What Is Esther's Story?
Family Feud: The Ominous Background To Esther’s Story
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Torah tells us that Purim is a holiday that will never be forgotten – and thousands of years later, we’re still dressing up in costumes, reading the megillah, and celebrating with friends and family. But, how are we meant to relate to the Biblical story of Esther, thousands of years later? How does Queen Esther's story deepen our understanding what Purim means in a modern context?
In this series, Rabbi Fohrman teaches us that the real theme underlying Purim is the power of memory and how important the role of memory is in the process of repentance and reconciliation.
Purim is an astounding holiday, and when I it's 'astounding,' I mean it's astounding that we made it into a holiday! If you take a look at the megillah, the megillah seems to chronicle a victory that was, for lack of a better word, political.
Mordecai and Esther managed, through deft political maneuvering, to save Jews, who would have been threatened with a national holocaust. Now, that's a great thing! But you kind of have to ask yourself, "What are we supposed to take out of that? Is there anything spiritual, is there anything meaningful, that you and I, two millennia later, are suppose to take out of that?" It doesn't seem like we are actually learning anything in terms of how to be better human beings, and we normally associate religion with that – with trying to figure out how is it we're supposed to live our lives.
What Is the Spiritual Meaning of Queen Esther's Story?
Now, there is a kind of conventional answer to this; at least, an answer that I often heard growing up, and that is that one of the messages of Purim is that God works behind the scenes. And that is really where the spiritual meaning of Purim lies. And in fact, it is true that you do see God working behind the scenes, that all of these events seem to conspire, all of these coincidences kind of come together and seems to conspire, but they are not really coincidences.
Mordechai just happens to overhear the plot of the two assassins against the king and he happens to not be rewarded right away, and his reward is delayed until later. And then one night, the King happens to be unable to fall asleep, and asks for the book to be opened, and the book just happens to be open to the right place to read about Mordechai's long-forgotten deeds, and who should knock at the door just at that moment? It just happens to be Haman, asking for permission to hang Mordecai on the gallows! And all of these coincidences kind of conspire together to eventually come to create this great salvation for the Jews, and it's really God working behind the scenes. And maybe that's the spiritual message of Purim.
And while I do have some sympathy for that, I come back to this question, "What does it mean for us?"
What Should Esther's Story Mean to Us Today?
You see, that's not so much what it means for us; it's what it means for God. You could argue that there is theological meaning to Purim, in the sense that we learn something about how God operates. But that's very philosophical, that's very abstract. Is Purim just about how God runs the world, or is it about how I am supposed to run my life? What I want to suggest to you, in this series of videos, is that it's really about how we are supposed to remember.
The notion of Purim has always been bound up with the idea of memory. Purim is the one holiday, which, according to the Megillah itself, will never be forgotten. V'zichram lo-yasuf mizaram, "all the holidays," according to the Talmud, "will eventually be forgotten in some way, shape, or form, but Purim will never be forgotten."
It's a holiday in which we commemorate a battle against Amalek, and of course we are enjoined in the Torah never to forget what it is that Amalek did to us. We all remember. Part of what makes us human is to remember.
Purim, I think, is telling us something intensely important about how we should remember. I want to try to show you how that's so in the coming videos. I will see you when we come back.
The Mysteries Behind Esther's Story... the Accountant?
Today I want to talk to you about some Megillah Mysteries.
The word 'Megillah' often doesn't go with a mystery. A Megillah is one of those parts of Tanach that we kind of know very well. Ever since we've been 4 or 5 or 6 years old, we've been dressing up as Queen Esther and Mordecai, and the story is very, very familiar to us. And it doesn't seem to be all that mysterious. I want to suggest to you today that there are some mysteries just underneath the surface of the text, that if we look at them, will give us a very fascinating insight into kind of what's going on behind the scenes in this story.
So with no further ado, let me kind of take you into the world of a couple of these mysteries. They have to do with words and echoes that you hear in the text if you listen closely. Let me take you right now to a very famous part of the Megillah and kind of read these words with me.
We're going to play a little game here, we're going to call it "If you were Esther."
Okay. So you were Esther and you were going before the king to save the Jews. It's a dangerous kind of mission and the king doesn't really care much about the Jews; the Jews are not his favorite people in the world. What are you going to use? What's your secret weapon? The answer is "your secret weapon is you."
Who Was Queen Esther?
I mean, you are Esther and the king loves you, right? That's why he married you. You're pretty, you have chen, you have grace, the king just thinks your smile lights up the room; and, you know, you would use that if you want him to save your people. You would ask him as a personal favor, you know, please do it for me. Please save my people. And in doing so, if you are thinking to yourself, gee, you know, how is it that I want the king to view himself? You know, how should the king, in his own mind, as I am talking, how do I want him to think about himself? I think the answer would kind of be, that he is the knight in shining armor, he can come and save me.
And to that end, you know, Esther would portray herself as the damsel in distress. Here is your chance to do something for me and to just be the winner in my book, to be the man who makes everything better for me. So that's kind of the strategy which I would take if I was Esther going before the king at that banquet where she confronts Haman; that's how she wants to portray things, that's the kind of language she should use that promotes this kind of way of viewing things.
So let's actually look at Esther's language with an eye towards it and kind of grade her, as it were, for how well she does this, okay. So here is actually her language. They are at the table, this is the second banquet, this is when Esther makes this request of the king and here is what she says, vataan ester hamalkah vatomar im-matzati chen b'einecha hamelech – "If I have found favor in your eyes, king" – okay, good start. We will give her a little check mark for this. Humility, you know, recognizing that the king does love her v'im al hamelch tov – "and it's good before the kKng," tinaten li nafshi bishelati v'ami bevakashati – "give me my life as my petition, my people as my request" – ah! This is terrific! This is poetic! It's passionate! It portrays herself as in distress, the kKing is going to save her. This is his chance. The heights of poetry resonated through words and you can see the violent setting in the background and you can hear the gallops of the horse on his way to save Esther. This is really great. That's verse 3. Let's go on to verse 4.
Ki nimkarnu ani v'ami, she says – "for me and my people have been sold" – one second! Cut! Hello! What do you mean "have been sold'? We've been sold? Just get to the point. What is her point? Lehashmid laharog uleabed – "to be destroyed, killed and utterly wiped out." I mean, that's good. I just don't know what this "sold" is doing here, but anyway keep on. And then she says something really strange, v'ilu laavadim v'lishpachot nimkarnu – now she's going to start talking about something which is actually not happening; she is going to digress.
Listen carefully. This is her moment in the sun, and she is going to digress away from the threat, which is the threat that we are being killed and she is now going to take the king somewhere else and say "look, theoretically, king, I just want you to know that if we had only been sold as slaves"; okay nimkarnu – there is that 'selling' again for some strange reason. Why is she so interested in this selling business? "sold to be killed; sold to be slaves. If we had been sold as slaves, then," hecherashti – " then I would have kept silent." Why?
Ki ein hatzar shoveh benezek hamelech – a strange phrase; the way many commentators translate it means "that the pain that we experienced as a result of servitude wouldn't outweigh the gain that would accrue to the king's treasury from the monetary proceeds of our slave labor." Now, if you are scratching your head because that seems kind of complicated; it is complicated. And that's why I think it is such a great question – why Esther is getting involved in this? Why is she making these complicated arguments?
She succeeds in painting this 'knight in shining armor' picture in the beginning, and now she is getting off into this very complicated profit-loss analysis. "The actuality is that we are going to be killed, so you don't make any profit, king; your treasury doesn't make any profit out of our being killed, and if we would annul the decree, it's not like you would lose any profit by annulling that decree; and plus, it's really, really bad for us that we are getting killed. So, it's really bad for us and you don't get anything out of it and that's why I am stepping forward.
On the other hand, theoretically, had we only been sold as slaves, then you would have gotten something out of it. The king's treasury would have been to the beneficiary of our slave labor, you would have had a little bit of profit, I wouldn't want to deny you that profit." Ein hatzar shoveh benezek hamelech – "the pain that we experience as a result of servitude is not as bad as death. The pain we experience, the little pain of servitude, wouldn't outweigh the loss to the king's treasury and I wouldn't have said anything to take away the benefits of our slave labor. But all that is theoretical," she says, " because we haven't really been sold as slaves; we've been sold to be killed and that's why I am stepping forward, king."
What Is Esther Doing?
I mean why is she talking about this? And again, if you have a hard time following this, the point is is that it is hard to follow. I mean, I don't know about you, but if I was the king, I would be like 'oh man! What's going on over here? I'm like confused. I am not an accountant; like, go bring in my secretary of the treasury or something and escort this woman away." Why is she doing this? I would say she gets an F for this, you know, maybe a D–; it completely destroys the romance of the situation which she has been building up so nicely over here. Why is she doing this? Why is she talking about selling? Why is she talking in accountant's terms? "If we're being sold as slaves, then I can really see myself keeping quiet. But, we're not being sold as slaves, we're actually going to be killed. That's why I am coming to you." Why does she do this?
This is mystery number one – why is Esther talking like an accountant? We are going to come back and see what we can make of that.
We've Been Sold...Again!
We are going to look here at Esther's second request to the king.
It turns out her first request, the one that we looked at last time, actually fails. Often, while when we read the Megillah, we're not actually aware of this because it looks like Esther succeeds, the king listens to her, and the king kills Haman. But, if you look closely, the only thing that happens is the king kills Haman, but the law that Haman had promulgated still remains on the books.
What Did Esther Do?
So the Jews are just as threatened as they was before even after Haman dies. In a certain way, Esther is in an even worse position now than she was before; because before, she sort of has one thing going for her. What she has going for her is sort of the suspicion that the king might have of this kind of love triangle between her and Haman and the king. Remember that Esther has sort of cleverly invited the king together with Haman to banquets after banquet; and in the middle of those banquets, remember how the king couldn't sleep at nights? You sort of wonder why it was he couldn't sleep? Perhaps, it was he's wondering why is it the queen keep on inviting Haman to these banquets?
The queen is sort of cultivating this view of Haman as a possible threat; a cultivation which comes to the fore when she finger Haman and says "it's you. You were the one who would destroy our people!" And the king, who had already been sort of predisposed, perhaps, towards seeing Haman as a possible threat, as someone who wants his queen; now sees that he's someone who does wants his queen – wants his queen dead – but same idea. This man is a threat! A threat to my queen! And he kills Haman.
But now, Esther doesn't have the love triangle anymore; she doesn't have that sort of ace-in-the-hole to play off of Haman. Haman is dead and the only thing she has is she has her people, and the people are still threatened, and the king no friend of the people, and now, Esther has to go before the king; and what is she going to do? She just has to beg and plead for the king to do what he didn't do before, which is to erase the decree on the book to destroy Esther's people. And here she goes to the king one last time.
Esther's Last Request to the King
Now if you listen carefully, you will hear that the author of the Megillah is echoing, is placing, within Esther's words an echo of words that we have from Hamas. See if we can find it. So here is what Esther says to the king, vatomar im al hamelech tov v'im-matzati chen lefanav v'chasher hadavar lifnei hamelech v'tovah ani b'einav – "if I found favor in your eyes, then please" yikatev lehashiv et-hasefarim machashevet haman ben hamdata hagagi – "please repel Haman's decree' asher katav leabed et-hayehudim asher bechol medinot hamelech. That's verse 5. "Please repeal Haman's decree." And now, she is going to get to the part where she seems to be quoting from words appear before.
Ki eichecha uchal v'raiti – "how can I possibly bear to see" baraah asher yimtza et ami – "the evil that will befall my people?" Now, if you look at those words carefully, eichecha uchal v'raiti baraah asher yimtza et ami – " the evil that will befall my people." If you play them over in your mind, you may recognize those words from somewhere in Bereshit, where do we have those words before? Those exact same words with the exception of one syllable; the syllable that's different is right over here, it's a rhyming syllable; ami gets replaced with avi, my father.
So, in Genesis, these same words, eich ereh bara asher yimtza et avi, "how can I possibly bear to see the evil that will befall my father?" Esther says, "How can I possibly endure the evil that will befall my people?" Almost the exact same words in Genesis eich ereh bara asher yimtza et avi - who said that?
So the answer is right over here. The quote actually comes from the quote from the story of Joseph and his brothers. Here at the very end of the story of Joseph and his brothers, at the moment when Judah pleads for Benjamin’s life. Benjamin is being framed with the silver cup that belongs to Joseph; none of the brothers know that it's Joseph, Joseph is masked, he appears to be a high Egyptian official. Joseph has framed Benjamin, then they left the city and Joseph's hitchman men have caught up with them, and Judah doesn't know that Benjamin is carrying the silver goblet of the king. And he pledges and he says "whoever has the goblet will die. Nobody stole the goblet." The goblet is then found in Benjamin's sack and Judah approaches the Master Joseph, not knowing it's his brother, and makes this long impassioned plea and it ends with this:
He says "look, I pledge myself as an orev – as a guarantor, for this child Benjamin. My father did not want to send him. My father's soul is bound up with the soul of Benjamin, and therefore, atah – and now, yeshev-na ovedecha tachat hanaar - let me be the slave instead of Benjamin v'hanaar yaal im echav - let the child go back with his brothers to his father, ki eich e'eleh el-avi v'hanaar einenu iti - because how can I go back to my father without the child – without Benjamin, pen ereh bara asher yimtza et-avi – lest I see the evil that will befall my father."
And these words, pen ereh bara - an exact echo over here of eich ereh bara asher yimtza et ami. And again, as I mentioned to you, ami gets changed into the rhyming word avi, right. Eich, over here, in poetic form, eichecha. So, it's very clear that Esther seems to be quoting from Genesis. We do seem to be playing with this game 'where have we heard these words before?' And the question is why? Why are we quoting here from the story of Joseph and his brothers?
Now, in fact, the mystery here deepens a little bit. Because, remember, this is Esther's second request of the king, and we've seen that the second request seems to contain words which bring us back to Genesis, in the story of Joseph and his brothers. If we now look back at the first request of Esther, the words that we saw before, we're actually going to also see words that bring us back to the story of Joseph and his brothers. Let's go back for a second to the text of Esther's first request to the king; the one where she talks about being sold.
Oh, being sold! Think about Joseph and his brothers. Does being sold remind you of anything? Well, yes. Actually, it does kind of remind you of something. Nimkarnu ani - what happened in the story of Joseph involved being sold? Of course, what happened? Joseph was sold. Sold as what? Remember v'ilu laavadim v'lishfachot nimkarnu - "if we've only been sold as slaves." Well actually, that's exactly what happens to Joseph, wasn't it? Joseph was sold as a slave by the brothers in that story. And if you actually go back to the story of Joseph being sold as a slave, you'll find a fascinating thing.
Remember this word over here, right over here; this word that we thought was so strange, why Esther insists on talking about the Jews they've been sold, they've been sold to be killed, they've been sold to slaves. Why is she talking about that word? Well, it turns out, if you look at that word very closely, it turns out that that word has a very interesting echo. The word is, let's just spell it out over here: nun, mem, chaf, resh, nun, vav.
Now, remember one very important thing. In Hebrew, Hebrew is a language of consonants, there are no vowels; the vowels are implied. If you look at any text written in the actual Torah or in the Prophets, or Writings, or anything like that, you will find that there are no vowels, it's just consonants. The vowels are implied. If you remove the vowelization from nimkarnu, we can sort of play Hebrew anagrams - what other word can you make from nimkarnu, keeping all the letters in place with this being the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth letter. Where else do we have nun, mem, chaf, resh, nun, vav?
It turns out that in the entire Tanach, besides these two occurrences, one and two in Esther, there is only one other time that these six letters appear in that order. And where do they appear? In the story of the sale of Joseph. They appear right over here; different vowelisation, exact same consonants. Who says it? Interestingly, it's actually Judah.
Remember when we were talking about Esther's second request of the king, how Esther was quoting from something that Judah had said? It turns out, in her first request for the king, she is also quoting from something Judah has said. Look at what Judah has said: vayomer Judah el-echav - Judah said to his brothers mah betzah - "what do we gain" ki naharog et achinu - "if we kill our brother?" Remember Joseph was in the pit, they've been contemplating perhaps killing him - "what do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?" Lechu v'nimkerenu - "let's just sell him," there is that word, " to these passing Ishmaelites." v'yadenu al-tehi-vo - "that way our hand won't be upon him, after all he is our brother. Let's just sell him as a slave."
Esther is quoting from Judah, the only other time this formulation of nun, mem, chaf, resh, nun, vav appears is right over here in Esther. Why is she doing it? It doesn't seem to be a coincidence.
In both her first attempt and her second attempt, she is quoting from this man, from something Judah says, in the story of Judah's connection to Joseph and his brothers. The great question is, why? Once we understand why, we'll understand the answer to "where have we heard these words before?" And I think we will also have an answer to why she is talking about selling.
Esther, Judah And Benjamin
Okay, so in order to get some perspective in all this, what we really need to do is go back to the very beginning of the Megillah and ask a seemingly deceptive question. That question is this: who exactly was it that was threatened with destruction in the days of Purim? Now, this seems like a very obvious question and the answer obviously is the Jews, right? The Jews were threatened with destruction; they are the ones that Haman was trying to kill. But, if we think about it for a moment, who were the Jews? What do we call them in Hebrew? Why do we think they were the Jews? The answer is because the Megillah talks about these people using this name right over here; they talk about them as the Yehudim.
Now, we all know that yehudim means Jews. How do we know yehudim means Jews? Well, you just go to Israel today and it's a Jewish state, it's a medinat yehudit. We all know that yehudi means Jew right? Well, here is where I want to ask you to question your assumptions. And it's true that the word yehudi means Jew now. But the question is not what it means now, the question is, what it meant then. What did it mean at the time of the Megillah?
So here is something interesting. If you look at the entire Bible and you start with Genesis and Exodus and you go all the way through, you'll actually find that the word yehudi never, ever appears in this whole early part of the Bible. Actually, the first time it appears is all the way down here in books like the Book of Esther and in the later part of Kings II, and this is the very first time that we ever start hearing about these people, the yehudim. The question is why if it means Jews? So then, you know, we're talking about Jews all the way up here the whole last four out of five books of the Chumash is talking about Jews. How come the word yehudim never ever appears over here? And the answer is that the word yehudi again doesn't mean Jews, not at least in the sense in which we use the word now. What I want to argue is that it actually had a national meaning, more even than religious meaning. Why is it that it's used over here? What was happening historically here at the end of the Book of Kings to the beginning of the Book of Esther? So let's go back actually and ask, "What exactly was happening?"
Well, around this time, there were actually two kingdoms of Israel, the northern kingdom sometimes called the Kingdom of Israel, or the Kingdom of Ephraim actually, was one Kingdom; and then there was a second Kingdom which is the Kingdom of Judah over here. Now, we all know that there was more than just the tribes of Ephraim, for example, from the Northern Kingdom, and Judah; but all the other tribes were ruled, were incorporated, within these kingdoms.
Towards the end of the Book of Kings, the Northern Kingdom was actually exiled by the Assyrian Empire over here, and those are the last ten tribes. So they go into Assyria and are dispersed leaving only the Southern Kingdom over here - the Kingdom of Judah. And that's when you first start hearing this word yehudi and the word yehudi, in context, doesn't mean a Jew, it actually means a resident of this Kingdom, of the Kingdom of Judah. And in this way, it actually is more like what it says in your passport than what religion you are, right? If you were yehudi, it meant that your passport said Judah on it, right? You are from the Kingdom of Judah, you are a Judahite, so to speak.
Now, of course, later on in the Book of Kings, even the Kingdom of Judah becomes exiled. Kingdom of Judah is invaded by Babylonia and the Jews head into exile towards Babylonia. Now eventually, Babylonia itself gets conquered by the Kingdom of Persia and this of course sets up the Purim story. So in Persia who do you have? You have all these exiles from the Kingdom of Judah; you have all of these yehudim.
Now, who is in the Kingdom of Judah? It's not just Judah. There are actually probably stragglers from all the tribes, but it is mainly Judah, and then there is one little small tribe that's there aside from Judah. Territorially, along with Judah in this area, actually is, believe it or not, the tribe of Benjamin. Oh, Benjamin! Isn't that interesting! We've been talking about stories involving Judah and Benjamin, the original Judah and Benjamin, the people for whom these tribes are named; the progenitors, as it were, of both of these tribes.
Okay. So now let's place ourselves for a minute in the Persian empire and we say okay, come back to this question - who was threatened with destruction in the days of Purim? Who was it that Haman was trying to kill? Well, Haman was trying to kill all of the yehudim - all of these Judahites over here. He wants to get rid of the nationality, the people who consider themselves a nation, these remnants of the nation of Judah. But, it sets up a very interesting situation. Because whereas Haman doesn't care about the personal tribal affiliations of any individual person within this Kingdom of Judah, the yehudim themselves would have known their tribal affiliations. And that sets up a very interesting thing in the Megillah itself. Let's take a look at how Mordecai is introduced here.
So here is Mordecai. Let's read and let's read it properly. Ish yehudi hayah beshushan habirah - now we normally translate that as "there was a certain Jew." But, I am now arguing to you that this is actually an inaccurate translation. Let's translate it properly. What does it really mean? "There was a certain man from the Kingdom of Judah," right? That's what it means. So, "There was a certain man from the Kingdom of Judah who lived in Shushan," and who was he? His name was Mordecai. But then it continues and it gives you his lineage. Let's pay attention to that lineage and not just space out. Let's actually listen to what it says.
Ushemo mordachai – "his name was Mordecai" ben-yair ben-shimi ben-kish ish yemini – oh look at that! He was from the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Benjamite. So even though he was a yehudi to all external appearances, he was part of the nation of Judah, but his tribal affiliation was that he was a ish yemini. So here is this man with a sort of dual identity. An ish yehudi on the one hand, and a ish yemini on the other hand, and that sets up a tension right at the heart of the Megillah.
So who is Esther? Esther is Mordecia's cousin. They both had this sort of national affiliation with the kingdom of Judah as the next verse says asher haglah mirushalayim im-hagolah asher hageletah im yechaneyah melech-yehudah - "he was part of the exiles who were exiled with the king of Judah." So they were all part of this Judahite nation but nevertheless they were Benjamites. And now listens to what Mordecai tells Esther. "As long as the interests of Benjamin on the one hand and the Judahites on the other hand converge, right, as long as those interests converge, so everything is great." But what if those interests don't converge? And that's what starts happening over here.
Mordecai hears about this terrible decree that is going to affect all the people from Judah. There is a Benjamite queen in the palace. He tells her, "don't just look at yourself, don't just look at yourself as this little girl from Benjamin who can save herself and a little bit of the tribe." Al-tedami benafshech lehimalet beit-hamelech mikol-hayehudim, "don't think that you among all of these yehudim, that you're going to survive and huddle together with your close friends and family these Benjamin stragglers in the palace. No!" im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot, "if you keep silent at this time and let the other side of the family disappear"; remember these are two sides of the family – Judah, from the children of Leah, Benjamin, from the children of Rachel, right. Bad things happen between the children of Rachel and the children of Leah, there is a past here, and Esther remembers the past. "And if you keep silent and just let these Judahites disappear and just focus on your narrow and parochial interests," revach v'hatzalah yaamod layehudim mimakom acher – "God is going to make sure they are saved anyway." v'at ubeit avich tovedu" – you and your father's house can be destroyed; this is the moment where you need to shine. You can't afford to remain silent as the other side of the family is threatened. And then we get to these words, these words that we've heard before. Esther goes to the king, but Esther remembers; she remembers the past.
What happened between the children of Leah and the children of Rachel? A lot happened. The sale of Joseph happened. In that sale of Joseph what happened? Well there were two sides of the family weren't there? There was the Leah side of the family, there was the Rachel side of the family. On the Rachel side of the family, there was Joseph. On the other side of the family, the other side of the family was led by Judah. When Judah engineered the sale of Joseph, listen to what he said. He said lechu v'nimkerenu layishme'elim - "let's just sell him to the Ishmaelites," and all of a sudden, Esther seems to remember that as she goes to the king; only other time you have that language. She seems to be remembering the sale.
And not only she remembered the sale in terms of this one word; it's not about one word, it's about everything she says. Everything she says is patterned with the bitter memories of what Judah said, right over here. Listens to what he said one more time vayomer Yehuda el-echav - "and Judah says to his brothers" ma betza ki naharog et-achinu v'chisinu et-damo - "what do we really gain from letting Joseph die in the pit? We can't let him die" lechu v'nimkerenu layishme'elim - "let's sell him to the Ishmaelites," V'yadenu al-tehi-vo- "after all, our hands won't be upon him that way. We won't be guilty, we won't have blood on our hands." ki-achinu besarenu hu -after all, he really is our brother. So if we sell him, you know, we can make a little bit of a profit, and if we sell him, we won't be guilty of actually killing him and covering over his blood. So it’s much better to sell him, isn't it, than to kill him. But where do we hear an argument that reminds us of this?
Judah makes a profit-loss calculation with his brothers. He said, "we can't let our brother die but we could sell him as a slave; it would be a little bit better if we sell him as a slave. After all, he is not going to die if we sell him as a slave, plus, we get to make a profit." When else did that happen? If you draw a line down the middle of the page and say, let's fast forward a few centuries, we hear exactly the same thing with Esther. Esther, in these words, is kind of making a profit-loss calculation with the king. She says, "I am appealing to you because the yehudim, the other side of the family, they are going to die, that's why I am going to you. But I just want to let you know," she almost can’t help but saying, "that you know, if they were only going to be sold as a slave instead, just theoretical, but if they were only sold as slaves" - memories of when my side of the family sold as slaves - "if they were only sold as slaves I could see myself keeping silent" - remember what Mordecai said? - "Don't keep silent and allow it to happen."
"Yes, you can always tell yourself you're not the one wiping out the other side of the family. We know why it might suit you on some level to keep silent - don't give in to that. Plus, the king is going to make a profit off of them, I couldn't get involved in taking away the money which you would take from slave labor, but they are not going to be sold as slaves, they are going to be killed, and because they are going to be killed that's why I am appealing to you, oh king."
And you see this convoluted logic actually fails. The bitterness, you hear the bitterness over the centuries in Esther's voice, and Esther doesn't succeed. She manages to get Haman killed, but that's it. The decree against the Jews is still going to happen. And at this point if the Megillah had ended here, right after Esther's first appeal to the king, it would not have been a holiday, it would have been a holocaust. The Jews would have all been destroyed. The reason why it's a holiday was because Esther had one more chance.
Purim: Repaying an Old Favor
I want you to come with me to look at the source document for Judah’s confrontation with Joseph, which forms the basis for Esther's second confrontation with Achashverosh, like we saw before. So, I have it up here on the screen, it's in Bereshit mem dalet- Genesis 44. Let's just read through it. This is Judah, this is the person who sold Joseph as a slave, engineered the sale, and now Judah makes this impassioned plea. And listen to this plea. He starts retelling to this high Egyptian official everything that happened back in Egypt. Vayomer avdecha avi elenu. He says, "my father, at that time, he didn't want to send Benjamin. He told us atem yedatem, he says " you know," ki shenaim yaldah-li ishti, that my wife only gave birth to two children." I want you to think about that for a moment - "you know that my wife only gave birth to two children." How many children did Jacob have? Jacob had twelve children. What's he only talking about two children now? The answer is, "which wife is he talking about?" My wife. "My wife'" over here is Rachel, but it's almost as if he's not counting Leah at all.
A mean look how difficult it is for Judah, child of Leah, to say this, "my wife only gave birth to two children," as if Leah hadn't even existed. The sense that Leah's children didn't count might have been one of the reasons why they were so willing to throw Joseph in the pit years before and now he has to come face-to-facewith that reality again. My father told us " you know that I only had two children from my wife." vayetze haechad meiti - I mean how difficult is this for him to say? "One left me and I don't know what happened to him v'lo raitiv - I haven't seen him since then, but now you're going to take this last child from me?"
"If that happens, if I go back to my father," Judah says, " hanaar einenu itanu - and this child is no longer with us v'nafsho keshurah benafsho - my father's soul is bound up with the soul of Benjamin, he loves him more than anyone, because he loves his mother more than anyone, more than my mother, and therefore he loves him more than me." And therefore, he has a bargain to make with him. v'hayah kiroto ki-ain hanaar vamet v'horidu avadeicha et-sevat avdecha avinu - "I can't let my father die after seeing Benjamin disappear from him again" ki avderach arav et-hanaar - "because I personally guarantee him saying im-lo avienu alecha v'chatati leavi kol hamayim- if I don't bring him back, I would have sinned before you all the days of my life and therefore yeshev-na avdecha tachat hanaar - I will be the slave, I will be the eved ladoni - and let him, the thief, let Benjamin go back with my brothers, because my father would want it that way, he would want him more than me. And even though there was a time when I allowed a brother, I didn't kill him, but I allowed him to languish as a slave." Now look, Judah is facing that same position. He can do it again; but he is not going to do it again.
Once again, he has this situation where, okay, he is not going to die, this child of Rachel, but maybe he should just be a slave. Years before, Judah said "yes" to this; but now he is saying "no." He says, eich e'eleh el-avi - and now we get to the words that Esther mimics - ki eich e'eleh el-avi - " because how could I possibly go back to my father" v'hanaar einenu iti - "without this child" pen ereh bara asher yimtza et-avi - "lest I see the evil, the terrible things that will befall my father." And, of course, these are the words that Esther mimics years later. And why is Esther mimicking that years later? Because remember how Esther remembered? Remembered very well the sale of Joseph. It poisoned her words to the king the first time she went to the king.
Now, the second time she goes to the king, she remembers the sale of Joseph one more time; not just the beginning of the story, she remembers the end of the story, pen ereh vara asher yimtza et-avi. And hear Esther's words: eichachah uchal v'raiti. What is happening over here? Esther is the child of who? Esther is the child of Benjamin, and it now falls to her to save the yehudim - the child of Judah. And now you ask the question, when did Benjamin ever repay Judah for what Judah had done for him; for saving him at that moment in Egypt? It took centuries, but the answer is right here in the Book of Esther.
When Esther goes to the king and mimics those words, she's in exactly the same position Judah is; exactly the same position. And she says the same words that Judah says. She throws her lot in with the rest of the Jewish people, with the Yehudim, and says, "we're all Yehudim now, we're all from the tribe of Judah. How can I possibly go and see the evil that befalls my people?" It's not just the words that she echoes, it's exactly the same situation. And what she does echoes the acts of Judah centuries before.
Because look at what happened then and look at what happens now. Back then, right, Judah had pledged to save Benjamin and bring him back to his father. Judah made a reasonable effort to do that right? Then he could have gone back to his father and said he tried his best "look, you know, I tried to bring him back but nobody asked him to steal the cup. I did my best, you know; at least he is not dead, at least he's a slave." Instead, he makes this daring appeal to the king, throwing his lot in with Benjamin.
And the same thing happens now. Esther told Mordecai she would try to save Yehudim, and she tried; she made a reasonable effort to do that. The first time she went to the king, she could have gone back to Mordecai saying " look, I tried, you know, he killed Haman but, you know, what can you do?" But instead, she makes a daring appeal to the king and in order to do that, throws her lot in with Yehudim and says, "you know, I would have to be destroyed along with them. How can I possibly go and stay alive while I watch them die?"
In the end, what I want to argue, what the Megillah is about, the heroism of Esther, has to do very deeply with this notion of memory. Memory is very, very important in the Megillah. It's very important in our confrontation with Amalek. We don't call it Parshat Zachor for nothing. The Parsha of Remembrance. Amalek and combating Amalek is suffused with memory, with, what does it mean to remember? And look at the memory challenge, as it is, that Esther faces.
There is a long and storied and very difficult history that lies behind everything Esther does. She from Benjamin, being called upon, to rescue Judah. Thinking back to the pain between these two sides of the family - Rachel on the one hand, and Leah on the other hand. She begins by thinking back to the beginning of the story, when Judah betrayed her side of the family and thinking of that poisons what she says to the king. When her first attempt to the king fails she gets another chance. And the second time, she remembers the end of the story - she remembered how Judah redeemed himself, how Judah pledged himself up as a slave, so that Benjamin would not have to be captured. She remembers that moment of unity from the end of the story and centuries later, she, from Benjamin, repays that to Judah , by not allowing herself to sit on the sidelines and by demanding that Yehudim be saved just as she would be eich ereh bara asher yimtza et ami; "how can I possibly see the evil that befalls my people?"
Esther's Story and Purim: Past, Present & Future
Purim is really a holiday about memory and memory, if you think about it, is really something that goes to the core of what it means for us to be human. There is a fellow by the name of Daniel Gilbert who wrote a book called ‘Stumbling on Happiness,’ and in that book he argues that every good psychologist has to try to end a sentence that begins, “A human being is the only animal that...," you know, what’s the end to that sentence? So Daniel Gilbert takes a stab at it and his answer is that a human being is the only animal that anticipates the future, that really cognitively thinks about the future and their thoughts about the future affect how it is that they live in the present; the anxiety which they experience when looking towards the future and seeing something not clear and being nervous about it, the happiness and the elation and the joy that they think about when looking towards happy things in the future. If I would give my answer to Gilbert’s question, I would just kind of add, too, the idea that human being is the only animal that anticipates the future and looks back towards the past.
What I would argue that a human being is really that being that lives simultaneously in past, present, and future. That, on one level, yes, we do live one day at a time. But, as we live that one day at a time, we live it suffused with memories of the past, that the past influences how it is that we act today and our looking towards the future influences how it is that we live today.
The Rambam, actually, Maimonides, when defining how it is that you do teshuvah [repentance], I think relates to this thing that the human being is that kind of creature that lives in past, present and future all together, all wrapped up into one. And in a certain perhaps, we’re like God in that kind of way. God too is that. If you think about God’s name, yud-key-vav-key, it’s actually an overlay of three different kinds of existences. In Hebrew, how do you say ‘past’? How do you say ‘to exist’ in the past? You say hayah. How do you say ‘to exist’ in the future? You say yiheyeh. What does it mean ‘to exist’ in the present? It’s hoveh. Well, if you take hayah, hoveh, yiheyeh, and you just overlay those words, hey-yud-hey spells hayah, overlay that with hoveh, to exist in the present, hey-vav-hey, and what do you get? Well, the yud in the middle there becomes longer, and becomes hey-vav-hey, and overlay that with yiheyeh, and what does it spell if you just over lay one on top of the other on top of the other? It spells yud and hey and vav and hey, which is God’s name. It’s a kind of existence in past, present and future all wrapped up into one. And if God is the ultimate being that exists that way, He exists because He is outside of time, we travel through time; God wraps up all that kind of existence into one, because He is the being outside of time.
But we human beings, exist, kind of, in the image of God, and we too, in a certain kind of way, exist that way too. Because as we travel through this tunnel of time, we too exist in all three phases at once, in the sense that the present affects our future through anticipation, and the past affects our present through either regret or through the warm memories of happiness, which we take with us as we go on through life.
I mentioned the Rambam before, the Maimonides actually defines teshuvah - the process of repentance, the process of change in these kinds of terms. How is it that we change? Rambam actually says that there are three components; four, actually. The fourth is Vidui, confession, it’s different than all the rest. An apology in an interpersonal aspect of repentance. But there is an intrapersonal aspect of repentance, the process of change which I myself change. Regardless of what it is that I do with you, even before I apologize to you, I go through a process of change. And what happens in that process? The Rambam says there are three parts:
- I have to stop doing that which is wrong.
- I have to commit myself not to do it again in the future, and
- Regret. I have to regret having done it in the past.
If we think about those three things, in a certain kind of deep way, they are really all the same thing. It’s about stopping to do the thing that’s wrong. But there is three aspects to ‘stopping to doing the thing that’s wrong.’
- There is a present aspect to it – stopping to do the things that’s wrong now.
- There is a future aspect to it, which is anticipating in the future that I am not going to do it again, and
- There is a past aspect to it, which is regretting now what it is that I’ve done in the past.
And in order, as a human being, to really let go of something that I’ve done wrong, I really need to do all those things; and that’s why memory is so important. Memory is not just about the past, it’s not about this cute thing that we take along with us. It’s about something that affects us every single day. It’s about things in the past we carry them with us, and they change our present, and they change our future as well. And that’s why memory is so important.
The Megillah is telling us about how to deal with memory, and it’s telling us something very, very profound. You know, it’s all very fine when you have wonderful memories. But what about when you have painful memories? How do you deal with those painful memories? That’s what the Megillah is all about. It’s the challenge the Judah faces looking toward the children of Rachel; it’s the challenge that the children of Rachel face, looking towards the children of Leah. How is it that Esther dealt with those painful memories?
You know, there is a temptation. The temptation is to turn your back on memory, to say, memory doesn’t matter, to take the painful times and say “the painful times don’t matter, I do not need to remember them. All I need to do is remember the happy times.” Isn’t that the easiest way to go forward? I think the Megillah teaches you it might be the easiest way, but it doesn’t work.
Esther remembers the painful part of Benjamin’s relationship to Judah - they are very much there. They are so much there, that they poison, as we talked about before, her first audience with the king. But maybe that’s necessary. Maybe you have to go through it. You have to really remember the bad things, and you have to remember the good things. And then you have to tell yourself a story. Memory is that choice. You have to remember the bad and you have to remember the good. But how do you string them together? What story do you tell?
Do you tell a story to yourself in which the bad occupies front and center, and the good is just a footnote? Or do you tell a story in which the good is a climatic moment, and the bad just led up to that? The latter is the story that Esther chose to tell. She made a choice about how to deal with the bad and the good memories, about how to tell herself that story. And I think that’s what we can take from her. That idea, that to be faithful to memory means to remember everything. We have the choice as to how we tell that story. We can color our stories, and we have the power to make a good out of them.