BS”D KNOW YOUR BIBLE: Esther 1-2
Study Notes by Avraham ben Yaakov
ESTHER CHAPTER 1
In the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue, only one person at a time may read aloud to the congregation, because hearing more than one voice would be distracting to the listeners. However, so beloved is the story of the Purim miracle told in Megillath Esther that the halachah permits two or even ten people to read aloud at the same time. The reason given for this is precisely because the Megillah so beloved (Megillah 21b; Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim 690:2): it is intrinsically captivating.
Although the book of Esther is not strictly speaking considered a prophetic work, the sages were agreed that it was written by Esther and Mordechai through Ru’ah HaKodesh, “holy spirit”, and the text of this deeply veiled allegory is laden with layer upon layer of meaning and allusions.
“Where in the Torah do we find an allusion to Esther? In the verse, ‘And I shall surely hide (ASTEER) My face on that day…'”(Hullin 139b). The “face” of God is His revealed presence. Esther alludes to the concealment of His presence in exile as a result of Israel’s sins. Yet the story of Esther proves that even when His presence is concealed, God is in complete control of everything. The revelation of God’s power through the miracle of Purim came about in the merit of the Tzaddik Mordechai. “And where in the Torah do we find an allusion to Mordechai? In the pure myrrh of the holy anointing oil made by Moses, which in Hebrew is MAR D’ROR (lit. “master of freedom”) and in the Aramaic Targum is MEIRA DECHYA=MoRDeCHaY” (Hullin ibid.)
With the killing of Nebuchadnezzar’s son (or grandson) Belshazzar and the fall of Babylon to Darius the Mede and his son-in-law Cyrus king of Persia, the focus of power shifted to their twin empires of Medea and Persia, centered in the western regions of present-day Iran. With the collapse of Babylon and the consolidation of the Persian Empire many of the exiles from Judea, including Mordechai and his orphaned protégé Esther, moved to Shushan ( Susa or Seleukia, about 150 miles east of the R. Tigris in Khuzestan province of Iran ). According to the dating system of Midrash Seder Olam, the fall of Babylon took place in the year 3389 (=371 B.C.E.) exactly 70 years after Nebuchadnezzar rose to power. Even the greatest Tzaddikim were confused as to why the Temple was not then rebuilt since Jeremiah had apparently prophesied that God would punish Babylon and restore the people to Jerusalem after seventy years (Jeremiah 29:10; cf. Daniel 9:2 and commentators there). They did not realize that the Temple itself could not be rebuilt until seventy years after its destruction, which had taken place eighteen years after Nebuchadnezzar rose to power. The redemption prophesied by Jeremiah was the first wave of returning exiles under Zerubavel, which took place in the first year of the reign of Cyrus and with his encouragement (Ezra 1:1). But Cyrus reigned no more than two years, and when Ahashverosh (Ahasuerus) ascended the throne of Persia (in 3392=368 B.C.E.), royal support for the rebuilding of Jerusalem ceased as a result of letters of denunciation sent to the new king by the returning Jews’ adversaries, who according to rabbinic tradition were the sons of Haman (Ezra 4:6). Ahashverosh’s feast, at which he brought out the vessels captured by the Babylonians from the Temple in Jerusalem (Esther 1:7), was intended to celebrate the uneventful passing of the prophesied date of the restoration, which the gentiles took as a sign that it would never take place.
The thwarting of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple undoubtedly generated the darkest despair among the exiles in Shushan, many of whom reacted by allowing themselves to fall into laxity in their Torah observance, as exemplified by their participation in Ahashverosh’s feast (Esther 1:5, see Targum there). The deepening Jewish assimilation was itself the fulfillment of God’s warning in the Torah that “I shall surely hide My face on that day”. But despite the fact that his Jewish brothers were running to join the gentiles in their celebrations in Shushan, Mordechai refused to participate in the consumption of TREIF (unkosher food), just as his saintly counterpart Daniel had refused in Babylon (Targum on Esther 1:5; Daniel 1:8). Purity of the food we ingest is the foundation of purity of mind and soul.
Through Mordechai’s outstanding sanctity and that of Esther, they were worthy of one of the greatest miracles of all time: everything was completely turned around (VE-NAHAPHOCH HOO, Esther 9:1), with the result that “the Jews fulfilled and took upon themselves (KEEYEMOO VE-KIBLOO) and their seed…” (Esther 9:27). The sages taught that the phrase KEEYEMOO VE-KIBLOO implies that the Jews FULFILLED (KEEYEMOO) in the days of Ahashverosh what they had already RECEIVED (KIBLOO), i.e. the Torah which they received at Sinai. Out of despair and assimilation came a national return to the ancestral Torah, and the Second Temple was built shortly afterwards. The Purim miracle took place in the thirteenth year of the reign of Ahashverosh in 3405 (=355 B.C.E.) while the Second Temple was built in 3408 (352 B.C.E.).
Yet this great salvation was only revealed at the very climax of the story of Purim, which began with the most terrible darkness in which Mordechai and Esther had only their perfect faith in God to sustain them. In the book of Esther more than anywhere else in the Bible, the hand of God is concealed to the point that the very Name of God does not even appear explicitly anywhere in the Megillah. It appears only in ways that are not discernable to the casual reader: for example the initial or concluding Hebrew letters of certain phrases spell out various names of God. At least forty such cases are listed in the Kabbalistic Kavanot. (One of the most obvious examples is Esther 5:4, YAVO HAMELECH VEHAMAN HAYOM). Although the Megillah appears to be talking about King Ahashverosh, the text frequently refers simply to HA-MELECH (the King). The sages teach that this term simultaneously refers to the temporal Ahashverosh while also alluding to the King of kings (Midrash Esther Rabbah). The story of Purim apparently unfolds like a completely natural series of events, but as it develops, it becomes visible that each event was flawlessly planned and designed by the Ruler of all the world to teach a great lesson in how His providence governs every single detail of creation. How often the most enormous consequences flow from a single slight gesture or movement that nobody could have imagined would bring so much in its train.
The essence of the story of Purim is nothing less than God’s war against evil from generation to generation “for HaShem will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). Amalek is the embodiment of the evil of the primordial serpent, glorying in cruelty, bloodshed and murder of men, women and children accompanied by the amassing of God-denying power and wealth. The extirpation of Amalek, who had perpetrated a barbaric attack on the newly freed people of Israel immediately after their exodus from Egypt, was the second of three commandments they were instructed to fulfill after their entry into the Land of Israel. The first was to appoint a king. He was to lead the people in fulfilling the second of these commandments by making war against Amalek. This was the necessary preparation for the fulfillment of the third, the building the Temple in Jerusalem (Rambam, Laws of Kings 1:1).
The first king of Israel, the Benjaminite King Saul, was intended to fulfill the second commandment by wiping out all the Amalekites. However Saul failed because he allowed the people to leave the Amalekite king Agag alive, and the latter succeeded in fathering a child even after his capture, before being hacked to death by the prophet Samuel (I Samuel ch 15). Because of Saul’s failure, Samuel told him: “God has torn the kingship over Israel from you today and He has given it to your companion who is better than you” (I Samuel 15:28). This was David, from the tribe of Judah.
It was Mordechai and Esther who brought about the TIKKUN (“repair”) of the terrible flaw left by King Saul in the form of Agag’s descendant, Haman, who tried to destroy the entire Jewish people. Just like Saul, Mordechai was from the tribe of Benjamin (Esther 2:5), and moreover, he was the descendant of Shimi, who had come out to deliver the worst curses against King David when the latter fled from Jerusalem to escape Absalom (II Samuel 16:5-10). When David returned to Jerusalem after the thwarting of Absalom’s rebellion, he spared Shimi, who was able to bear a son before eventually being killed by King Solomon (II Kings 2:8 & 40ff). Not only did Mordechai and Esther rectify Saul’s flaw through the downfall of the Amalekite Haman. They also rectified the breach between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, because Mordechai the Benjaminite is specifically called MORDECHAI HA-YEHUDI (Esther 2:5) – the Judean. To repair the MALCHUTH, “kingship” having been taken from King Saul and given “to your companion who is better than you”, the royal title of Queen was taken from Vashti and “the king will give her MALCHUTH to her companion that is better than she” (Esther 1:19). Thus it was that Saul’s descendant, the royal Esther, became queen.
The TIKKUN, “repair”, accomplished by Mordechai and Esther is expressed in the language of Kabbalah by Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto (RaMHaL) in his Kavanot (1st edn. p. 138, Secret of Purim and Reading the Megillah):–
In the days of the exile in Babylon the Shechinah was turned away “back to back”. It was necessary to build her in order for her to return “face to face”. This is accomplished through Abba and Imma, which enter into her and build her. Now Yesod of Abba is long and goes out from Yesod of Imma, and it enters into Yesod of Zeir Anpin as well, unlike Yesod of Imma, which ends at the chest. Even in Nukva (=Shechinah) Yesod of Abba also reaches her Yesod, and indeed her Yesod is short so that the part of Yesod of Abba that is clothed therein protrudes even more. It was from this aspect that the soul of Mordechai the Tzaddik was drawn. This took place immediately before the redemption. The wicked Haman wanted to thwart the building of this Nukva and to thwart Mordechai. Mordechai received an illumination from the above-mentioned aspect, which is his root, which had already been in existence for a very long time, and Haman, who was jealous of him, wanted to thwart him and thwart the whole repair. But the Holy One blessed be He performed a miracle and the MOHIN (“brain power”) began to return to Zeir Anpin. This is the secret of “the sleep of the king fled” (Esther 6:1). This did not negate Mordechai, because the illumination which he had attained remained in all its strength, while Haman became weak and fell before him so that he was unable to harm the Jews, because the King of the Universe was already aroused. Mordechai’s illumination strengthened him and enabled him to accomplish the great feat of saving Israel. Esther is the Malchuth, which was for Mordechai a “daughter” (BAS) and a “house” (=wife, BAYIS) through the mystery of the repair of the Nukva… (Ramchal, Kavanot).
Lovers of Rabbi Nachman will be delighted to know that ESTHER has the numerical value of 661 = TIKUN HAKLALI, the Complete Remedy!!!
Esther Chapter 1 Verse 1: “And it was (VAYEHI) in the days of Ahashverosh” – “We have a tradition handed down from the Men of the Great Assembly that wherever the text says ‘and it was (VAYEHI) in the days of…’ it means they were days of suffering, VAY!!!” (Megillah 10b).
Vv 1-8 illustrate the wealth, grandeur and magnificence of Ahashverosh’s world center, capital of an enormous empire of hugely diverse nations, languages and cultures.
V 9: Queen Vashti was the daughter of Belshazzar and because of her own lineage from Nebuchadnezzar was somewhat contemptuous of Ahashverosh, whom she saw as a self-made upstart (cf. Megillah 11a, “he made himself ruler”). Our sages taught that through the hidden hand of God, Vashti was smitten with leprosy on the day Ahashverosh called her to appear naked except for her crown at his banquet, and she did not wish to go out of shame. She was afflicted by the leprosy as punishment for having forced Jewish girls to work for her naked even on Shabbat.
V 16: “And Memuchan answered…” Having been mentioned last among Ahashverosh’s advisors (v 14), why did he jump in first to tell the king to have Vashti killed? Our sages teach that this MEMUCHAN was none other than Haman (Targum ibid. etc.), who was MUCHAN, prepared by God for the purpose of bringing about punishment. What motive had Haman for wanting to kill Vashti? It is said that he knew from astrology that he would die at the hand of Ahashverosh’s wife, and he mistakenly thought that this prediction referred to Vashti when in fact it referred to Esther. By killing Vashti Haman wanted to get Ahashverosh to marry his own daughter so that he himself could then become king.
Verse 5: “There was a Yehudi man (ISH)…” – “this teaches that Mordechai in his generation was the equivalent of Moses in his generation, as it is written, “And the man (ISH) Moses was very humble” (Numbers 12:3; Midrash Esther Rabbah).
Mordechai’s proactive genius was displayed in his allowing Esther to be taken to Ahashverosh when he could have hidden her away from the king’s talent scouts. Mordechai had perfect faith that if God sent such an opportunity to win the jackpot and propel his adoptive exile daughter directly onto the throne of the world empire of the time, there must be some great purpose in it.
Verse 15: “And Esther found favor (HEIN) in the eyes of all who saw her…” The attribute of HEIN, charismatic charm and favor, is precisely the attribute of MALCHUTH. “In the eyes of all who saw her” = “this teaches that each and every person imagined she was from his people” (Megillah 13b). “In the eyes of all who saw her” – “in the eyes of the supernal beings and in the eyes of the beings of the lower world” (ibid.).
Verses 21-3: The apparently quite irrelevant conspiracy of Bigthan and Theresh, which was thwarted by Mordechai, archived in the king’s book of chronicles and promptly forgotten by everyone, eventually turns out to have been the event that brings about the denouement of the whole story, because Ahashverosh wanted to belatedly reward Mordechai just when Haman was on his way in trying to get him hanged (Esther 6:1-10). “God prepared the remedy for Israel’s trouble even before He brought the trouble upon them” (Rashi on Esther 3:1).