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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Parashat Va’era 5774 – The God of Israel

הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם

The entire Exodus narrative, and the story of the Ten Plagues in particular, is the first occurrence in Tanakh of the war against Idolatry[1]. Part of what made Judaism unique in the ancient world was not just the belief in one god but also the total rejection of any other gods. In Sefer Bereishit the Avot, and the Torah, seem perfectly content with the Idolatry of the other residents of Canaan. Only in Egypt, in the fight against Paroah and Gods of Egypt does it become clear that Idolatry is an unacceptable way of life for anyone and everyone. However, the Tanakh does not depict the drama of Egypt as a simple matter of one god versus many. The conflict happens on three levels and, in the end, it details the emergence of a new system for National and Religious Leadership based on a uniquely Israelite idea[2].

The obvious story of the Plagues is that of the tension between ‘א and Paroah. Now the idea of a human ruler defying the transcendent and unlimited ‘א seems odd, but that’s not how the Tanakh conceives of the relationship between Man and ‘א. “History is where God is defied.”[3]  The Tanakh shows that Man has the ability to go against the will of ‘א, but‘א will inevitably triumph. That idea, started earlier in Sefer Bereishit, here comes to total fruition in the fight against Paroah.

Paroah and ‘א are in many ways equated in the text of the Torah. Perhaps most obvious is the emphasis on their nations. In contrast to ‘א’s refrain of “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” (Shemot 7:17, 26; 8:16; 9:13 the Egyptians are consistently referred to as “[Paroah]’s Nation”. ‘א has his nation and Paroah has his. Writ large, the torah creates a picture where Paroah and ‘א (via Moshe) face off in a battle for dominance. It’s ‘א’s will versus Paroah’s, with the decision consistently going to ‘א. Moreover, Egyptian rulers were not considered to be ordinary men of flesh and blood. They were considered to be divine, or close to it, and thus the defeat of Paroah is the defeat of Idolatry. When ‘א said, “and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD[4]”, He was also talking about Paroah, and when Paroah admits defeat it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of ‘א.

The second level of the story is that of the conflict between Moshe and Paroah. The idea is that of two kings facing off, which might be why some commentators have compared the Ten Plagues to the procedures for conquering a city. While not strictly-speaking a “King,” Moshe represents the leadership of a nation concentrated in one person, much in the manner of a monarchy. But as opposed to the conflict between ‘א and Paroah, Moshe’s fight is not for domination. Moshe’s fight is for the heart of the nation. Moshe brings plagues in order to demonstrate ‘א’s majesty and dominance before the people, that they might recognize His greatness[5]. Moshe as King rules not out of strength and not as a matter of personal right, but as an apostle of ‘א.

This idea is highlighted by several very important midrashim. On several occasions Moshe is told to go meet Paroah along the river early in the morning. The midrash comments that the reason Paroah went for his walk early in the morning was in order to secretly relieve himself[6]. Due to the divine or semi-divine status of Egyptian kings, he could not be seen to do so by the public, and so for this purpose he used to go early in the morning to the river. Thus the divine status of Paroah is not only false but Paroah knows it is false and has to maintain it by deceiving his people. This midrash points to the way Egyptians conceived of their king as divine while simultaneously rejecting and ridiculing it. In stark contrast is the Tanakh’s depiction of Moshe.

In the middle of a discussion between Moshe and ‘א regarding Moshe’s ability to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt the Torah suddenly interjects with Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. Whereas by Moshe’s birth his parents are anonymous, here the Torah says who they are explicitly, revealing something very interesting. The marriage of Avraham and Yocheved is what would after the revelation at Har Sinai become considered an inappropriate sexual relationship. The midrash not only points this fact out, it highlights similar relationships by Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov and his first wives, and several instances throughout David HaMelekh’s ancestry. The midrash points out that the leadership of Bnei Yisrael often comes from what we think of as inappropriate origins[7], and that this is intentional. Part of the problem with Kings historically has been that they often come to think of themselves as divine, that they are the be-all and end-all, and that is simply not so. The midrash states that this could never be an issue with these Israelite leaders because as opposed to being thought of as divine, they all have rather ignominious backgrounds. Thus the conditional nature of the Jewish King is made clear in the fight against the “divine” King of  Egypt[8]. Moshe rules Bnei Yisrael not as one entitled to do so by birth, but as the appointed messenger of ‘א.

Aharon’s position in the Torah is complex, and that is true right from the outset. It seems clear from ‘א’s words to Moshe that Aharon is simply meant to be a speaker for Moshe but Moshe seems to do plenty of speaking on his own. Moreover, Aharon is personally responsible for the bringing of several plagues, and is often referred to directly alongside Moshe throughout the duration of the Plagues. As much as he does serve as Moshe’s “mouth” and “prophet”, he really is his own character in the story.

Aharon’s purpose here is not simple. First and foremost, throughout the Torah Aharon is the High Priest of Israel. But noticeably, he doesn’t do anything specifically priestly here in Egypt. The one things he does that some might have argued is a priestly act is the performance of wonders, something that in other civilizations and Egypt in particular was a priestly function. But the lack of any other priestly functions here that instead of adopting the Egyptian idea of the Priest-Magician, the Torah is actually rejecting it[9]. Aharon performs wonders not as a priest who bends nature to his will, but as a prophet who bends nature to ‘א’s will.

In this role, Aharon has a very specific message to convey. He personally brings the first few plagues, often alongside Moshe, and the language there makes clear the purpose of those plagues. Aharon brings plagues in order to punish the Egyptians[10]. They enslaved and mistreated ‘א’s nation and their retribution is to come through Aharon’s hand. Thus any plague brought or wonder performed by Aharon has a much greater emphasis on the effect it has on the Egyptians than when Moshe brings a plague (As mentioned above, Moshe brings plagues for an entirely different purpose: teaching Bnei Yisrael about ‘א. Moshe performs plagues in order to show Bnei Yisrael who they are being redeemed by.) However, there is not a word in the whole section about Aharon performing a wonder or causing a plague by his own power or volition.

This idea, of the contrast between Prophet and Priest, is highlighted by a very similar story found in Sefer Shmuel I[11]. In Shmuel I 5 ‘א brings plagues on the Plishtim for having stolen the Aron and where Paroah consults his “magicians” the Plishtim consult their “priests and diviners” (Samuel I 6:2). Aharon, standing next to Moshe as the magicians stand beside Paroah, stands in clear contrast to this idea of “priests and diviners.” The Jewish Priest has a very specific function in context of the Mishkan/Mikdash and not beyond. The role of miracle-worker is reserved[12] for the messenger of ‘א.

The divine “conflict” between ‘א and the “gods of Egypt” serves to display ‘א’s uncontested authority in the world. Moshe’s face-off with Paroah shows how all leaders, no matter how great, are always human, and therefore are all subordinate to ‘א and His grace. Aharon’s position against the magicians rejects completely the concept of magic and wonders performed outside of the Divine Will, regardless of their accord with it, for nothing is outside the Divine Will.

All of these concepts are manifestations of a larger, infinitely simple idea: ‘א is Primary[13]. Pagan conceptions of their deities always give them secondary places in reality. The deity is always born of some other creature, or made of some primordial-stuff. The existence of reality before and beyond divinity makes its power necessarily limited. The nature of divinity as created puts it in the same category as other creations, such as man, and allows for the possibility of divine, or semi-divine, kings, and for apotheosis. The idea that divinity is created means that its power must come from somewhere rather than being inherent in it, and this is the power that it uses for its works, but this power can also be used by others for the aid or detriment of divinity. Yitziat Mitzraim rejects all of these conceptions. ‘א is Primary. He has no origin and there is nothing that He did not create. All is subject to His Will and there is no power beyond it. The God is Israel is the God of All Existence and there is none beside Him.

 

Here is a helpful chart from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus on the breakdown of the Plagues:

Plague - Breakdown

[1] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

[2] This is why the story of the Plagues starts with the Parshiyah of Shemot 6:2-8, a sudden recap of ‘א’s relationship to the avot and the nation.  The chiastic structure of this section is clearly highlighting the idea of ‘א’s special relationship to Bnei Yisrael and ‘א as the only god, and those concepts point directly to this idea.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] All translations are from www.mechon-mamre.org

[5] R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[6] Rashi Ad Loc., Shemot Rabbah 9:7

[7] Hizkuni on story of Yehuda and Tamar; Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vayeshev

[8] Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vaera

[9] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 85

[10]  R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[11] R’ Amnon Bazak, Parallels That Meet (Hebrew), Chap. 4

[12] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 82, 85

[13] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

Parashat Pinhas – Zealotry and Leadership

וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן יַעֲמֹד

 

In Chapter 27 of Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe asks ‘א to choose the person who will replace him as leader of the people, as part of the preparations for entering the land of Israel that are depicted at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. The person chosen by the “God of the spirits of all life” (Bamidbar 27:16) is Yehoshua son of Nun  (27:18). In retrospect, the choice is obvious. He was one of the two faithful spies in Bamidbar 14. He served Moshe from his youth (11:28) and never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11). However, before Yehoshua is picked, he is not the obvious choice. This selection comes hot on the heels of the actions and rewarding of Pinhas son of Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Why he should have been passed over is not at first clear, especially considering the lavish praise and reward heaped upon him by ‘א. However, examine the commands given to Yehoshua in terms of how he should lead will demonstrate that the zealotry that Pinhas is famous for is exactly what kept him from being named leader of the Nation of Israel.

When Moshe asks ‘א to appoint a leader for the Nation of Israel, he is given very specific instructions regarding the appointment of Yehoshua.

And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put of your honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. (Bamidbar 27:18-21)

Moshe is told to take Yehoshua and to stand him before Elazar the Kohen Gadol, and that Yehoshua should ask Elazar for “the Judgment of the Urim,” the word of ‘א as received via the Urim V’Tumim, before he leads the people in any new journey. While Yehoshua leads the people, he does not lead them according to his will, but according to the Will of ‘א, as he receives it from the Kohen Gadol. Only once he has gone to Elazar and asked Elazar to ask ‘א what they should do, and Elazar has given Yehosha the response from ‘א, only then can he direct the people.

In direct contrast to this, Pinhas is a zealot. He acts quickly and rashly. He sees Zimri sinning with Cozbi and he acts, grabbing his spear and plunging it through them. He does not wait for instructions, he does not check with Moshe or Elazar to see if what he is doing is right, he simply does it. And he is praised for it, quite extensively. ‘א says of him:

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’ (Bamidbar 25:11-13)

Pinhas’ zealotry results in some of the most effusive praise and reward in Tanakh. However, that does not mean that such actions are proper for a leader.

The 17th chapter of Sefer Devarim contains the commandment for Bnei Yisrael to appoint a king, and the commandments incumbent upon that king.

When you come unto the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell therein; and shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’;  you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you; you mayest not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses; forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you: ‘You shall henceforth return no more that way.’ Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them;  that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel. (Devarim 17:14-20)

The laws of a king are essentially two: 1. the tripartite command to avoid possessing an abundance of wives, horses, and money, and 2. the instruction for the king to always have on his person the sefer torah that he writes in order he “fear the Lord his God,” keep all of the mitzvoth, and not feel as if he is greater than the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Carrying a sefer torah with him at all times ensures that the king will not act out of impulse. It’s much harder to be overcome by emotion and burst out with a sudden bout of monarchical power if you are holding the Law of ‘א in your hands.

The Nation of Israel has had many leaders, from Moshe to David, from Menashe to Ezra, from the Men of the Great Assembly to our own modern day leaders. The one unifying factor has been the necessity of leading the people in line with ‘א’s Law. Leadership is not about self-aggrandizement. The leader is there for the betterment of the people, not vice-versa. While there may be a place for spontaneous zealotry, it’s not on the throne, or in the Knesset. Leadership is about trying to create a life for the people in accordance with their values, in accordance with the Torah. Pinhas may have turned back ‘א’s wrath from upon the people (Bamidbar 25:11), but only Yehoshua, who never departed from the Tent of Meeting (Shemot 33:11), had the consistency and dedication to lead Bnei Yisrael.