Friday, March 02, 2007

Thoughts on Megillat Esther

Memuchan answered before the king and the princes: "Vashti the queen has wronged not only the king, but also all the princes, and all the peoples in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh. The story of the queen will reach all women, making their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not." (1:16-17)

Is there really a danger that feminists will rise up all across the empire and overthrow their husbands? That doesn't seem realistic. We're talking about the ancient Persian Empire after all, not the 1970s. More likely, Achashverosh and his advisors at this drinking party are not quite sober, and in their mentally unbalanced state they come up with all sorts of ridiculous worries and equally ridiculous plans for dealing with them. In this case, the incoherent decree "Let every man rule over his household, and speak the language of his people" (1:22) is the result of drunken policy-making.

Verse 2:1 states that "...when the wrath of king Ahasuerus was assuaged, he remembered Vashti, and what she had done, and what was decreed against her." It seems that not only his wrath, but also his inebriation had passed. But Vashti could not be reinstated ("that which the king says cannot be taken back", as with Haman's decree), so a new queen had to be found.

This whole story is only peripherally related to the storyline of the Megillah, but it gives us a good understanding of the rational considerations, or lack thereof, which will go into Ahashverosh's later decrees.

The king's servants in the king's gate said to Mordechai: "Why do you transgress the king's command [to bow to Haman]?" And when they said this to him day after day and he did not listen, they told Haman, to see if Mordechai's words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew. (3:3-4)

Most people neglect these verses, but on close inspection they seem to be extremely, extremely important. This is the real beginning of the Megillah story. Beforehand, Mordechai or others could obey or disobey, at the possible risk of personal consequences at most. Only when the servants decide to tell Haman, does the chain of action begin which will lead to Haman's decree. If they had not told Haman, we would not have had a story.

But they didn't go to Haman for the simple reason we might have expected. Since Mordechai had already disobeyed for several days without consequences, it seems that the servants were not conscientious policemen in the NYPD "broken windows" style. On the contrary, their motives were less than pure. It is specifically mentioned that Mordechai "had told them that he was a Jew"; without this motivation, it seems Haman would never have found out. Evidently there was an element of antisemitism here, at the lowest level of officialdom, as well as in Haman's household. As for the servants' specific goals, it says that they wanted "to see if Mordechai's words would stand". I am not at all sure how to interpret this phrase; perhaps someone can help me. This might be the key to understanding the entire Megillah.

Then Esther spoke to Hatach, and gave him a message for Mordechai: "All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, know that any man or woman who comes to the king into the inner court without being called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out the golden sceptre, that he may live..." (4:10-11)

Ancient emperors such as Achashverosh were terrified of being assassinated. The "no-go" zone was a security measure to prevent a possible assassin from approaching.

A similar situation is depicted in Nechemiah 2:2: "And the king said unto me [Nechemiah]: 'Why is your face sad, but you are not sick? This must be a sorrow of the heart.' Then I was extremely afraid." That king would examine the faces of visitors to see if they were unusually anxious, and thus perhaps plotting against him. Nechemiah was frightened at the possibility of being suspected of such a conspiracy. (Source: Some shiur at Gush I think)

"If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source, but you and your family will perish. Who knows if you became queen because of such a crisis?" (4:14)

This is one of the most climatic moments in the book. The decree of annihilation is published and Mordechai is in despair. Esther is the only possible source of help, and Mordechai turns to her. But at first she refuses. What is Mordechai to do? Is this the same adopted daughter who Mordechai raised to be moral, loving, and loyal to her people - now abandoning them without a second thought to be killed by Haman? Esther is remote from him and from the suffering of the Jews. He cannot even see her face to face, but has to communicate by messengers. Will Esther decide not to send another messenger, retreat to the security of her chambers and be rid of her Jewish past forever?

Some commentators have tried to identify the "other source" which Mordechai says will save the Jews. They say it is either the royal officers, who were unhappy with Haman's seizure of power, or else the Jews in Eretz Yisrael who were supposed to do I'm-not-sure-what to prevent the genocide. On the contrary, I think it's clear that there was NOT another clear source of relief. If one existed, wouldn't Mordechai use it before having his adopted daughter risk her life by approaching the king? And wouldn't Esther tell him to use the alternate source instead of endangering her? Mordechai's statement is a bluff, backed up by only the Torah's promise that the Jewish people will not cease to exist.

[CORRECTION: A mistaken interpretation of the phrase "et kazot", which I wrote here, has been deleted. Next time, I should probably read the verses before making up commentaries on them.]

As for translating "et" as "crisis", it makes things clearer and there are strong precedents for such a translation. (Source: VBM)

Even in this moment of despair, Mordechai is smart about what he says. He wields a large "stick", threatening that Esther will be killed if she does not act. But he throws in an unusual "carrot" as well. Esther became queen in preparation for one future occasion, Mordechai says, and now she should rise to that occasion. If Esther is paralyzed about choosing between the dangers to herself and to her people, then this positive motivational factor may induce her to make the right decision. By shifting Esther's focus from fear of external dangers (whichever is in fact greater) to her positive desire to self-actualize, hopefully Mordechai can provide an additional inducement for Esther to act for her people.

Esther rose, and stood before the king and said: 'If it pleases the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and the thing seems right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the decrees devised by Haman..." (8:4-5)

A pretty dirty emotional trick by Esther here. "If you don't do what I want, that shows that you must not love me!" When, of course, Ahashverosh does love her and probably pretty desperately. But when so much is at stake, even this kind of mind game is acceptable. On that note, if you don't post a comment to this blog, it shows that you don't love me. Hahahahaha. Happy Purim.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ok, fine, here's the signet ring... do whatever you want