Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at www.yutorah.org. Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from http://www.vbm-torah.org/ester.html.

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun, http://www.ybn.co.il/mamrim/PDF/Pesach_Lot.pdf

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on www.yutorah.org.

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