Esther: The Queen You Thought You Knew
Reading Megillat Esther With A New Lens
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
On Purim night, there you are in the synagogue, listening to the Megillah reading, a story you’ve known since childhood, and perhaps you’re kind of… bored? Reading the Megillah year after year feels a bit like being back in primary school. But that’s because the story we learn as a child shouldn’t be the story we understand as an adult. It’s a fair question – do you really only want the kid’s version of the Megillah? Aren’t you ready for the adult meaning?
Sometimes our familiarity of the Megillah can work against us; we know so well how each character behaves that we don’t see what actions they could have taken. In fact, questions pervade the Megillah – obvious questions. Why did Esther wait so long to save the Jewish race? Why was Haman so intent on destroying the Jews? If we look at these questions as windows, crawling through them could led us to understand the adult meaning of the Megillah.
Rabbi Fohrman asks us to clear our minds about what we know, and try to see the Megillah for the first time. He introduces the story we've known since childhood, and suggests that perhaps, by reading the text through a different lens, it can take on a different meaning.
In this video we place ourselves in the shoes of three Purim characters from the Book of Esther. Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores the choices of Esther, Haman, and King Achashverosh, suggesting that the key to unlocking the Megillah's meaning is in understanding their behavior.
Read the book: "The Queen You Thought You Knew."
Hi folks, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. Purim is right around the corner, so let's just fast forward to Purim night. There you are in synagogue, you're listening to the Megillah, like you always do – and you're kind of bored.
Reading the Purim story year after year sometimes feels just a little bit like being back in third grade again. You learned the story back in Mrs. Schwartz's class – why do you have to hear it again, every single year? But the truth is, the story you learned as a child shouldn't be the story you see as an adult. Even if you are a kid watching this – ask yourself: Do you really want just the kid's version of the Megillah? Can't you handle more?
What Is the Meaning of Megillat Esther?As it happens, questions pervade the megillah, obvious questions. Those questions, I want to argue to you, in this video series, are windows. If we crawl through them, we'll be in a position to see the story in startling new ways. We'll be in a position to read the story as adults.
By the way… If you like this video series, when you're done, boy, have I got a book for you. The arguments I'm making here are taken, more or less, from a book I wrote a little while back called "The Queen You Thought You Knew." These videos come from parts of the first section of that book. So, to explore these ideas further, and more completely, just check out the book. You can find the link below.
Anyway, let's get to the questions in the Megillah, the obvious questions. You just have to clear your mind and try to see the Megillah as if you've never seen it before and suddenly I think these questions will jump out at you. And where I'm getting at here is the idea that your familiarity with the Purim story, the fact that you know it so well, will sometimes work against you. If you know the basic storyline of the Megillah, it can be hard sometimes to see the strangeness in how the heroes and villains of the story actually acted. When you know so well how Esther, Mordechai, the king, and Haman actually did behave, it's hard to imagine that they could have done things differently. But each of the Megillah's central characters surely could have.
So what I want to do with you is this, let's read through the story, but pause at strategic points in the story, and think about the actions of these people, let's place ourselves in the proverbial shoes of any of the major figures in the narrative, and ask ourselves: if we were them, right now, what would we do? When we arrive at an answer, we'll then continue reading, and we'll just compare what we would have done with what that person actually did do. More often than not, I think we'll be surprised by the great chasm by what we expected to happen, and what actually did take place.
Reading the Megillah with a New LensLet's begin with Esther. Esther acts boldly, she acts heroically – but she also acts kind of strangely, at least at face value. Let's fast forward to the moment that Haman has issued his decree. The Jews are mourning, everything seems lost, everyone going to die. Esther has until now succeeded in maintaining a secret. She has never told the king that she is Jewish. Mordechai now implores her to reveal this. She's going to go to the king, she has to beseech him to save her people.
Esther initially refuses. It turns out that the king has sequestered himself for a while now in his private chamber – and that's an inconvenient turn of events, since, according to the law of the realm, anyone who enters the king's chamber uninvited takes his or her life in their own hands. Esther worries that it doesn't seem like a good time to risk such a visit to the king. It's been a month now since he's called to see her, and she fears that she is no longer in his good graces.
Esther shares those misgivings with Mordechai, but he insists that Esther has to go to the king. So Esther gives in, she agrees to risk it all. She tells Mordechai that she and her ladies-in-waiting will undertake a prolonged, three-day fast, and after that, she will face the king, come what may.
So the moment of truth arrives. Esther dresses up in royal clothes and she dares to enter the king's chamber. He sees her, and then, amazingly, he lifts his scepter, indicating permission for her to enter. As she approaches, he tells her that he's going to grant whatever request she has, no matter what it is. Up to half the kingdom and it's hers! "What do you need?" he asks.
Okay, stop right there; you play Esther. It's your move. What would you do? How would you reply to the king?
Questioning Esther's Actions in the MegillahI don't know about you, but if I were Esther, this is actually the moment that I would seize to make my request:
"Well, you see, it's very nice of you to offer half your kingdom, but actually, I just require a small itty-bitty favor. It seems that genocide has been decreed against my people. Don't know how it happened – some sort of palace mix-up, probably. But luckily, it's so easy to reverse, King. If you wouldn't mind just signing right here this little document I prepared, we can undo that decree right now – I would be ever so grateful, King. Thank you so much."
But that's not what Esther says. Instead, she asks the king to meet her and Haman at a banquet she will make later on.
Why does she do that? This was the moment! The king had lifted his scepter and offered to give her half his kingdom. She would have done anything just the day before to get such a reception like that. Why does she squander the magic of the moment by postponing the reckoning for some later time? Is she ever going to get a better chance?
Ok, so much for Esther. What about Haman?
Haman's Role in Story of Megillat EstherHe has decided to wipe out the Jews out once and for all on a single blood-soaked day. In order to do that, though, he needs the consent of the king.
Now, before we look closely at what he says, let's just take a minute to contemplate what we might have said had we been in his shoes. What charge could you level against these Jews to incite the king's wrath and allow you to proceed with your murderous plot?
I can think of a lot of things Haman could say. The Jews, they poison the wells; they bake the blood of Persian children into their matzah on Passover; you name it. Haman certainly doesn't feel himself constrained by the truth. As it happens, though, Haman says three things – and at least two of them seem entirely beside the point. Here are his complaints:
a) The Jews are scattered throughout the Persian Empire.
b) They observe their own laws, making them different from other nations.
c) They don't keep the king's laws.
Now, why on earth does he bother with the first two? I mean, if I were Haman, I would have dropped those first two points and mentioned only the third, they don't keep the king's laws. I means, that's the only one the king's likely to care about.
Think about it. He is basically arguing that the Jews are criminals. And you know, it's logical to argue that the Jews are criminals, because if they're criminals, if they don't keep the laws of the realm, if C is the only thing you get to over here, then you could certainly argue that they deserve to be done away with. But who cares about the first two things, who cares where the Jews are located geographically and that they observe a set of laws that distinguish them from other peoples in the kingdom? The same could probably be said for every one of the king's hundred and twenty-seven provinces. They all likely observed certain laws and customs that distinguished them from the others. The conquered people of India, in all likelihood, they had different zoning laws than the people of Ethiopia – but is that grounds to do away with one or the other in a frenzied, state-sponsored bloodbath?
Presumably, though, Haman is not being foolish. He actually has a plan. He knows the king well, and the charges that he is making are likely those that give him the greatest advantage. Our task is to figure out what he knew that we don't.
So that's Esther and that's Haman. Let's turn now to the king, King Achashverosh.
King Achashverosh's Part in the MegillahIf you read the first twelve verses or so of the Megillah, you're gonna find that they are all about the glory and grandeur of King Achashverosh. We hear that the king was emperor of the world, sovereign over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces stretching all the way from India to Ethiopia. We read about his lavish hundred-and-eighty day long party, the riches, the fine linens, the gold, the delicately fashioned utensils.
So had we been reading the royal archives of the Persian court, all that would be understandable. But we're not reading the archives of the Persian court, we're reading the Megillah, a Jewish book...why do I need to know about all that splendor? Why start a book in the Bible with such a banal, extended, digression?
And let's talk about the king himself. Many readers of the Megillah perceive Achashverosh as a naïve, foolish guy. This perception arises, in part, from one of the very first moments in the Megillah, where the king seems to make this really impetuous decision regarding his queen, Vashti. At the end of this 180-day feast, he orders Vashti to be brought before the throngs and the multitudes, and here's the verse:
He asked to have Vashti the Queen brought before the king, to show her beauty off to the nations and princes – for indeed, she was very beautiful… (Esther 1:11)
What, exactly, was the king thinking here? I mean, it seems crazy what he's doing. Putting your wife on display and inviting other men to marvel at her? It's just plain gauche. It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing, not just for the poor woman at the center of attention, but for all the men in attendance, too. It's just not a very royal, refined thing to do.
Why then did Achashverosh do it? So you could say, look, maybe he wasn't a very refined person. Maybe he was drunk. And that's certainly possible. But I'd like to suggest, perhaps there was a method to the madness of Achashverosh. Perhaps if we take the time to understand things from Achashverosh's point of view, we may well find that the king's course of action was not all that irrational after all.
Finding New Meaning in the MegillahWhen we get around to answering all these questions we've just now raised, I think we will see that the story of the Megillah is far more complex than it at first seems. It's not just about a genocidal villain with a bruised ego, or a beautiful queen who succeeds because she chances upon lucky situations, or even a goofy king who doesn't see what's happening right under his nose.
As we venture through the story of Purim we're going to actually use the questions we've asked in this video, these observations about the strangeness of each character's actions, to guide us. Why is everyone acting so strangely? What exactly is behind each of their plans?
Join me as we explore these questions, seeking to uncover a richer understanding of the holiday, the book of Esther, and the meaning of it all.
Mother PersiaOkay, so let's return to the question we raised earlier about Esther and her audience with the king. She is received warmly in his chamber, she is asked what she wants, and she waits. Why doesn't she tell him? What's this business of come to this party i'm making later, and then once he gets to that party, come to another party even later? Why all the stalling?Let's consider this question carefully by actually putting ourselves in Esther's shoes, and evaluating her actual options. If she would try to speak up now, what would she actually say? What grounds would she use to argue that the Jews should be spared?
So, one possible tactic she might use is to try to argue for the Jews on moral grounds. She could say something like this:
"Sire – a moral travesty is being carried out in the kingdom. An entire people within the empire has been unjustly accused; they stand to be wiped out in a day of genocidal madness. We cannot let this stand. In the name of justice, truth, and the Persian way – please rescind this terrible decree."
What are the chances that would succeed?
Not very good. The king has decreed genocide against an entire people – and he's done it all with a disinterested wave of his hand. "Here, take my ring, Haman; do what you like; just don't bother me with these kinds of trivialities again; I'm late for lunch."
If that's the way the king responded to Haman's request for license to kill, clearly, the "moral travesty" approach is likely to fail. The king is not all that interested in morality. If that's not going to work then, what are Esther's other options?
If she can't ask the king to save the Jews on objective grounds, she can ask him to save them on subjective grounds. The king loves her, let her ask him to spare her people for her sake.
It seems simple enough. Why doesn't she just do that? Why does she back off entirely and invite him to dinner instead?
Esther knows something that is giving her pause. She knows the terms on which she came to be queen…
If the king is apathetic about the Jews, there was one thing he was not apathetic about, one thing that had made him flaming mad - Vashti refusing to be put on display, and that was the end of Vashti when that happened. Esther knows about that history. She understands the implications of that event for her own relationship with the king and for what she can plausibly ask of him.
To understand what's going on here, I think we actually need to go back for a minute and confront some issues we raised earlier concerning the king and Vashti.
We asked earlier why the king would ask Vashti to display herself so publicly at the culmination of his party. I want to make an argument though that the king, even though he might have been drunk here – he still had a plan.
The king had a plan because the king had a problem. Just read the first verse of the Megillah:
It happened in the days of Achashverosh – he was the Achashverosh who ruled from India to Ethiopia, the megillah says, over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces. (Esther 1:1)
Why is that introduction so important? Because Put yourself in the king's shoes. It is the year 400 BC, or thereabouts. For centuries, the Babylonians had been the preeminent world power – but your people, the Persians, they swept in and defeated them in a lightning strike. The Persians became the largest empire the world had ever seen. And then you, Achashverosh, you find yourself sovereign over a breathtaking hundred and twenty-seven provinces. What is your number one problem right now?
How do you keep all of this together?
There is no Internet, no telephones, no planes, no cars, no trains. You're in charge of a global empire -- how, exactly, are you supposed to make sure that the various regional provinces remain loyal to the crown?
If the first verse of the Megillah sets forth Achashverosh's problem, the very next verses set forth his answer. Parties.
In the first year of his reign, [The King] made this huge part feast for all of his noblemen, all of his princes, the entire armies of Persia and Media, there were officers of the king there, he was showing off the riches of his glorious kingdom, the honor of his excellent majesty, many days, one hundred and eighty day long. (Esther 1:3-4) That's what this party was.
We asked earlier why the Megillah would elaborate so much in these verses about the pomp and circumstance of Persia. The answer is that the megillah wants to tell a story. Who gets invited to the feast? The nobles and the princes of all the provinces, the armies of Persia and Media. There are all these governors here, the middle management of these little provinces scattered throughout the realm, they're all coming to Shushan, the king's new capital city. And at the feast, the king shows off the splendor, the glory, the might of the new empire. There are tapestries and linens, gold, wine flowing in the streets, excess everywhere.
The king knows something, he knows that the sparkle and sheen of the empire's economic and military might, leavened with a healthy dose of wine, will do more for his hold on power than any repressive laws, taxes, or forced loyalty program could ever do. Who wouldn't want to be a part of this new glorious Persia?
And, as Achashverosh's feast draws to a close, he sends for Vashti, asking her to appear before everyone. There was one thing, according to the text, that she was specifically asked to wear. The queen needs to be brought before the king wearing her royal crown! And note whom the king sends to fetch Vashti wearing her crown. The verse gives us the name of the 7 closest advisors that the king dispatched to go get her. And, now, look at who the verse who is the intended audience for Vashti's beauty? The king put her on show for a very specific population:
"… to display her beauty before the nations and the princes…" (Esther 1:11)
What is Achashverosh doing here?
Let's reflect for a minute on who, or what, a king is. As head of state, he wields enormous executive power. In the ancient world, the king's word was law. But the king is more than just a powerful executive, he's also living symbol of the nation he represents.
Remember Macbeth and Hamlet? Shakespeare refers to kings in his plays simply as "Norway" and as "Denmark." The name of the nation becomes the name of the king. The king is a flesh and blood embodiment of the nation he represents, he's a potent distillation into one man of an entire people. A nation looks at its king and sees itself.
So if the king is a symbolic embodiment of his country, what is the Queen?
The queen is the feminine embodiment of her country. In her persona, in her beauty, her grace, and radiance, resides the beauty, grace, and radiance of an entire people. Achashverosh's queen, she's Mother Persia. At the culmination of his final party, he is showing off the most impressive, symbol of his new empire – the beauty of Persia, embodied in the beauty of his queen, Vashti. Yes, the king is tipsy from the wine – and yes, he is objectifying his wife - but this objectification serves a political purpose, too. It's an affair of state going on here, presided over by the king's cabinet. The princes and provincial governors throughout the realm will look with pride upon Vashti, they'll revel in the beauty that is Persia's.
So Vashti refuses to come – and for this, for her sin, she forfeits her crown. The king begins a national search for the girl fit to be his new bride.
And it's worth noting that he doesn't seek to marry the daughter of a neighboring monarch or restrict his search to women of good Persian ancestry. This is really an equal-opportunity beauty contest. Any girl could become the new queen. And perhaps that is only fitting, because once chosen, the queen will implicitly represent them all.
In the end, Esther is the king's pick.
Why Esther? We don't really know. The only overt information the text gives us is this line:
…she found favor in the king's eyes (2:17).
But the text tells us one other important tidbit. Esther's cousin and mentor, Mordechai, he had insisted throughout the whole beauty contest process that Esther not reveal to the King her true identity, the fact that she's a Jew.
But let me ask you something. Have you ever wondered exactly how Esther got away with this? You know, eventually, at some point, Achashverosh was going to ask her: "So Esther, where are you from?" Let's say she smiles shyly and doesn't say anything. So the king asks again, "No, seriously, where are you from? You have this really intriguing accent..." How is Esther going to actually get away with this?
But, amazingly, she actually manages to become queen without ever revealing her family, her birthplace, or her national identity. How did she do that?
The king was looking for a woman who would effortlessly and unreservedly slip into the role of Mother Persia, who would become the feminine symbol of his new empire. Esther's very refusal to talk about where she came from might have played into the king's vision of the perfect queen: she could be from anywhere – or everywhere. She could be anything he wanted her to be.
But then Mordechai comes to Esther with a heart-stopping request. He tells her that, for the good of her nation, she has to go to the king and tell him that she is a Jew, she has to beg him for her people's lives.
Esther goes to Achashverosh. He tells her she can ask for whatever she wants, even half the kingdom. But Esther hesitates. Why did she avoid seizing the moment? - Let's come back to that question now!
Well, the answer is now evident. Mordechai's request has actually put her in a virtually impossible situation. Knowing what she knows about how the king views her, about how she assisted in cultivating that image, about what happened to Vashti – what's she going to do, tell him that it was all a farce? That yes, she believes in your empire – long live the king, and all that – but look, I have higher priorities. My people (yes, I do have a people) are in danger; would the king please help me out and save them?
If Esther turns around and reveals an intense affiliation with the Jews, her people, she is likely to have her head handed to her. "What, it's not true, Esther? Your loyalty lies with your own provincial sect all along? Whose queen are you, Esther – ours, or theirs?"
Mordechai made clear to her that silence is not an option. But what can she possibly do?
Join me as we keep digging a little bit more to uncover Esther's strategy and try to answer our initial questions, we're going to try to make sense of all those strange behaviors on the part of all these protag, Esther, the king and Haman, and we'll try to find out why Esther was so much more than the queen you thought you knew.
Inside the King’s HeadSo here's where we left off. Mordechai, again, makes clear to Esther that silence is not an option. She's going to act. But what can she possibly do? Esther doesn't remain silent. But she doesn't ask the king to save her people, either. Instead, she chooses a third option. She invites the king to a party. But not just him. She invites Haman, too.
"If it's good for the king, let the king and Haman come today to a party that I have made for him…"… (Esther 5:4)
Him, who? What does she even mean by that? There are only two possibilities, really – and if you were Achashverosh, really neither of those possibilities is especially appealing.
Possibility #1 is that Esther is making the banquet for Achashverosh, that's the him that's she's talking about. But if that's the case, what's she doing, inviting Haman to interrupt a private dinner for two?
The other, of course, is that the him is Haman. But that's possibility is even worse, because, why is she making a party for him?
Things only get worse once the banquet actually takes place, because at the feast, the king again asks Esther to tell him what's on her mind. Up to half the kingdom, he says, one more time, and he's happy to give it to her.
What's Esther's response?
"My request, my petition? Here's what it is. If I have found favor in the eyes of the king, if it please the king to grant my petition, to perform my request – let the king and Haman come to [another] banquet that I''ll make for them, and I will do tomorrow as the king has said." (Esther 5:7-8)
So, whoever the banquet was for the first time, now it's for them, the king and Haman. What, exactly, does Esther think she's doing here?
Okay, so Rashi, grandfather of the medieval commentators, he suggests that Esther is insinuating that something might be going on between her and Haman, but that is planting the seed of an exceptionally dangerous idea in the mind of the king. Why is she being so risky? I mean, it has to be because she thinks that she really has no other choice…
Okay, but back to the king. What's going on in his head? Who is this banquet for? It's for one of us, me or Haman. Either possibility is bad – but what's even worse is not knowing which it is, it's so ambiguous. And as if that weren't enough, whatever the reality was yesterday, has changed today because in the next banquet it's for them, it's for both of us. And then, of course, the final uncertainty: Why am I letting my imagination get the best of me? Why am I making such a big deal over nothing?
It's no wonder the king can't sleep that night.
As it turns out, the king is not the only one who can't sleep that night. Haman had been unable to sleep too. He's been preoccupied with killing Mordechai, so preoccupied that he shows up at the king's palace in the middle of the night to ask permission to hang Mordechai. But if Haman is preoccupied with Mordechai, the king is preoccupied with Haman. Why is the queen inviting Haman to all these banquets with me?
As the king lies awake, he asks for the Book of Royal Records to be read to him. And lo and behold, the book opens to a page that reveals a surprise.
Long ago, Mordechai had overheard two palace servants plotting to assassinate Achashverosh. Mordechai foiled the plot. Now, as the king lies awake, he listens as Mordechai's deeds are retold to him – and asks whether Mordechai was ever rewarded for having saved his life. The servant replies in the negative, and just then, the king perceives that someone is out there, in the dead of night, in the outer courtyard of the palace. He asks who it is, and is informed that it is Haman. Achashverosh asks for Haman to be brought in – and before Haman can say a word about Mordechai, the king preempts him with a request of his own.
"What," the king wants to know, "should be done with a man that the king wants to honor?"
If the query catches Haman off guard, he doesn't show it:
Haman said in his heart: "To whom would the king want to bestow greatness and honor more than me?" So Haman said to the king: "The man the king wants to honor? Let them bring royal clothes that the king has worn and a horse that the king has ridden upon and whose head the royal crown has been placed. And let the clothes and the horse be presented [to him] by one of the king's high ministers, and let them dress the man the king wants to honor in the clothes, and let them parade him through the streets on the horse, and let them call before him: 'Thus shall be done to the man that the king wishes to honor!'" (Esther 6:7-9)
If you were in the king's shoes, what would you think of that response by Haman? Look at those words carefully, count how many times the word "king" or "royal" appears in his statements. It's all "king"; "king"; "king." If you're Achashverosh, and you already couldn't sleep that night because you were worried about the possibility that Haman was after your wife – and then Haman walks into your room and gave you this advice, what would you be thinking?
Not only does he want my wife… he wants my job, too. He wants the crown.
So it's no surprise that the king responds as he does:
"Quickly – take the horse and the clothes as you've just said, and do this all for Mordechai the Jew who sits in the court of the king. Don't withhold any of the things you've spoken about!" (Esther 6:10)
And that's what happens. Haman leads Mordechai through the streets on the horse, personally conducting a parade of honor for his mortal enemy.The king wants Haman in particular to be the guy who leads around this man-whom-the-king-wants-to-honor. From Achashverosh's perspective, it's not such a terrible thing for Haman's balloon to get deflated a little bit.
By the time Esther's second banquet rolls around, Haman, all but invincible just a day before, is now vulnerable. The man who was formerly Achashverosh's closest advisor has, through his own words and Esther's actions, come under the suspicion of the king. As the table is set and the wine poured for her second banquet, it is up to Esther to seize the moment, without getting herself killed in the process.
Let's shift to Esther's perspective. She is beset by two major challenges and she really has to find a way to deal with each. First, there's her "Mother Persia" liability: should she reveal her nationality, the "girl from nowhere" risks being seen as a charlatan by the king, or even worse, a traitor. Second, above and beyond that, she has planted the suspicion of adultery. If the first liability would make her a traitor on the national stage, the second would make her a traitor on the private stage. To some extent, Esther is battling these two liabilities as much – or more – than she is battling Haman himself.
But as overwhelming as these liabilities might seem, Esther is not doomed to succumb to them. Indeed, to draw an analogy from martial arts, a weak combatant is not always destined to lose the fight. With the right technique, he or she can still win. Using finely honed techniques, weaker fighters can indeed defeat opponents who possess much more brute force than they do. Virtually all martial arts systems advocate some variation of the same basic strategy, which is basically this: Don't pit your strength against the strength of your opponent. Instead, find a way to use your opponent's own strength to bring about their downfall.
Watch the way a student of karate defends himself against an attacker. If a punch is thrown his way, he doesn't thrust his palm forward to meet his opponent's fist head-on. If he did that, he'd directly confront his opponent's power, and if he were the weaker one, he'd lose. Instead, he moves his arm at an angle, slightly diverting, rather than stopping, the force of the blow. And, as the opponent's strikes nothing but air, he staggers forward and is actually thrown off-balance. The next move of the weaker guy over here is just to push the opponent lightly on the side, sort of gently diverting his force just a bit more so that little nudge is enough to knock him off his feet.
If Esther is to avoid getting squashed by the liabilities she faces, somehow, she's gotta just get out of the way, and gently divert the force of the substantial power arrayed against her. In other words, she must take the king's fear that she is involved in an illicit relationship, and the king's anticipated anger at the discovery that she is not the "Mother Persia" he hoped her to be – and divert these very forces so that they work in her favor, not against her. How is she supposed to do that? That's what we need to examine next.
Esther’s Advantageous LiabilitiesOkay, let's watch the second banquet unfold. Esther, the king, and Haman are seated. Achashverosh, as he did a day before, asks Esther to make her request – this time, Esther tells him what's really on her mind.
"If I have found favor in your eyes, oh king, and if it's good in your eyes – then give me my life as my request, and [the life of] my people as my petition. Because me and my people have been sold – to be destroyed, killed, annihilated…" (Esther 7:3-4)
The king listens to this, and he's shocked, he demands to know who it is that would dare do such a thing, to which Esther replies:
"A man who's a treacherous enemy: Haman, this evil one, that's who it is." (Esther 7:6)
So there it is: Esther finally reveals that her people, the Jews, are endangered, and she brings to light the identity of the aggressor, Haman. But go back and examine more carefully what she said. How did Esther deal with her two liabilities?
A first clue comes from the fact that Esther has not simply asked the king to spare her nation. She has asked him to spare her own life, too. Not only that, she mentions her own life first:
"…give me my life as my request, she said, and only after that, [the life of] my people…" (Esther 7:3)
You see, the news that someone is out to get his queen, that Esther's own life is threatened, makes everything she says after this pale into comparative insignificance. It's like the king doesn't even hear anything else. Only one question matters to him: "Who is this, that's trying to do this to you?"
And of course, Esther is only too happy to share the answer:
"Haman, seated right next to you."
The announcement of her national affiliation, which in any other circumstance would be headline news in and of itself, has been virtually drowned out by an even bigger headline: someone's out to kill the queen. And, of course, for Achashverosh, it's even more personal than that: someone is out to get my wife.
As a first step in softening the threat to her Mother Persia image, Esther has distracted Achashverosh from thinking about her possibly divided national loyalties by giving him something even more compelling to think about. The woman he loves is asking him to rescue her. He has the chance to play the knight in shining armor. What kind of man wouldn't rise to the occasion?
Lost in the drama of the moment, of course, is an inconvenient little fact: Esther's claim that her life is threatened is not exactly true. He didn't even know she was a Jew. No one knew she was a Jew, the king included, until just now, when Esther volunteered that information. So yes, now that she has, of her own accord, divulged her religion and national identity, it emerges that, technically, she is threatened by Haman's blanket decree of genocide. But the threat to her own life is really something that's of her own making. I mean, she could have just kept quiet, right? And, even now that she has divulged her identity, is she really threatened? The king could easily just issue her a pass. Esther's claim that she is imperiled, once you stop to think about it, is really pretty dubious.
Esther, of course, hopes the king won't stop to think about it. She wants him to act quickly and passionately, getting rid of the decree that's causing all the trouble. Esther's words beckon Achashverosh towards the hasty conclusion that she wants him to draw: If I am threatened by a man who would destroy me because of my national affiliation, why not just annul the decree that threatens me, and kill the man who thought it all up? Then you'll have saved my life, you're my knight in shining armor! The logic works perfectly! As long as you don't think about it too much.
By cloaking her revelation as a Jew inside the more arresting news that someone is trying to kill her, Esther takes a first step towards insulating herself from whatever fallout her revelation of religious and national identity might create. But Esther goes beyond that, too. It's not just that Esther is distracting the king from her disclosure of a particular provincial affiliation with other, more compelling news. In true martial arts fashion, she is actually turning that disclosure of provincial affiliation into her friend, rather than her enemy.
How's she doing that?
Well, let's revisit Esther's "Mother Persia" liability. Esther knows that the king is looking at her, as he did Vashti before her, as the feminine symbol of his new empire. She has presented herself as the girl from nowhere, willing and able to assume this role. And, therefore, she also knows that if she betrays this vision of herself, she risks destroying herself, along with the Jews.
Okay, so now look carefully at Esther's words. Even as she implicitly reveals herself as a Jew, has she shown herself disloyal to the grand vision expected of "Mother Persia"? The answer, astoundingly, is no.
You see, ingeniously, by casting Haman's decree as an edict that above all threatens her own life, Esther's made Haman into the villain – Haman, not Esther, is the one who is stuck in a tribal mindset, who won't accept the king's enlightened new way of looking at the woman he made his queen, the new Mother Persia. Esther is continuing to be exactly who the king wants her to be: she and the king share the dream of a Pan-Persian Empire transcending petty national allegiances. There's only one person in the room, who doesn't see the world in the enlightened way we do – and that's Haman. Haman's trying to kill me, along with all other Jews, because of nothing more than our ethnic identity. He can't look past my provincial roots to see me for what I really am, the queen I am, the queen you, my dear, want me to be: Mother Persia. You see what she's doing here, Esther has deftly moved out of the way; Mother Persia is no longer Esther's liability. It's actually an asset.
So how does Esther respond to her other liability – the king's suspicion that she may be involved in a dalliance with Haman?
At first glance, she seems to confront and refute this suspicion head-on. She identifies Haman as her enemy, who will destroy her and her people. It's pretty clear she has no warm feelings for him. So she just flat-out refutes the king's suspicions about her and Haman, right? But that wouldn't be really very martial arts-like. A closer inspection will reveal that she's actually doing something else. In true martial-arts style, Esther is not so much refuting the king's fear as diverting it. She is making it work for her, not against her.
How? Well, let's revisit the scene at the second banquet, looking at it from the king's perspective. If Achashverosh was in fact suspicious that Haman was romantically pursuing his queen, - how would he have formulated that suspicion to himself? What words would he say to think about that?
He would have looked at Haman as someone who was, potentially, trying to take his wife away from him.
Now, if that's what the king was saying to himself, it emerges that Esther is confirming the king's worst fears, because what if she really saying?
"You were worried Haman is trying to deprive you of your queen? Well, that's exactly what he's trying to do, you're absolutely right. Just...not through romance; instead, he's going to do it by killing me – but let's not get distracted by the fine points over here. One way or the other, He's going to try and take me away from you…"
See what's happening? Esther has taken the king's suspicion of adultery and gently diverted it. All the energy and sublimated rage the king had felt over the possibility that Haman was seducing her, is now redirected, it's free to express itself as fury over the discovery that Haman was trying to kill her. Once again, an overpowering force was headed in Esther's direction, and she managed to give it a little nudge and step out of the way – leaving Haman directly in the path of the oncoming train.
When Esther identifies Haman as the evil architect of the decree that would kill her, the king bolts to his feet, abruptly walks out of the banquet and goes for a stroll in the garden to think things over.
Until this point, the king has consistently dispatched every decision that has come his way with a minimum of thought and deliberation. Esther had been counting on that, she wanted him to respond impetuously. She wants him to kill Haman immediately and just annul his decree in one fell swoop, all in the service of saving his imperiled queen. But now, just this once, the king actually decides to think things over before acting. It's like the worst possible luck.
Besides that, the king's abrupt decision to exit the banquet leaves Esther vulnerable in another way. Haman will now have a precious few minutes to think of how he can explain this all to the king– and if he uses those minutes well, then even at this late hour, victory could yet be his. At this delicate moment, let's you and I step aside to contemplate the nightmare scenario that may yet unfold at the banquet table, while an absent king paces in the garden, mulling over the implications of Esther's desperate plea. Join me as we explore that scenario.
The Real AccusationWhat did Haman say to Esther during those minutes the king was away in the garden? The Megillah doesn't tell us, so we will never know. But when we step back to contemplate what Haman could have said, we may find ourselves surprised by the power of the arguments at his disposal. He could well have made those few minutes exceedingly uncomfortable for Esther.To fully appreciate the power, even now, of Haman's position, we must go back and revisit a question we raised earlier. When Haman initially went to Achashverosh for license to exterminate the Jews, he chose to lodge three apparently disconnected complaints against them:
The Jews are dispersed
Their laws are different from others
The Jews don't keep the king's laws
Now, we argued that the first two complaints seemed kind of irrelevant: What does the king care whether the Jews are scattered, and what does he care whether or not they cling to a set of quaint, provincial customs?
In truth, Haman's third charge, if true, would seem to demand a response on the part of the empire. If the Jews are really flaunting the king's laws, the crown can't rationally tolerate the situation; the Jews simply must be destroyed, or at least subdued. But for some reason, Haman takes a much milder position on the imperative of doing away with the Jews. He tells Achashverosh that it's not worth it for the king to let them be, that's the language of the verse. Now, why would Haman pull his rhetorical punch like this? If he wants to do away with the Jews, and is making the claim that they are lawbreakers, then shouldn't he follow through by arguing that the king cannot afford to let them be?
The answer to all of that is that we've actually kind of misunderstood Haman. He wasn't really making three separate complaints against the Jews. He was making a single, unified complaint – a complaint that had three parts and was actually built on three interlocking premises. Indeed, if you add up the three premises, the conclusion – that it's just not worth it for the king to let the Jews be – becomes self-evident.
What, exactly, was that larger argument? Let's piece the premises together and watch it unfold.
Haman starts his case this way:
"There is a certain nation that is scattered and dispersed throughout the other nations…" (Esther 3:8)
Notice how the word "nation" there appears at both the beginning and the end of that sentence: a certain nation that's scattered throughout the other nations. What's the implication? Nations, by definition, have boundaries; this one's here, and that one's there. They are separate from one another geographically. But not this nation – this one is scattered all over the place.
"And their laws are distinct from other nations…" (Ibid.)
When you stop to think about it, what makes any nation, a "nation"? What are the bare bones requirements for nationhood? Seemingly, it's land and a system of governance. Everything else – distinct language, a sophisticated culture, accents, tourist attractions – all that's nice, but it's gravy. The essentials are land and laws.
Okay, so what about the Jews? It turns out that the Jews are different from all the other hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the king's empire. They may have laws. But they don't have any land. At least, they don't anymore.
Haman is referring obliquely to a very recent development. Just a couple of generations before Haman emerged on the scene, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and sent its tribes into exile. The Southern Kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, managed to persist a little while longer. But then they, too, fell to outside conquest. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded, conquered Jerusalem, burnt the Temple to the ground, exiled the inhabitants. For all intents and purposes, Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel had come to an end.
It seemed as though Jewish nationhood was over... Except, somebody forgot to tell the Jews.
And that's Haman's complaint.
Somehow, even though they're scattered, these guys have the audacity to maintain laws of their own. They are acting as if they are still a self-respecting people among the family of nations. Don't they get it? Give it up already; assimilate, disappear into your host culture – like anyone else who's been conquered and dispersed!
They are a paradox, these Jews, a living oxymoron – a nation scattered among other nations.
And plus, they don't even keep the king's laws. All the other nations in the empire, they might have their own laws – but they also have allegiance to the crown, and they keep the king's laws, too. But not the Jews, or, at least, not Mordechai. The king says you've got to bow whenever I come out in my motorcade –- well, you've got to bow. But these landless Jews, they just don't bow. It's really the not bowing to Haman that's the great example of the Jews not keeping the king's laws. So these Jews, they're are living here in Persia, under our good graces – but seem to exist in their own, deluded reality as a separate nation. You know, it's just not worth it for the king to keep them around…
That's the argument Haman made to Achashverosh, when he first asked for them to be exterminated, these Jews. And now, months later, at Esther's banquet – while the king paces in the garden, everything once again rides on that argument, and on whether Haman can yet breathe life back into it.
Haman is in a difficult spot, but not an impossible one. If he can once again portray the Jews as a deluded band of refugees, he can still turn the tables. And of course, he can make a little exception for Esther. What if he said this:
"Look, King, Esther is our queen; she's not like the rest of those lawbreakers, the Jews. This was all a misunderstanding! No one was trying to hurt your queen. And look, as for her former compatriots, the Jews – well, what has to happen to them is certainly unfortunate, but sometimes the good of the empire demands some painful sacrifices. Surely Esther, our queen, knows that better than anyone."
The truth is that Haman could have buttressed his case by actually talking to Esther before the king ever returned. What if he had said this to Esther while the king was out of the room - Esther, whatever you do, please don't cast your lot in with those miserable refugees and their pitiful national aspirations. I'm saying this for your sake, Esther. After all, you are Mother Persia. You don't want the king to start thinking, whose queen is she – ours, or theirs?"
You know, if you were Esther, just how uncomfortable would you feel now?
Let's pick up the trail of the actual story the Megillah tells. The king arrives back in the banquet hall, and at that moment something happens that dramatically turns the tide.
The king returned from the garden to the banquet hall, and Haman had fallen on the couch upon which Esther was [seated]. The king declared: "Would you even conquer the queen while I am yet in the house!" The words [just] came out of the king's mouth, and they covered Haman's face. (Esther 7:8)
The king boldly and suddenly accuses Haman of trying to seduce his wife while he is still in the house. If you think about those words, they seem utterly preposterous. After everything Esther has told him, does he really think Haman is trying to seduce her? Hasn't Esther made it abundantly clear that Haman is her mortal enemy, that she despises him, wants him dead, and the feeling is probably mutual?
The text of the Megillah nudges us in the direction of an answer. Right after the king's startling words about seducing the queen, the narrator adds the phrase: …the words [just] slipped out of the king's mouth… What does this phrase add, the words just slipped out? It means he spoke without thinking. When you speak without thinking, your subconscious mind, your imaginings, start doing the talking.
For an entire day, the king had wondered whether Haman was romantically involved with his wife, but at the banquet, Esther had suddenly suggested that he wants to kill her. But, as we noted above, in the larger picture, she didn't really contradict the king's fears; she actually affirmed the general direction of the king's suspicion: He's trying to take me away from you. Now that the king sees Haman on the couch, his suspicion reignites – and as absurd as it may seem, he accuses Haman of seducing his wife. In the end, for the king, it's really all the same: He's trying to take her away from me.
And when the king declares that Haman is trying to seduce her while he's still in the house, the verb he uses, listen to it, is lichvosh, that's typically a military term that literally means "to conquer." The euphemism Achashverosh chooses for his fantastical supposition of marital infidelity is borrowed from the very real threat that Haman actually does pose – the threat that he might kill and conquer both the queen and her people. It all makes perfect sense – if not to the rational mind, then to the irrational one.To the rational mind, once Esther reveals that Haman is trying to kill her, Haman on the couch with her means nothing. But to the irrational mind, when the words just slip right out – then, Haman on the couch means everything. I was right all along. He really does want to take her away from me.
That's enough for Achashverosh, and with a wave of his hand, the king declares that Haman should be taken away – hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordechai. It is undoubtedly a moment for Esther. Her nemesis, and the mortal enemy of the Jews, is undone. Once Haman's dead, the king puts the finishing touches on the celebrations by bestowing gifts upon her and Mordechai. Everybody's smiling, and all looks wonderful. One would expect that in a few verses, the Megillah would draw to a close.
Unfortunately, it doesn't. Haman's dead, but his decree is still on the books. So there's a last act to the megillah, an act that I address in the book The Queen You Thought You Knew. I suggest you look at it and how the end of the megillah plays out, how Esther, having killed her nemesis Haman, manages to somehow work against time to somehow work against the decree. In the meantime, though, I want to talk about what we've seen thus far.
Megillat Esther: When God And Humans PartnerSo what are we to make of all of this? Does any of it maybe seem a tad bit heretical?
One of the things many of us learn as kids is that Purim is the holiday where God works behind the scenes. The name of God is never mentioned, but He's still there, He's hidden in the Megillah – He's pulling the levers of history.
But we might ask: If the theory we've just advanced is true, does it stand in opposition to that view? We have seen Esther act with a great deal of strategy. She's clever, she plays her hand with utmost skill. If that's the case, we might wonder, where is God? Have we just written God out of the Megillah?
The answer to that question, I think, depends on how we see the interaction of humans with Divine Providence. I can't pretend to know the secrets of exactly how God's Hand works in concert with our actions, but I can say this: I don't believe it is a zero sum game.
What's a zero sum game? Well, look at competitive sports. When we play basketball, and I am winning, you, by definition, are losing. If the interaction between human free will and divine providence is a competition like basketball, then the extent to which we perceive a human as acting cleverly, working to promote his or her own self-interests – that would seem to diminish, in at least a small way, the role God plays in the world. It's a zero sum game. To the extent that God is running things, I am passive. To the extent that I am working – I am forcing God, so to speak, to take a step back.
But is that the way it really works? I don't think so.
If you asked Esther and Mordechai to weigh in on the extent to which God was involved in their story, what would they say? Did they – these great strategists – think it was all about them?
It seems not. Esther, before she goes to see the king, fasts for three days. She asks the entire Jewish community to fast with her. Why? I mean, didn't that work against her strategy? Here you are, Queen of Persia, about to approach the king in his private chambers. And unless the king raises his scepter, it's all over, you'll be killed! Now, shouldn't she be working on making sure she looks the best she can? Remember, Esther was picked in a beauty content! I don't know about you, but I look pretty bad even when I've only fasted for one day! What is Esther's plan here??
But Esther fasts… She fasts because she knows something. She knows that she can strategize all she wants, but it ain't just about her strategy. If this thing is going to work, she's going to need a partner - God is going to have to be her partner.
And, in fact, He is. Esther goes to the king, invites him to parties, plays her cards, spins the possibility of a love triangle with Haman. She plays it all beautifully. But did her strategy create a forgone conclusion of victory? Hardly.
What if Haman never showed up that particular night the king had insomnia? What if the steward hadn't opened the record book to the page that recorded Mordechai foiling the assassination attempt? What if all that didn't happen? Esther can strategize all she wants. Unless she has a partner, she hasn't saved her people at all. It's just an elegant failure. Everyone dies.
But what if the interaction between human free will and divine action isn't a zero sum game, a competition? What if it's a collaboration?
Some of the greatest things in life are creative collaborations. Think back to the peak experiences in your life? What were they? For me, some of my earliest, fondest memories come from backpacking in the woods with my father. We would climb mountains in a day, and thrill at our accomplishments. But it wouldn't have been a peak experience if I had been alone. It was a thrill because I accomplished this all with him.
My daughter came home last night all charged up. She had just come back from something called a hackathon. She collaborated with a group of friends, spending twenty four hours building something new and exciting. There had once been a missing person in our neighborhood. My daughter had volunteered to help search, but she and her friends were turned away because the organizers couldn't figure out how to use them. So she and those friends developed a software program, an overlay on Google Maps, that would allow rescuers to quickly and easily organize huge search parties, so that volunteers could really be put to work to help save lives. They did this together, working all night long.
She came home from the hackathon beaming. She told me, "Abba, you have no idea how thrilling it is to do what we did. We had an idea and we actually created it, all of us, together, in real life. We made something out of nothing!"
That's it. The thrill of creativity, merged with sharing.
God is the ultimate Creator. It's what we know about Him from the very beginning of Genesis. But He finishes off creation by creating someone just like Him. He makes humankind betzelem elokim – in the image of the Creator. He gifted the sacred ability to create...to us.
So now there's two Creators in the world, Big Creator and little creator.
And what is the greatest joy that could possibly come to Big Creator? To have little creator join with Him in a creative project. That project is human history.
God asks us to bring all of our creativity to bear, to grab life by the throat and invest every last ounce of effort into making our world the best it can possibly be. God asks us to see problems and try to solve them. To see tyrants and try to stop them. To see cancer and try and cure it. If we pour every last ounce of energy and creativity into these endeavors, then perhaps we have the standing to turn and ask God: We have done what we can do, could you please be our partner?
When we do that, we are emulating Esther's fast. We have the humility and brains to recognize that our actions, skill, smarts and drive do not minimize the Creator's influence in the world – rather, they create the opportunity for a true partnership with the Creator. Why should God bother if we don't bother? Why would God invest, if we don't invest? Ah, but if we do…. then we, with some self-respect, can turn to the Creator and say, in effect: "God, do you really want to miss out here? There's a great creative endeavor going on, it's our lives! We can't do it alone. We don't want to do it alone. Come join us."
In a way, Purim gives us a way to heighten the thrill of our own creativity. Mordechai and Esther could have revelled in their own brilliance. But they did not. They recognized a Divine partner, another Creator, in their drama. They realized something profound: that recognizing this partner, it doesn't diminish their own contribution, because it wasn't a zero sum game. On the contrary, their recognition of acting in partnership with the Divine, that made it taste all the sweeter. Creativity is always more meaningful when it's shared. And there's no more special privilege than to share it with God.
It is no wonder that Purim is a holiday of raucous joy. On Purim, we celebrate the ways in which Mordechai and Esther collaborated with God, and, by extension, we open our eyes to the existence of this kind of collaboration in our own daily lives. There can't be anything more joyous, more thrilling, than that.
Happy Purim to you.