talked about in our first couple of videos, is the real soul of the tree of knowledge challenge. It's that issue which Haman and Zeresh are struggling with. But it's not just them. The Megillah doesn't just include the bad guys Haman and Zeresh, it includes good guys too, Mordechai and Esther. If the bad guys are struggling with this tree of knowledge issue, wouldn't the good guys in some way have to be struggling with it as well?
Turning the Tree on Its Head
So thus far, we've seen one tree of knowledge story in the Megillah – the story of Haman and Zeresh. I want to make an audacious suggestion to you, that there is actually a second tree of knowledge story playing out in the Megillah at the same time. If the first story involved the bad guys, Haman and Zeresh, the second tree of knowledge story involves the good guys, Mordechai and Esther. What we're going to see is that as we go through the story involving Mordechai and Esther, we're going to find a whole series of literary parallels linking us back to the tree of knowledge here too. What does it all mean? Well, we'll have to trace the parallels and see where the evidence points us. But the intriguing possibility here is that perhaps Mordechai and Esther are struggling with the same issue that Haman and Zeresh were struggling with. What do we mean when we talk about good? Do you confuse the good and the sense of what I want with the good and the sense of what's right and just and moral? Or can you effectively separate those two and understand the difference between them?
But let's not jump too far ahead, let's look at the parallels that the Megillah lays out for us. Okay, let's go back to the beginning of the Megillah and play this little game, what reminds us of the Garden of Eden here? So, do you remember that moment where Vashti is done away with, and the king is all alone? He doesn't have a mate, he doesn't have a wife. So he figures, I'm going to convene a contest, I'm going to gather together all the possible maids and select one among them who I really like. Now, of course, the king, he's a royal guy, and he's going to gather together all of these women who are basically inferior to him on the social totem pole, they're commoners and he's the king. But, it doesn't matter, he's going to accept one of them, he doesn't really care where they come from.
In the end, of course, he picks Esther. Now this is one of those moments in the Megillah where you sort of seem to see that at least the hidden hand of God; Esther was a one in a million pick, and she becomes the secret daughter of Israel in the palace, and later on of course she's going to become instrumental to saving the Jews. So it might seem fair to say that at least on some level, God is the one that picks out this maid for Achashveirosh.
So now stand back and ask yourself, does this remind you of anything, in the very beginning of Genesis. Where else in the entire Hebrew Bible do you find a contest convened in which there are all of these possible maids - people who are sort of inherently inferior - that are convened to see if this special person could find a maid among them and in the end he doesn't find any of those, he finds a special person picked for him by God Himself. You find it back at the Garden of Eden.
Adam is all alone. God convenes all of Adam's inferiors of the beasts of the field in an attempt to find someone who could be his special mate. In the end Adam rejects all of the animals one by one until God puts him to sleep; when he wakes up to find the maid that God Himself has chosen for him, a special person, by the name of Eve.
You know, almost to hammer home the comparison between the two stories, the Megillah lets you know the device that Achashveirosh used to select the special maid, he would call her by name. Lo tavo od el hamelech ki im chafetz bah hamelech venikre'ah beshem – any given woman would never come back to the king unless he called her by name. What does that remind you of in the Garden? Naming was the device that Adam as well had used to try and find the special mate. God had paraded all the animals in front of him and he named them all and he rejects them. He knows their names as it were, and will never call them back again, just like the king.
Except for one whose name delights him, it's Eve. Her name Isha signifies why she is perfect for him, why he will want to spend the rest of his life with her. Isha, the Hei at the end of Ish, means from Ish, from man. It's like he's saying, I've called her by name and I know she's perfect for me. It's like later on, the king will select his queen only by calling her by name.
Now if it was just this you might say, well that's a very interesting coincidence, two beauty contests in the entire Tanach, and the other one just happens to be in the story of the creation of Eve way back in the prelude to the tree of knowledge. But even if I accept that, you said that this was a forbidden fruit story, another tree of knowledge story, how is that the case? Well, let's keep on reading.
So Eve has been created, and there she is in the garden, and she's surrounded by all these trees, and she can eat from all these trees. Life is pretty unrestricted. But there is this one command that she has to follow, there is this forbidden fruit, and it contains this mysterious, forbidden knowledge. Adam and Eve are both told that if they get this knowledge they're going to die, they're going to become mortal. Ultimately, of course, Eve does take the fruit, and she gives it to her husband, to share in this forbidden knowledge.
Now, let's come back to the Megillah. After the beauty contest, what happened? Is there a command given to the Megillah's version of Eve? Is there forbidden knowledge which she dare not impart to her husband? Absolutely. It's her identity that becomes the forbidden knowledge.
Esther is chosen queen, the Megillah says, but, Ein Esther magedet moladeta - Esther would not tell of her identity, her birthplace, that she was in fact a daughter of Israel. K'asher tziva aleha Mordechai - because Mordechai had commanded her not to. One more time there's a woman who must not impart knowledge to her husband, it's forbidden knowledge, it could get you killed.
By the way, it's not just the general idea that's the same here, the language is the same here. Back in Eden, vayetzav Hashem Elokim al ha'adam leimor – God commanded Adam saying. But actually literally speaking it's not God commanded Adam; vayetzav Hashem Elokim al ha'adam – God commanded upon Adam. It's actually a strange kind of language, it's not the way you would normally say it, but interestingly, that same strange twist appears in the Megillah too: a command upon. Ki Mordechai tziva aleha sheloh tagid – Mordechai had commanded upon her not to say anything about where she comes from.
You know, and while we're considering language here, if Mordechai really is sort of occupying the God role as it were, from the Garden of Eden – in other words, God was the one who had commanded Adam and Eve the first time about forbidden knowledge and now Mordechai is the one issuing those commands to the new Eve, to Esther, about what she must and must not tell her husband – isn't it interesting that the text talks about him strolling in the palace gates, using a very strange word: U'Mordechai mithalech. Mithalech is a Hitpa'el form of walk, and it's a very unusual form to describe a person walking. What it sort of means, that he took himself for a walk. This is the last time the word Mithalech is ever used in the Hebrew Bible. You know when the first time it's used is? Back in the Garden of Eden, when God was Mithalech in the Gan, God was strolling in the Garden. Seemingly, the Megillah is cuing us in here. Mordechai really is occupying the role of the commander in this case, the one who commands about forbidden fruit.
But if all of this is correct, if the interaction between Mordechai, Esther and the king really does mimic the Tree of Knowledge story, the Megillah's version of that story is about to get turned on its head. You may be aware that the Megillah is a topsy-turvy book. In the words of the Megillah itself; Venahafoch hu - and it was all reversed. Here, too, we're going to get an incredible reverse, right in the middle of this Tree of Knowledge replay. Mordechai, the very person that had commanded Esther not to impart this forbidden knowledge about her true identify to the king, now comes to her and says, tell him the forbidden knowledge. Haman has issued his decree, now you have to go and tell him who you are and beg him to save your countrymen. The one who says you can't impart that knowledge, whatever you do never say anything; now says, no, the reverse is true, go feed the forbidden fruit to your husband.
It's interesting that the Megillah, who had used the word before, Tziva – command – to characterize Mordechai's insistence that she not tell, now uses that same word to characterize his insistence that she does tell. In the words of the verse: U'letzavot aleha lavo el hamelech – and he commanded her to come to the king. What does Esther say in response? She says something that actually fits totally like a glove with this tree of knowledge theory. She says, I can't do it, I'll die. Well, if you're thinking tree of knowledge, it's no wonder. Whenever you give forbidden knowledge, death is right around the corner.
Kol ish v'isha asher yavoi el hamelech el chatzer hapnimit – anybody who goes to the king without being called; Achat dato lehamit – they're taking their lives in their hands, they're going to be killed. Now you want me to go... what? Give this forbidden knowledge, this really unpopular news to the king, that his queen is from that really unpopular nation, the one that his secretary of state is going to wipe out in one blood-soaked, holocaust-like day? I don't think he's going to take that too well. Yeah, he might have been happy to take a queen from among any commoner, but now that Haman has made the Jews the dregs of society, how happy is he going to be to hear that I'm from them? If it wasn't bad enough that I'm going to go to him when I'm not invited, listen to what I'm telling him. You think he's going to want to hear this? It's going to be off with my head.
Now as if to complete the sense of the complete reversal of the original tree of knowledge story, listen to what Mordechai responds to her. No, no, Esther you've got it the other way around, you've got to go to the king.
Im hachareish tacharishi ba'eit ha'zot – if you keep silent;
Revach vehatzala ya'amod layehudim mimokom acher – one way or another God will save us.
But, v'at u'beit avich taveidu – you and your father's house are going to be ultimately destroyed.
It's death you're worried about? If you don't go to him that's when you will be destroyed. It's the complete reverse.
So she says, fine, I'll take my life in my hands. I'll go to the king and impart to him this forbidden knowledge of who I really am. But then she says, you know, if we're going to play topsy-turvy, I have a command for you. Leich, kenos et kol hayehudim - gather all of the Israelites together. V'tzumu alai – and you and them fast; Al tochlu – do not eat. It's as if Esther is saying to them, you know it began Mordechai when you told me I mustn't share forbidden knowledge. You want me to eat of the forbidden fruit and to give it to my husband, then I, the commanded, will turn around and make a command of you, and that command of you will be: do not eat. Mordechai listens; Vaya'as k'chol asher tzivta alav Esther - He did all that she commanded him.
So it's like everything has reversed itself, the entire tree of knowledge story. Therefore, Esther is now left with a very serious challenge; she's got to tell the king who she really is. It's like Mordechai is telling her, find a way to give that forbidden knowledge to your husband. Way back in the Garden, Eve gave Adam that fruit and the results were disastrous, now you need to find a way to give him the forbidden knowledge in order to avert a disaster. If she finds a way to accomplish this task she will redeem that original tree of knowledge story, she will go through the exact same act that Eve did when she gave the forbidden fruit to Adam. Using the medium of food, and just like Eve at a banquet, she's going to give knowledge that's very, very dangerous to her. She's going to impart this knowledge to her husband. Except that act, instead of being destructive, will be the most compassionate, saving thing in the world. It will not kill, it will save us all.
As we shall see, though, Esther faces a very, very great challenge. In order to somehow give this knowledge to the king in the right way, she's going to have to do it in a way that distinguishes between the two types of good. She's going to have clearly demarcate what desire looks like, and how that's different from the right thing to do. When she does that, she will have finally redeemed the great Tree of Knowledge sin. How Esther does this forms the climax of the Megillah's narrative, a climax that we will understand ever more deeply when we keep the Tree of Knowledge in mind as we read it.
Redeeming the Tree
The story of the Megillah now proceeds towards its climax. In the scenes that follow, you will find Esther approaching the king four times, each time taking one step closer towards her goal, the salvation of her people. Now, if you follow the Megillah's language as she makes these four attempts, you're going to actually find her using this language of Tov and Rah within her entreaties to the king. But not just talking about both Tov and Rah, but talking about it in a certain kind of way. Talking about it in the right kind of way. It's almost like there's a little game that the Megillah is playing with us, a literary game. Can Esther, in imparting this forbidden knowledge to the king - in other words, in this case, her identity - can she string together the words; Tov - good and Rah - evil, such that she actually tells the king something about the nature of Tov and Rah itself, what good and evil actually looks like? In other words, can she talk to him, not just about what he wants to do, but about what he ought to do? Can she use these words Tov and Rah in a way that actually helps clarify rather than obscure the meaning of these words? If she can successfully do that, she can redeem the original Tree of Knowledge story, she can find a way to give her husband forbidden knowledge as it were, in a way that conveys accurate knowledge of good and evil. Rather than its counterfeit, the self-serving blindness of if I want it, it must be right.
Let's watch Esther try to do this.
The first thing she does is she invites the king to a banquet. Listen to her invitation. Im al hamelech tov - if it's good for the king, if it pleases the king. What kind of Tov is she talking about? Well, obviously, she's talking about desire. Im al hamelech tov - if you like this, if it's good for you. So what's happening is she's sort of using the word Tov, but she hasn't actually gotten to the point where she's actually imparting to the king any moral clarity. So far she's still just in the world of his desires.
So let's continue. After the king comes to the banquet she says, why don't you come back to another banquet? One more time she says: Im al hamelech tov – if it pleases the king. But still, she's just talking about his desires and notably, she hasn't mentioned Rah yet, the other side of the equation. It's like the Megillah itself is going out of its way to tell you the task isn't complete, she hasn't really given the knowledge, she hasn't talked to him about her identity yet. She's only halfway there. There's the Tov, what about the Rah? What about the stuff he doesn't want to hear? You've got to keep on going.
She does keep on going, the next time she meets him. Let's listen in to what she says during her next and final banquet with the king. At that last banquet she begins as she did before: Im al hamelech tov – if it pleases the king. Tinaten li nafshi bishailati – give me my life as my request. V'ami bevakashati – and give me my people's lives too. She reveals who she is. She gives him the forbidden knowledge. In fact, if we go back to our little game, she now has both sides of the coin, because she doesn't just talk about the Tov, she talks about Rah too. The word even appears, the king says, who is this, who threatens you? She points to Haman and says: Haman harah hazeh – this evil man. She's now talked to him about both good and evil. Seemingly she's done her job. She's given him the knowledge, she's talked about Tov, she's talked about Rah. What else do you want from her? We can all go home.
Except if you read the Megillah carefully, we can't all go home. Even though the king hangs Haman, the decree against the Jews still stands. If the Megillah ends here, the Jews all die, which means the queen has to approach the king one last time. But now if you go back to the story, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you say to yourself, but I don't understand, hasn't she done everything? Look she's talked about Tov, she's talked about Rah, she's given the forbidden knowledge, so what more must she do? She hasn't yet really made a moral case before the king, everything so far has just been a function of his desire. She has to talk to him not just about his desires, but about what's right, and she hasn't yet done that.
Because think about everything that she's done, it really all just boils down to what the king wants to do. Remember her words that she repeats over and over again in each of these three audiences: Im al hamelech tov, Im al hamelech tov, Im al hamelech tov – she always says it; if it pleases the king, if it pleases the king, if it pleases the king. But if she never moves on from there, if it just stays with the king's desires, then it's really all about what he wants to do, that's not a moral argument. As a matter of fact, if I'm the king and I think it's just about what I want to do, so then I look at you Esther and say, well, if you're asking me to save you, if that's what I want to do, yeah, I love you, I'll save you. You ask me to save your people, nah, not so much, I don't really love them so much. If it's really, Esther, about what I want to do, you haven't taken me anywhere, this is what I want to do, this is what I don't want to do, all of your people will die, that's fine with me.
So at this moment, Haman is dead, yes, but the decree against the Jews, that still stands. If the Megillah ends here, all the Jews die, so Esther needs to go to the king. Esther needs to make one last appeal and it can't stop with what he wants to do, it has to end with what's right for him to do.
So a few days later she goes back to the king for one last, desperate plea. She begins with his desire, the same way she began before. Vatomer im al hamelech tov - and she says, if it pleases the king. But then she takes a gentle step forward. She makes one more introductory comment to the king, not just; Im al hamelech tov - if it's pleasing in your eyes. But; V'kasher hadavar lifnei hamelech - if the thing seems right, seems fitting before the king. Kasher is a much more objective word than Tov. It's a word that signifies the other meaning of Tov; good and right. It's interesting to note that this is actually the only time in all of the Hebrew Bible that the adjective kasher is ever used. When in Leviticus we talk about Kosher food, the word Kosher isn't actually used, it's phrased in terms of Tamei and Tahor – pure and impure. But the modern sense of us talking about something that is Kosher, the only source for that idea of Kosher as an adjective actually is right here in Tanach. It's what Esther tells the king right now; it's fitting.
So look at what she says. If it pleases you and the thing is fitting – Kasher – the queen is beginning to take the king on a journey, a journey from his desires, from what he wants to do, to what he ought to do. Let's see how she continues that journey.
Well, the next thing she does is, she invokes the word Tov one more time. But here, again, she's taking a gentle, baby step with him. V'tova ani b'einav - and if I am good in your eyes, if you look upon me and see good, then I've an argument to make to you, king. Eichacha uchal v'ra'iti bera'ah asher yimtza et ami - how can you expect me to stand in this palace, safe and sound and watch the destruction of my countrymen, watch the evil that would befall my countrymen?
There it is, she's using Tov and Rah one more time, but this time in a way that actually begins to make a moral argument; she's leveraging his desire to talk about what's actually right and what's wrong. Her argument goes like this: if I am good in your eyes, if you really love me, then it would be an act of terrible evil to allow someone you love to witness the demise of all of her countrymen. It would be wrong to do that. But the truth is the moral overtones in her argument even go deeper than this. Because go back to those loaded words – Im tovah ani b'einav, if I am good in your eyes – and ask what those words really mean now? You see, in the past, they might have meant if I please you – Tov just in terms of you desire me. But that was before he knew who she really was. Now he knows.
Think to yourself, what has she revealed to him? The greatest reason why he should hate her; she's from the vermin of people that were supposed to be exterminated by his secretary of state. You know it's one thing to love her when she was an anonymous girl and when he could pretend that she was anyone. But once she reveals the truth, I'm from the lowest of the low, the dregs of society, and now look me in the eye king, do you still love me? If you look at me – v'tovah ani b'einav – and I am still good in your eyes. If you still care for me as indeed you must, because you killed Haman and you preserved me, then I'm going to extend this argument and use it to have you recognize not just my humanity but the humanity of my people. In effect, she's really taking him to the following place: If you've accepted my identity, if it is my humanity that you were willing to accept despite my being one of them, then whether you like it or not, you have to tolerate and accept them as basic human beings too. You have to keep them alive. Save my people.
It's at that moment that Esther finally redeems the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She has found a way to convey forbidden knowledge, dangerous knowledge, knowledge that by rights should kill her, to her husband, and has found a way to bring moral clarity to his vision.
I mentioned to you before that the story of the Megillah can be seen as a kind of battle between two ways of replaying the Tree of Knowledge story. We've taken some time now to understand the dynamics between Esther and Achashveirosh; how Esther seems to redeem the original Tree of Knowledge story. To complete our view of the magnificence of what she does, we need to go back one last time to the failed Tree of Knowledge replay, to the story of Zeresh and Haman. In the contrast between the failure and the success we will find something surprising, we will find the key to the power of love.
The Power of Love
Okay, having looked at Zeresh and Haman on the one hand as one kind of failed expression of the Tree of Knowledge story, and having looked at Esther's interactions with the kind on the other hand as a sort of successful replay of the Tree of Knowledge story. I think one of the surprising things that emerges from this is the rule of love as a potential moral force, as a force for good. But in order for love to be that force for good it requires a little backbone. Sometimes, almost paradoxically, it requires standing up to the one that you love and demanding something different from him or her than what they think they want.Let's go back to Esther and the king for a minute. As we spoke about in our last video, what she's really doing is starting with the king's desire but then taking him to somewhere that he may actually not want to go on his own. She makes that journey from good, in terms of desire, to good in terms of what's right to do. She makes a moral argument to him.
Zeresh never makes that journey; she starts with what Haman wants to do and ends with what Haman wants to do. Oh, so you don't like everything in your life, and the one thing that you're missing is Mordechai, you want to kill him? Sure, why don't you do that, why don't you kill him? That way you'll go to the king's feast and you'll be so happy. She's trying to make him happy. The tragedy of Zeresh is that she thinks she's doing the right thing for him, she's trying to help him, facilitate his desires. What more can someone want from their spouse then someone who will just fulfill every desire they could possibly have? So she says, go make the tree. She starts with his desires and ends with his desires, and if that's all you do, you're not really much of a spouse at all.
The original role of a spouse as defined way back in the Garden of Eden was to be an Ezer Kenegdo, somebody who could help them, but also somebody who could oppose them. The word Ezer Kenegdo means to help and to oppose and sometimes the way you help most is by opposing. Sometimes you have to stand up and say, no, the way I'm going to make you happy actually is by not just catering to your desires, but helping you place those desires in context, helping you to see what's right.
But now ask yourself this, a little bit of a deeper question: How do you help a spouse see what's right? Even as I say those words, isn't there a part of you that your flesh is kind of crawling? You're saying, one second, I don't want my spouse to teach me moral lessons. I don't want my spouse to preach at me. I'd be enraged if they tell me what's right and wrong. I want them to love me for who I am. Ah, here's the amazing thing, those two things, what's right and loving someone for who they really are, at a very deep level those two things are very intertwined. Loving someone for who they are is actually the greatest moral truth you can ever impart to your spouse. It's true for Zeresh and Haman and it's also true for Esther and the king. Let's see why.
Let's go to Zeresh and Haman. What's the greatest gift that Zeresh could have given Haman her husband, at that moment that he came home so devastated? I have everything, he tells her. I have riches, I have children, I have power, but none of it means anything to me. All I want is the one thing I can't have, he tells her. All I want is Mordechai dead.
What gift could she have given him in that moment? You know what she could have said? She could have said, look at you, you're not valuing yourself for who you are, why do you think you don't like anything that you have? Is it a coincidence that every last thing that you have you don't like? You know, you think you don't like the Jews, you know who don't like even more than the Jews? You hate yourself. It's because you hate yourself that you hate every last thing that you have, and if you had the one thing that you don't have, you'd hate that too. Stop thinking about your desires, what you really need to do is start liking what you have. Maybe if you start liking what you have, you'll start liking you. If you don't believe that, just look at me. I don't need you to have the one thing that you don't have in order to like you. I love you for who you are. If that's enough for me, can it be enough for you?
Had she been able to give that gift to him, it would have been the first stepping stone to break out of the prison of desire and to be able to see the other meaning of good, what is right, what is true, what is noble. It would have saved Mordechai's life and in the end, it might have saved her husband's life too. In a deep way, Esther was just doing the inverse of this with the king. Zeresh could have accepted Haman for who he was; Esther demands of the king that he accepts her for who she really is. Esther's argument is, it's not enough that you love me as an anonymous person. Why don't you find out who I really am, where I really come from, can you still love me then? Can you accept me then? When he does, she wins her first battle. But then she leverages that love even further, it's not enough for you to accept just me, I need you to accept the existence of my countrymen too. You can't stop with recognizing just my own humanity. If I'm a human and I am from them, then they are human too, aren't they?
So, all told, in the Megillah, we see just underneath the surface, two competing ways of replaying the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; it's almost as if the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil kind of splits in two. One way of replaying the story is to give your spouse the one thing that he doesn't have yet, to cater to his every desire and in so doing, to destroy him. That's a Zeresh and Haman, the failed replay of the Tree of Knowledge. The other way is to provide forbidden knowledge, knowledge that might seem dangerous but it is actually essential. Knowledge about who you really are, and to ask that your spouse accept you for that. Esther does this and takes the king on a journey. A journey from what you might have thought you wanted to what is right and good.
In the end Esther is the heroine of the Megillah, but her actions might be significant at not just locally for the many hundreds of thousands that she saved, but even more globally perhaps, on the macro-historical scale. For right here, at the very end of the Hebrew Bible, someone has finally put to rest the terrible crime that has haunted mankind ever since the enchanting, confusing fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, first beckoned to us.