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The Hidden Story of Queen Esther
Video 4 of 6
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 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 to 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 King 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 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 Jews, 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 Yehudah on it right? You are from the Kingdom of Yehudah, 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 is 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 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 interest of Benjamin on the one hand and the Judahites on the other hand converge, right, as long as those interest converge so everything is great.” But what if those interest 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 about you among all of these yehudim that you’re going to survive and huddle together with your close friends and family these Benjamine 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 interest” 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 lead 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. Every thing she says is patterned with the bitter memories of what Judah said right over here. Listens to what he said one more time vayomer Yehudah 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 its much better to sell him isn’t it than to kill him.” But where do we hear an argument that reminds us of this?
Yehudah make a profit-loss calculation with his brothers. He said “we can’t let our brother die but we could sell his 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 said 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”, which you almost can’t help her for 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 others 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 labour 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. We come back, want to take a look at that last chance of Esther and the echo that we hear there.
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