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Megillat Esther: Letting Text Tell the Story
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Is it Esther? Well the book is named after her, she's certainly a fantastic hero and you've got to love her. But it's not Esther, after all she has no power at all, even as queen. When the moment of truth comes and Mordechai says, this is it, Esther, I finally understand years later why you have been chosen to be queen, it's time to go into your husband, tell him we're in trouble, you can save us Esther. Esther is like, um, um, um, my husband might kill me. It's been 30 days since he's last summoned me. Esther has no power at all, she's unable to do anything, Mordechai has to almost threaten her before she goes into the room.
Okay so maybe it's Mordechai then, maybe he's the main character? But it's really not Mordechai at all. Just as Haman rises and falls at the whim of the king, so too the same might happen to Mordechai. Yes, at the end of the Megillah, Mordechai is doing very nicely, but the only thing that really gives him any clout at all is that he has the king's ring and authority with him. If somebody else were to come to Achashveirosh tomorrow in some chapter 11, that does not exist in the Megillah and bribe him again, perhaps Mordechai would suddenly decline? There's no reason to believe that Mordechai is calling all the shots at all, even though, like Esther, he is an incredibly important character.
How about Haman? He's certainly an important player in our Megillah, but the truth of the matter is, at the end of Chapter 7, Haman is hanged, right? He's dead. Somebody should be happy about this, he wanted to exterminate the Jews, and yet the only mood that seems to change at all - or the only one that's reported in the Megillah - is that now the king is feeling a little less stressed. Good for the king. He's calmed down, but in the meantime why aren't the Jews dancing in the streets? Where's that happiness and joy? The answer is, the happiness and joy happens after Mordechai gets the ring in Chapter 8 from the king, it has nothing at all to do with Haman's death.
That brings us to the main character of Megillat Esther. Some of this is going to follow a fantastic article that I read by Rabbi David Henshke, he published it for the first time in 1995, in a journal called Megadim. He makes a very strong case that by far the most important character is Achashveirosh. So important that everybody else plays on Achashveirosh's stage. They're minor characters next to the king.
After all, why is Chapter 1 there? Chapter 1 is all about this lavish party that he throws to show off all of his wealth - all the governors come and then he throws another one for Shushan. But why do we need to hear all about that? In terms of the plot of Mordechai and Esther versus Haman, the only thing that matters from the party in Chapter 1 is that Vashti is deposed, and that creates a job vacancy for Esther. But why all this elaborate description?
The bigger question is Chapter 10. Chapter 9 is all about the Jews win the battle, they fight, they get a second day to battle against Shushan, now they enact a holiday, and we [codify 3:18] it for all time and here are the Mitzvot and the Jews live happily ever after. Shouldn't there be a, The End? Instead, we get this Chapter 10 which is shockingly anti-climactic. King Achashveirosh imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands. All of his mighty and powerful acts, and a full account of the greatness to which the king advanced Mordechai are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Media and Persia. Are you kidding me? This is what we hear about after the happily ever after? That the king taxed the people? Good for him. That he's powerful, good for him. Why mention that at all? Just finish up the story with where we're at.
No, there's a reason why we have to hear about the king's power and glory in Chapter 1, and why the Megillah needs to end with the king's power and glory. That's because Achashveirosh and his power and glory, they're the story. Everything else is played out on his stage. Vashti, with all of her power, she was deposed in a second, she disobeyed the king, out she goes. Esther was terrified to even talk to her husband as we discussed in Chapter 4 until Mordechai pressured her. After Haman is killed the Jews don't care because the king's decree is still there, they only are happy when Mordechai gets the ring. This explains why the Megillah begins and ends with the king's power.
But then it goes even further than that, we're now going to take it to a deeper level. Hamelech or other forms of Malchut - the king, appears in Megillat Esther some 200 times. Now that's a big number to begin with, but it's even bigger when I tell you that the entire Megillah is only 167 verses long. That means that Hamelech or other forms of king appears more than one time per verse on average. Contrast that with how many times G-d's name appears; namely zero. What's going on here?
One Medrash picks this up, is that Achashveirosh is occupying the role that belongs to G-d in every other book in Tanach. Esther Rabbah 3:10 captures this very poignantly. Rav Yudan and Rav Levi in the name of Rav Yochanan said, wherever in this book we find the expression to the King Achashveirosh, the text speaks of the actual King Achashveirosh. Whenever we find just, to the king, it may be either sacred or profane. What the Medrash is saying is that G-d and Achashveirosh are counterparts who are opposites in this Megillah. The whole time we're thinking about Mordechai and Esther versus Haman, and the Jews versus their enemies, and of course that matters. But at a much deeper level, what's going on here is that Achashveirosh and G-d are having a cosmic battle, and Achashveirosh's power and glory are usurping the role that belongs to G-d.
Let me illustrate this by an even more dramatic point. Picture this. All the Jews are fasting, as is their leader and this leader enters a throne room at risk of death to plead on behalf the Jewish people. Okay, so what am I describing? The answer of course is Yom Kippur, where all the Jews are fasting and the High Priest is fasting too, and the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies in the Temple - for just a brief moment, that's G-d's throne room - to plead on the Jews' behalf. But what am I also describing of course? I'm describing all the Jews fasting along with Esther, and Esther goes into Achashveirosh's throne room at the pain of death, terrified, until the king lowers his scepter. Not only has Achashveirosh eclipsed G-d's role in the Megillah, but his palace eclipses the Beit Hamikdash's role, the Temple's role.
If we look at Yeshayahu - Isaiah's vision of what should be happening in the Messianic era, he describes how in the days to come the mount of the L-rd's House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills. All the nations shall gaze on it with joy. Many people shall go and say, come, let us go up to the mount of the L-rd, to the House of the G-d of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His Ways, that we may walk in His Paths. For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the Word of the L-rd from Jerusalem. That is a beautiful vision, that's what we want. We want all the nations of the world to come flooding to Yerushalayim, to Jerusalem, to celebrate G-d's glory and the Temple, which is G-d's Palace, and to adopt the religious moral code that it reflects - what you and I call the Sheva Mitzvot Benei Noach - the seven Noachide laws. Glorifying G-d and living an ethical lifestyle.
Instead, what's going on in our Megillah, why is Chapter 1 so important? Because all the nations of the world are flooding to Achashveirosh's palace to celebrate his glory and to get drunk and to celebrate the fact that it's just about power and glory and egotism and there's no morality there at all.
So far we've seen how Achashveirosh has absolute power in this Megillah, and how he and his palace have replaced the role that should be belonging to G-d and the Temple.
But there's one last point that I want to focus on in this segment, and that is, that Megillat Esther also mocks Achashveirosh. He's a loser. He promotes Haman for no reason at all in the text, and that's right after Mordechai saves his life and Mordechai is not rewarded in the least. The king is incredibly whimsical; he does things because he wants to, not because of any value system at all. How about this? He sells a nation to destruction and then has a drink over it with Haman, and later on when Esther pleads on the Jews' behalf and Achashveirosh says, what terrible scoundrel has done this to you? Well Esther says it's Haman and of course Haman is immediately hanged.
Now the Talmud sees right through that. In Megillah 16:A; And Esther said, the adversary and enemy is this evil Haman. Rabbi Elazar said, this informs us that she was pointing to Achashveirosh and an angel came and pushed her hand so as to point to Haman. She wanted to say, Achashveirosh, you know why we're suffering and why we're about to get annihilated? Because of you. You gave Haman the ring because of a bribe, you drank to that, you're awful. Of course if she would have said that, that would have been the end of Esther, and so she pointed to Haman to take the fall.
But Achashveirosh has no repercussions whatsoever, he has no moral backbone, he has no value system, he does what serves himself only. At the beginning of the Megillah that means selling the Jews to destruction because he can make a lot of money. At the end he saves the Jews not because he suddenly has become moral, but because he wants to help Esther his wife. Besides his amorality, Achashveirosh is incredibly weak and vulnerable. Vashti does not listen to him, he's constantly being manipulated by his advisors, he can't even write a decree to counteract his own decree - that's ridiculous. Bigtan and Teresh almost assassinate Achashveirosh; he's incredibly weak, amoral, he represents everything that's bad about absolute power. At the same time, he eclipses G-d's presence.
So now that we have discussed Achashveirosh's pivotal role in Megillah Esther, we now need to ask, well what does the Megillah want to teach us with all of this? That's what we will turn to in our final segment.
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