Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Perspectives on Purim

Rav Meir Goldwicht

An unauthorized, insufficiently edited transcript of this lecture: link

The main question that most of the mefarshim ask in the beginning of Megillat Esther is: Why is it necessary to teach us about all the tension between the king Achashverosh and Vashti? What exactly happened between them? Why doesn’t the Megillah start Esther walks into the picture, after Achashverosh kills his wife and begins looking for another wife? Why is first chapter of Megillat Esther important to us? Esther said about the entire Megillah, including this chapter – “kitvuni le-dorot – write me down for generations” (Megillah 7a). To answer this question, we will look between the lines of this chapter—what is written and also what is not written. And with this we will travel be-ezrat Hashem through all Megillat Esther and will see something amazing that, I believe, will give us a completely different understanding of Megillat Esther.

Click here to read moreThe Megillah tells us in the first paragraph: “On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Bizta, Charbona, Bigta, Avagta, Zeitar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Achashverosh, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command brought by his eunuchs; and the king became enraged, and his anger burned inside him” (Esther 1:10-12).

Achashverosh asked to bring Vashti to his party. But when you look carefully at what he asked, and how Vashti reacted, we see immediately that he asked to bring Vashti “ha-malkah – the queen.” And the next verse is, Va-te-ma’en Vashti ha-malkah – and Vashti the queen refused. The Malbim says something unbelievable. Achashverosh had a lot of marital tension with his wife. Vashti always said to him, “You are only the king because I am the queen. My father was a king; my mother was a queen. I love you and we are married, but don’t forget that you became king because of me.” Achashverosh was clearly very upset and he wanted to change this situation. To do so, he made a party for 127 countries. The purpose of this party was solely to show everyone that when Vashti walked in, he puts a crown on her head. With this, everyone would recognize that first she was Vashti and only because of her husband she was a queen. And this is what theMegillah says, The king [Achashverosh] said… to bring Vashti the queen. And the next verse, But Queen Vashti refused. “I am sorry, I am first queen and after this Vashti. If you want to accept me in this condition, great. If not, forget about it.” And the reaction of Achashverosh, And the king became enraged, and his anger burned inside him. He became very angry and very upset. He had made a big party and everybody had waited for Vashti, but she did not walk in. As this progressed, his anger burned inside him because she destroyed the entire purpose of the party.

The Malbim explains that Vashti did not want to come because she understood that he wanted to remove her from her high status. Until then, she had thought that she had a portion of the rulership because of her inheritance from her parents. That is why it says that “she refused,” because in her understanding she was the “Queen Vashti,” that her position was was from herself. Therefore, she did not want to come for two reasons: 1) “at the king's command”—since Achashverosh ordered her to come in a way that looks like she has no portion in the rulership and will not wear the crown until she comes before him, 2) “brought by his eunuchs”—he commanded to bring her by his eunuchs, which is degrading and embarrassing to her. By refusing, she undermined his plan too acquire the rulership on his own. She stood up to him, saying that the rulership was through her. Therefore, the king became very angry. There is a difference between “rage” and “anger.” Rage is shown publicly while anger is kept inside, without revealing it to others. Here there were both: 1) the public rage was because she publicly refused to follow his command, 2) the inner anger that burned inside him was because she foiled his plans. All the work he did on this feast in order reign unconditionally was now worthless.

I would like to take this idea of the Malbim and apply it across Megillat Esther. At the moment that Vashti did not go and the king became enraged, all the advisors said to him that this is a bad example, showing all the women that it is acceptable to display disrespect to their husbands. And Memuchan answered before the king and the advisors, it was not only against the king that Vashti the queen did wrong… (1:16). Vashti the queen. He understood and was very sensitive to say that the damage was done by the queen Vashti. And then, If it pleases the king, let a royal decree go out from him, and let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it will not be altered, that Vashti shall come no more before King Achashverosh. (1:19) She is no longer Vashti the queen. The Talmud Yerushalmi says that he accepted the advice and killed his wife, leaving him single. He then formed a committee to pick for him the right woman to be his wife. This committee had unbelievable power. It could take any woman whom they believe to be right for Achashverosh, and that is exactly what it did.

And Esther was taken to the king’s house (2:8). “And Esther was taken” means that she really did not want to go. She said to this committee, when they came to her door, “I’m sorry. I’m engaged. This is my husband, Mordechai.” The Megillah tells us, And when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his daughter (2:7). R. Meir taught, don’t read “as his daughter” (le-vat) but “as his wife (le-vayit). They are engaged. What does it mean that they are engaged? Not engaged like we have it today. But he gave her a ring and said “harei at mekudeshet li be-taba’at zu ke-dat Moshe ve-Yisrael.” They had Erusin. She said to the committee’s messengers, “I really don’t have interest to go.” But nobody listened. Mordechai is completely shocked. He really did not understand but he believed that HaKadosh Baruch Hu prepared something. When she passed by the door and kissed the mezuzah, Mordechai said to her, “Promise me. When you walk into the palace of Achashverosh, answer only two questions: your name is Esther and you address is Shushan the capital. Nothing else.” And she said to him, “I promise you.” Therefore, Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordechai had charged her not to tell (2:10). At the same time, Every day Mordechai would walk around in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was and how she fared (2:11). Rashi explains, “He was one of the two righteous men to whom Hashem gave a hint of salvation.” He understood that HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave him some sign about his wife. Who was the other? David. TheNavi says, Your servant has killed both lion and bear (1 Shmuel 17:39). When David HaMelech killed the lion, he understood that he is not superman; he understood that HaKadosh Baruch Hu had communicated with him. In the moment, he did not understand exactly what HaKadosh Baruch Hu wanted, but later when he saw Goliath he understood that HaKadosh Baruch Hu had given him a sign: exactly as he killed the lion, he would also kill Goliath. The same happened to Mordechai. Why was Esther taken to go with Achashverosh? He thought, “I recognize that HaKadosh Baruch Hu prepared something but I don’t understand what. My job now is to go around the palace to try to get some information, to see what will happen in the future.”

When Esther walked to the palace, she continued to explain to everyone, “I really don’t want to go to Achashverosh. I am engaged to someone else. I don’t like what you are doing here. Thousands of women might want to become partners with Achashverosh but I’m sorry, this is not for me.” But nobody listened to her. And what happened? And Esther was taken to king Achashverosh (2:16). Nobody asked her if she wanted to go; she was taken. Every woman prepared for six months, doing the maximum they could to become very pretty. Esther didn’t do anything. How did she walk into the palace to talk to Achashverosh without any preparation? Very simple. If we take the incredible idea of the Malbim and continue with it, every woman, when she went to the palace, filled an application with a hundred questions to answer. Esther only answered two. Name? Esther. Address? Shushan the capital. Every woman brought a few resumes, a file. Esther’s file was empty. If Achashverosh would love this woman, they would certainly have Shalom Bayit. She would not wake up in the morning and say to him, “Look at myyichus. Who are you?” Immediately, the committee takes this file and says that she will go first. She went first and what happened? And the king loved Esther more than all the women… and he set the royal crown upon her head (2:17). The dream of Achashverosh to take the crown and put it on the head of Vashti, now will take place on the head of Esther.

Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king… (2:18). All the week with parties and when the parties are over. When virgins were gathered together a second time, Mordecai sat within the king's gate (2:19). A week after the marriage between Achashverosh and Esther, the committee announced that Achashverosh was looking for a new wife. Mordechai was in shock. Maybe Achashverosh killed Esther exactly the same as he killed Vashti because Esther would not divulge her secrets due to her promise to Mordechai. Mordechai could not ask about her wellbeing because people might realize that he has a connection to Esther.

After this, Haman starts and continues his final solution. To destroy, to kill, to annihilate all Jews, both young and old, children and women, in one day (3:13).To begin to explain a little what it means “final solution,” the Baal Shem Tov tells us that if you think the Megillah is telling us a story that happened hundreds of years ago, you don’t understand what Megillat Esther means. Megillat Esther is not past; it is present. What was the “final solution” of Haman? The text says, And Mordechai told him all that had happened to him, and the sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king's treasuries to destroy the Jews(4:7). You see that “the Jews” is written with two “yuds”. Not only this but “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate.” What does it mean to annihilate? After they are killed, there is nothing more that can be done. The explanation is very clear. Haman in his “final solution” is saying, “I want to kill, I want to take, every kind of Jewish person.” The Jews with two “yuds”. One “yud” is the Jew whom you know is a Jew; he observes all the mitzvot. And the other “yud” is a Jew who does not observe; but he is a Jew so I put him on the train. Everybody is on the same train. “Le-hashmid la-harog—to destroy and to kill” and after that “le-abed.” What is “le-abed”? To burn. This is exactly the final solution of Haman. “All the Jews.” Completely. “I don’t care what kind of Jew. Everyone, if he is a Jew, must be on the train.” In this situation, Mordechai tore his clothes (4:1). Mordechai understood that this is an abnormal situation. Esther sent him a new suit but Mordechai refused to accept it. Esther said to Mordechai, “I don’t understand you. Why don’t you talk to Achashverosh? Why don’t you talk to any of the ministers? Start to negotiate with them.” Mordechai replied, “It’s too late for negotiations. The situation is very complicated. And now this is your moment to walk in and talk to Achashverosh.”He also gave him a copy of the written decree for their destruction, which was given at Shushan, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her, and that he might command her to go in to the king to make supplication to him and plead before him for her people (4:8). And Esther said to Mordechai, All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live. Yet I myself have not been called to go in to the king these thirty days (4:11). “Mordechai, you need to understand, I am not the queen. I am not a partner with Achashverosh. After he picked me to become his wife, he gave me a suite in his palace with twenty slaves and maids. When he wants me he asks me to come to him. I really don’t know anything about what you say he is doing. You told me not to say anything, not to talk. And now this is the opportunity for me to tell you. You know what happened? You know why the committee announced ‘When virgins were gathered together a second time’? Because I am not a real partner with Achashverosh. When he wants me he asks me to come to him. And now, if you send me to Achashverosh at this time, he will kill me because the rule is that nobody is allowed to walk in if he doesn’t have permission from Achashverosh. I believe that if you will wait for a few days, he will anyway ask me because he hasn’t talked to me for thirty days. I am sure he will ask me to come to him soon. I will use that opportunity and I will talk to him.”

Mordechai says to Esther, “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king's palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Why does he mention her father’s house? Who is her ancestor? King Shaul. All the problems that we have today with Haman is because of your ancestor, what we read in the Haftarah for Parashat Zachor: But Shaul and the people spared Agag (1 Shmuel 15:9). This mistake can be redeemed now. But if you find an excuse to refuse your mission, you and your father's house will perish.”

Then Esther told them to reply to Mordechai: “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” (4:16). Esther said to Mordechai, “Can you listen to me for a minute? Only one more minute, Mordechai. Look, I lost my parents. We were engaged, and I don’t have my mother or father. I’ve stayed for five years in the jail. I am not queen. I get some room in the palace of Achashverosh. Five years, five very difficult years. The reason that I have survived is you. I dream about you. I believe that one day I can come back to you. Now listen to what you are saying to me. I should go to Achashverosh. Do you know what this means? I leave when Achashverosh asks me to come to him. It is forced (be-ones). A married woman who is taken by force is allowed to return to her husband. But now that you are sending me to Achashverosh I am going to lose you also. Do you understand what this means, Mordechai? I will do everything you say to me. Now you have the whole picture.”

Mordechai agreed to listen to Esther, and she said to gather all the Jews and to fast, not to eat or drink. The Gemara asks that to fast means not to eat or drink. Why does she also have to say not to eat or drink? Because this was on Pesach. This was the one Pesach in the history of Klal Yisrael in which we did not eat matzah and we did not drink four cups of wine. So Mordechai went his way and did according to all that Esther commanded him (4:17). It says only Esther and not Esther the queen, because she is really not queen.

Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal [robes] and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, across from the king's house (5:1). In Hebrew, we need to say “bigdei malkhut—royal robes” and not just “malkhut—royal.” These are the clothes she had from the beginning but now, for the first time, she wants to explain to Achashverosh that she wants a partner. Esther, stood in the inner court of the king's palace, across from the king's house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house. This verse is very complicated because Achashverosh was extremely paranoid. He constantly worried that somebody wanted to kill him. When he sat in his chair in the middle of the palace, he was facing the entrance of the house because he did not want anyone to surprise him. So it was, when the king saw Esther the queen… (5:2). Wow! She felt like she was really the queen. She walked in, spontaneously. …Standing in the court that she found favor in his sight, and the king held out to Esther—he does not consider her queen, a full partner—the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther went near and touched the top of the scepter. And the king said to her, “What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you—up to half the kingdom!” (5:2-3). “You feel like you are a queen, a partner with me? No way! “Up to half the kingdom.” Half is not a complete partner. Chazal explain “half of a half,” a quarter. So Esther answered, ‘If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet that I have prepared for him.” (5:4). Amazing! This is on the third day of the fast. Chazal tell us that during these three days, she said to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “I don’t have a mother or father. I also don’t have a husband. No one. Only you HaKadosh Baruch Hu. I am not doing this for myself. Only for You and for Am Yisrael. Please walk with me. Give me Your hand. Don’t leave me alone. HaKadosh Baruch Hu, this is for You.” And Chazal tell us, each word of “let the king and Haman come” begins with a “yud” and a “hey” and a “vav” and a “hey.” YKVK. It is very interesting that in certain communities when they come to this verse they don’t make noise when they hear this “Haman.” Instead everybody in the shul stands up. We know HaKadosh Baruch Hu what this means. It talks about You and not about anybody else.

Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly, that he may do as Esther has said” (5:5). Esther had tremendous siyata di-shmaya. She walked in without permission and said that she wants to talk to him. He said, “OK, you want to talk to me. We can meet together. Why not?” But she said, “One minute. I need somebody else.” Who is somebody else? Haman. Why Haman? Immediately, Achashverosh with his paranoia is scared that maybe she made a plan with Haman against him. What does he say? “Bring Haman quickly.” I want to see him here immediately.

She doesn’t eat or drink at this party. Why not? This is the third day of the fast. At the banquet of wine the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. What is your request, up to half the kingdom? It shall be done!” Then Esther answered and said, “My petition and request is this: If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request…” (5:6-8). What did she say until now? Nothing. Now it is her turn to say something. Why did she do it in this way? She wanted to show Achashverosh the she is confused. She doesn’t really know what to say. She is worried. She will make Achashverosh more confused, more scared, and then she says, “…then let the king and Haman come to the banquet which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said” (5:8). The moment she will say “tomorrow,” the king will push the button and the security of Achashverosh will walk in. She thinks, “I am not afraid to die with Haman together because I know that if Haman dies now, Mordechai outside can change the decree. If Haman stays alive, he cannot do anything. The one way I can make this happen is if I show Achashverosh that I am confused, I am really scared, and he will see that I am trying to do something with Haman against him and he will kill us both.” This is why she talked too much. But what happened? Thank G-d, Achashverosh said, “OK.” Chazal to us the true meaning of “tomorrow I will do as the king has said.” What did Mordechai say to Hatach? And Mordecai told him all that had happened to him (karahu) (4:7). Chazal tell us, “the descendant of karahu, asher karcha ba-derech (Devarim 25:18)—Amalek, is upon us.” They spoke in code. The Torah teaches us that to win against Amalek we can never win today. We need to have patience for tomorrow. What does the Torah say? And Moshe said to Yehoshua, ‘Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand” (Shmot 17:9) Tomorrow. Esther said to Achashverosh, “tomorrow I will do as the king has said.”

So Haman went out that day joyful and with a glad heart; but when Haman saw Mordechai in the king's gate, and that he did not stand or tremble before him, he was filled with indignation against Mordechai (5:9). Haman had one problem, Mordechai. And he understood that he could not kill Mordechai with a gun. He needed to find some way to do it. He found a way—to hang Mordechai on a tree that is 50 amot high. Why he picked this is another discussion. What is relevant for us is that he was so excited that in the middle of the night he walked to Achashverosh’s palace and knocked on the door. In the middle of the night. He said to himself, “If he is asleep I will wake him up to tell him that the ‘final solution’ is done.”

In this moment, That night the king could not sleep (6:1). Achashverosh was very confused, very scared. He tried to understand if he had done something wrong, if he needed to fix something. And when Haman walked in, he said, “Great. I would like to ask him what shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?” Haman said, “What do we need to give him?” Let a royal robe which the king has worn, a horse on which the king has ridden, and a crown should be placed on its head (6:8). The moment that Haman mentioned the crown, he lost his career completely. The king has a few horses and a number of robes. But he has only one crown. And what did Achashverosh say to him? Hurry, take the robe and the horse, as you have suggested, and do so for Mordechai (6:10). Only the robe and the horse, but don’t give him the crown. He walked to Mordechai and “ve-nahapoch hu” happened. Esther really doesn’t know anything that happened after midnight. She returned to the suite that she has in the palace. Chazal tell us that on this night, she prayed and she cried non-stop. She said to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “You walked with me until now, I know. Please, don’t leave me alone. Walk with me also tomorrow. It is for Your children, Am Yisrael, and not for me. I’ve lost everything. I’m not relevant. It is only for You, HaKadosh Baruch Hu.”

What happened at the second party? So the king and Haman went to dine with Queen Esther (7:1). Now she can drink because the three days of the fast are over. And on the second day, at the banquet of wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request, up to half the kingdom? It shall be done!’ Then Queen Esther answered and said, ‘If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request” (7:2-3). All the previous night, Esther said to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “Please put in my mouth the right words to say to Achashverosh.” And she said to him, “Achasverosh, we’re married for five years. Do you remember the first time when I walked into your palace? You opened my file and what did you find? Only my name and address, nothing else. Do you remember this? Now I want to tell you something. I come from a very special nation. What we can do great is to become slaves. We have a good reputation as a nation of slaves. If somebody wanted to make my nation slaves, you would not see me here today. But somebody wants to kill us and to get tremendous power. And with this power, to kill you.” Achashverosh says, “Who is he, and where is he?” And what did she answer him? Haman. Achashverosh said, “Wait a minute. One plus one is two. Yesterday, Esther asked and I came. Today, I learn from her that Haman really wants to kill me. Yesterday, I recognized who saved my life years ago—Mordechai. Now I understand that Esther was engaged to Mordechai and also saved my life.” Look at what happened in this moment. Amazing!

The Megillah says, So King Achashverosh answered and said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who would dare presume in his heart to do such a thing?” (7:5). It is very interesting. What does it say? “So King Achashverosh answered (va-yomer) and said (va-yomer) to Queen Esther.” Rashi says, “Every place that it says va-yomer twice is to teach us a midrash.” Until this moment, Achashverosh never spoke directly to Esther. He sent somebody to bring Esther. Now he recognized that she saved his life; now he understands what kind of a special woman she is. From this moment she becomes Esther the queen. Only Esther the queen (except for one time when she fell on the king’s legs and asked him to change the letters and to send other letters to stop the “final solution” of Haman; it is not nice for the queen to fall on the legs of the king, so she is called just Esther). If you ask when Esther became Queen Esther, the answer is now. After the second party.

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