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Purim: Redeeming the Sin of Eden
Video 5 of 7
Can Esther in imparting this forbidden knowledge to the king - in other words, in this case, her identity - can she string together the words; Tov - good and Rah - evil, such that she actually tells the king something about the nature of Tov and Rah itself, what good and evil actually looks like? In other words, can she talk to him, not just about what he wants to do, but about what he ought to do? Can she use these words Tov and Rah in a way that actually helps clarify rather than obscure the meaning of these words? If she can successfully do that, she can redeem the original tree of knowledge story, she can find a way to give her husband forbidden knowledge as it were, in a way that conveys accurate knowledge of good and evil. Rather than its counterfeit, the self-serving blindness of if I want it, it must be right.
Let's watch Esther try to do this.
The first thing she does is she invites the king to a banquet. Listen to her invitation. Im al hamelech tov - if it's good for the king, if it pleases the king. What kind of Tov is she talking about? Well obviously she's talking about desire. Im al hamelech tov - if you like this, if it's good for you. So what's happening is she's sort of using the word Tov, but she hasn't actually gotten to the point where she's actually imparting to the king any moral clarity. So far she's still just in the world of his desires.
So let's continue. After the king comes to the banquet she says, why don't you come back to another banquet? One more time she says; Im al hamelech tov - if it pleases the king. But still she's just talking about his desires, and notably she hasn't mentioned Rah yet, the other side of the equation. It's like the Megillah itself is going out of its way to tell you the task isn't complete, she hasn't really given the knowledge, she hasn't talked to him about her identity yet. She's only halfway there. There's the Tov, what about the Rah? What about the stuff he doesn't want to hear? You've got to keep on going.
She does keep on going. The next time she meets him. Let's listen in to what she says during her next and final banquet with the king. At that last banquet she begins as she did before; Im al hamelech tov - if it pleases the king. Tinaten li nafshi bishailati - give me my life as my request. V'ami bevakashati - and give me my people's lives too. She reveals who she is. She gives him the forbidden knowledge. In fact, if we go back to our little game, she now has both sides of the coin, because she doesn't just talk about the Tov, she talks about Rah too. The word even appears, the king says, who is this, who threatens you? She points to Haman and says; Haman harah hazeh - this evil man. She's now talked to him about both good and evil. Seemingly she's done her job. She's given him the knowledge, she's talked about Tov, she's talked about Rah. What else do you want from her? We can all go home.
Except if you read the Megillah carefully, we can't all go home. Even though the king hangs Haman, the decree against the Jews still stands. If the Megillah ends here, the Jews all die, which means the queen has to approach the king one last time. But now if you go back to the story, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you say to yourself, but I don't understand, hasn't she done everything? Look she's talked about Tov, she's talked about Rah, she's given the forbidden knowledge, so what more must she do? She hasn't yet really made a moral case before the king, everything so far has just been a function of his desire. She has to talk to him not just about his desires, but about what's right, and she hasn't yet done that.
Because think about everything that she's done, it really all just boils down to what the king wants to do. Remember her words that she repeats over and over again in each of these three audiences; Im al hamelech tov, Im al hamelech tov, Im al hamelech tov - she always says it. If it pleases the king, if it pleases the king, if it pleases the king. But if she never moves on from there, if it just stays with the king's desires, then it's really all about what he wants to do, that's not a moral argument. As a matter of fact, if I'm the king and I think it's just about what I want to do, so then I look at you Esther and say, well, if you're asking me to save you, if that's what I want to do, yeah, I love you, I'll save you. You ask me to save your people, nah, not so much, I don't really love them so much. If it's really Esther about what I want to do, you haven't taken me anywhere, this is what I want to do, this is what I don't want to do, all of your people will die, that's fine with me.
So at this moment Haman is dead, yes, but the decree against the Jews that still stands. If the Megillah ends here, all the Jews die, so Esther needs to go to the king. Esther needs to make one last appeal and it can't stop with what he wants to do, it has to end with what's right for him to do.
So a few days later she goes back to the king for one last, desperate plea. She begins with his desire, the same way she began before. Vatomer im al hamelech tov - and she says, if it pleases the king. But then she takes a gentle step forward. She makes one more introductory comment to the king, not just; Im al hamelech tov - if it's pleasing in your eyes. But; V'khasher hadavar lifnei hamelech - if the thing seems right, seems fitting before the king. Khasher is a much more objective word than Tov. It's a word that signifies the other meaning of Tov; good and right. It's interesting to note that this is actually the only time in all of the Hebrew Bible that the adjective Khasher is ever used. When in Leviticus we talk about Kosher food the word Kosher isn't actually used, it's phrased in terms of Tamei and Tahor - pure and impure. But the modern sense of us talking about something that is Kosher, the only source for that idea of Kosher as an adjective actually is right here in Tanach. It's what Esther tells the king right now; it's fitting.
So look what she says. If it pleases you and the thing is fitting - Kasher - the queen is beginning to take the king on a journey, a journey from his desires, from what he wants to do, to what he ought to do. Let's see how she continues that journey.
Well the next thing she does is she invokes the word Tov one more time. But here again she's taking a gentle, baby step with him. V'tova ani b'einav - and if I am good in your eyes, if you look upon me and see good, then I've an argument to make to you, king. Eichacha uchal v'ra'iti bera'ah asher yimtza et ami - how can you expect me to stand in this palace, safe and sound and watch the destruction of my countrymen, watch the evil that would befall my countrymen?
There it is, she's using Tov and Rah one more time, but this time in a way that actually begins to make a moral argument, she's leveraging his desire to talk about what's actually right and what's wrong. Her argument goes like this; if I am good in your eyes, if you really love me, then it would be an act of terrible evil to allow someone you love to witness the demise of all of her countrymen. It would be wrong to do that. But the truth is the moral overtones in her argument even go deeper than this. Because go back to those loaded words; Im tovah ani b'einav - if I am good in your eyes, and ask what those words really mean now? You see, in the past they might have meant if I please you - Tov just in terms of you desire me. But that was before he knew who she really was. Now he knows.
Think to yourself, what has she revealed to him? The greatest reason why he should hate her; she's from the vermin, of people that were supposed to be exterminated by his secretary of state. You know it's one thing to love her when she was an anonymous girl and when he could pretend that she was anyone. But once she reveals the truth, I'm from the lowest of the low, the dregs of society, and now look me in the eye king, do you still love me? If you look at me; V'tovah ani b'einav - and I am still good in your eyes. If you still care for me as indeed you must, because you killed Haman and you preserved me, then I'm going to extend this argument and use it to have you recognize not just my humanity but the humanity of my people. In effect, she's really taking him to the following place. If you've accepted my identity, if it is my humanity that you were willing to accept despite my being one of them, then whether you like it or not, you have to tolerate and accept them as basic human beings too. You have to keep them alive. Save my people.
It's at that moment that Esther finally redeems the story of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She has found a way to convey forbidden knowledge, dangerous knowledge, knowledge that by rights should kill her, to her husband, and has found a way to bring moral clarity to his vision.
I mentioned to you before that the story of the Megillah can be seen as a kind of battle between two ways of replaying the tree of knowledge story. We've taken some time now to understand the dynamics between Esther and Achashveirosh; how Esther seems to redeem the original tree of knowledge story. To complete our view of the magnificence of what she does, we need to go back one last time to the failed tree of knowledge replay, to the story of Zeresh and Haman. In the contrast between the failure and the success we will find something surprising, we will find the key to the power of love.
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