I offer just a few musings, or perhaps better called small bites on what I never thought before about the story of Esther, inspired by a webinar I attended. And, let us admit first off, that we are talking most likely about a work of fiction, or maybe a morality tale, that may have some historical connections in ancient Persia. That said, it’s a pretty remarkable and twisted plot with lots to ponder and pontificate on, which we Jews do quite well and quite often.
I begin with a quandary for Mordechai: to bow or not to bow. According to our rabbinic sages, both Haman and Mordechai were on equal footing at King Achashverosh’s opening party, both were ministers. Accordingly, was the entire narrative a petty dispute about power and not about religion, just about Mordechai’s personal pride and his risking the lives of all the Jewish people? What a drastically different understanding of the story, which is a result of the Talmud trying to understand why we do not recite Hallel, Psalms of joy, on Purim and we do recite Hallel on every other holiday. The focus of their attention is the confrontation between Mordechai and Haman.
The Talmud says that we are forbidden to bow down to other gods but it’s alright to bow down to another person out of respect; it happens all the time with rabbis, kings, etc. The Talmud’s prohibition belongs to the category of sins that cannot be transgressed even to save one’s life. Those sins are murder, adultery, and idolatry. For all other sins, one is allowed to transgress Torah laws to save a life.
Mordechai’s position in front of Haman is complicated and a bone of contention among two rabbinic sages. Rava contests the inclusion of idol-worshipping in the category of absolute no-nos. He is quoted in the Talmud, saying, “If one does not accept the divinity of an idol when forced to bow down to an idol,” meaning an idol is only in the eye of the beholder. In this case, idol-worshipping is not a transgression. In contrast, Abaye argues that one cannot bow down to another even if they don’t believe that the other is divine. For him, it’s only a problem if one accepts a human as a god in their heart.
So, can you worship a person like Haman who has made himself into an idol? Abbaye responds that even though Haman was worshipped through fear, you can never worship someone like Haman. Rava opines from a different angle based on an earlier verse. He says that one cannot worship someone like Haman voluntarily, but it’s permissible if forced upon you, because better to transgress Torah to save one’s life. Moreover, for Rava, Haman’s evil plan began with stripping only Mordechai of his dignity and loyalty to his faith, but Haman fully intended to expand the rule to bow down to him to all Jews of importance in the kingdom, and then to all the Jews, and Mordechai understood this. Mordechai would not be the catalyst to the greater humiliation or annihilation of all his people.
Rava concludes that Hallel, the psalms of joy and praise, are said on Passover after our salvation, when we were finally servants of God and not Pharaoh, but after the crisis for the Jews was averted on Purim Jews were still servants of the Persian King Achashverosh and our salvation was not completed. Then, how are we to understand the verse that instructs us to get so intoxicated so as not to see the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” The person we thought was a hero was really a villain and the day did not accomplish salvation. Perhaps, the rabbis needed enough wine to mitigate the deeply troubling text.
In the Megillah, mitzvot are all doubled: We read the Megillah twice – once in the evening and once in the morning. There are two days of Purim — the 14th of Adar, and Shushan Purim on the 15th day of Adar, as celebrated in historically walled cities. We give two foods to one person, and Tzedakah to two people. In Megillat Esther itself, there are a number of doublings: Two queens (Vashti & Esther), Esther invites Achashverosh and Haman to two parties, and the two head-advisors (Haman and then Mordechai) serve in the king’s court. What could be the significance of these pairs? Perhaps contrast: the differences are stark: two different foods, two different queens, two different days to read the Megillah. Differences stand out in our memory more effectively than sameness. Doubling is also a form of emphasis. Reading the Megillah twice gives us space and time to reflect on the meaning of the story and of the holiday. Through repetition and returning back to an event, a person, a mitzvah, a story — we have the opportunity to immerse ourself in that experience which may have otherwise been fleeting. Perhaps, with doubling, comes reflection on the past (even if it was just last night), and we may tap into unknown feelings, see God’s hidden presence, or even rediscover ourselves. In the Megillah, Mordechai reminds Esther, “If you don’t save our people, someone else will — but don’t imagine that your inaction will save you, and who knows, maybe this was the reason you became queen in the first place!” It’s Esther’s job to step up and save her people because she’s in a position to do it. Our sages call this divine providence: the hidden hand of God at work.
In just a few weeks we’ll read in the Passover Haggadah that each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we ourselves had been liberated from Egypt. What if each of us could also take on the obligation to see ourselves as if we were Esther? What if we’re planted in this place and time precisely so we can do something… so going forward, what will our next action inspired by Esther’s bravery be?
Here are 3 takeaways:
- Biblical narratives, whether perceived as foundational or frivolous, reflect deeper philosophical concerns and world views, that have been contested from time immemorial.
- Not all rabbis agree with each other, especially on core issues about heroes and villains, and how to react to life crises
- And, bursting all our balloons, Purim was not necessarily a happy day, especially in the eyes of Rava.
Given today’s hostile and fragmented society, I can live with this third take-away. Even so, I have no intention of giving up decades of costumes, noise-makers, hamantaschen, and shpiels, and I hope you won’t either.