THE STORY OF YOSEIF AND MEGILLAT ESTHER
Special thanks to Avi Billet for his help in compiling the information used in this Chabura.
We are all more or less familiar with the story of Esther (or at least will be by Purim morning). To be sure, the basic plot of the Megilla, the Jews rising up against seemingly insurmountable odds to defeat their enemies, is a plot that is familiar in Jewish history. What is, however, somewhat striking about the Megilla is it soften uncanny resemblance to the stories about Yoseif and his brothers found in Bereishit. The similarities exist on two levels: First, there are many verses in the two stories that use the exact or very similar phrasing. Second, while the words themselves may vary, many elements of the story line are near carbon-copies of each other. Our question is why? Is it mere coincidence that the Megilla seems to have been written with an eye on the Torah? If so, then we can end the Chabura right here. However, if we assume that the author of the Megilla intentionally wrote his book this way, then we must find a reason why he felt that such a task was necessary.
Our study will be in three parts, organized from the most technical to (hopefully) the most interesting. First, we will examine the main textual similarities between the two accounts. Second, we will look at the comparable plot lines. Finally, we will strive to bring it all together and explain why Esther was written in this way, and what the hidden message of the Megilla is as a result.
II. THE SIMILAR VERSES
We will begin with the sections of the Megilla that contain several parallels. Chapter two is perhaps the richest in this regard. We can divide the chapter into two sections. First, there is the advice to Achashveirosh to hold a beauty contest to find a successor to Vashti. A comparison between Esther 2:3-4 and Bereishit 41:34-37 reveals two sets of nearly identical verses. In Esther it is written "Let the king appoint officers (v'yafked ha-melech pikidim) throughout all of the states of his kingdom, and let them gather every young virgin...and this was good in the eyes of the king and he did so." When Yoseif advises Pharaoh as to how to prepare for the impending famine, he states "Let the king appoint officers (yafked ha-melech pikidim) on the land...and they will collect all of the foodstuffs...and this was good in the eyes of Pharaoh." Beyond the mere similarity of words, both cases are instances that led to the appointing of a Jew to a top position in a foreign government - Esther as queen and Yoseif as viceroy.
The second part of that chapter also references itself back to Yoseif, this time in references to the physical appearance of our heroes. Esther 2:7 states that Esther was "yefat to'ar v'yefat mar'eh" (beautiful in stature and appearance), the exact words used to describe Yoseif in Bereishit 39:7 - "yefeh to'ar v'yefeh mar'eh." Regarding the choosing of Esther, the Megilla (2:17) states "And the king loved Esther more than all of the other women and she found favor in his eyes more than the other virgins." Compare that verse to Yaakov's favoring of Yoseif (Bereishit 37:3-4): "And Yisrael loved Yoseif more than all of his brothers ... and Yoseif found favor in his eyes."
Our third major area of textual comparisons comes at the end of Chapter two, the story of Bigtan and Teresh's plot to kill Achashveirosh. The obvious connection here is to the story of Pharaoh's butler and baker. As the gemara in Megilla 13b states: "Hashem made a master get angry at his servants (Pharaoh at the butler and baker) so as to perform a miracle for a righteous individual (freeing Yoseif from jail), and He made servants get angry at their master (Bigtan and Teresh at Achashveirosh) so as to perform a miracle for a righteous individual (Mordechai)." In both places, the word used for anger is the unique root katzaf.' In the end, three out of the four servants are hanged, with the only survivor being the butler who is left alive so that he can help to get Yoseif out of jail. In both cases, the good done by our heroes (Yoseif interpreting the dreams and Mordechai uncovering the plot) is put on the back burner for the time being. By Yoseif we are told "And the butler did not remember (lo ZACHAR) Yoseif and he forgot him," while by Mordechai we are told that "They (his deeds) were written in the book of chronicles (sefer ha-ZICHRONOT - see 6:1) before the king."
There are several other individual verses between the two books that parallel each other. Medrash Tanchuma points out the phrase "yom va-yom" - day by day, used to describe the constant pleadings of Potifar's wife to Yoseif to lie with her (Ber. 39:10) as well as the daily scene whereby the officers of Achashveirosh attempted to convince Mordechai to bow to Haman (Es. 3:4). Even more notable is the phrase "va-yasar et tabato" - and he removed his ring, referring both to Pharaoh's granting power to Yoseif (41:42) and Achashveirosh's granting power to Haman (3:10). There are also scenes in the Megilla that reflect the anguish of Yaakov throughout the story of Yoseif's sale and absence. Esther 4:1 states "vayikra Mordechai et bigadav" - and Mordechai rent his garments, a direct parallel to Bereishit 37:29. Later in that same chapter in Esther, when Mordechai prevails upon her to go before the king and petition on behalf of the Jews, Esther reluctantly agrees, stating "v'ka'asher avaditi, avaditi" - and if I will be lost, I will be lost (4:16). This double language expressing despair comes straight from Yaakov's speech when Yehuda convinces him that Binyamin must be brought down to Egypt so that the family will not starve - "v'ka'asher shacholti, shacholti" - and if I will be left childless, I will be left childless (43:14).
Finally, there are the victorious verses when Mordechai is led through the streets of Shushan by a humiliated Haman. The Megilla states "vayarkiveihu birchov ha-ir...vayikra lifanav kacha ye'aseh la-ish..." (6:11) Compare this phrasing to the words of Bereishit when Pharaoh parades Yoseif through the streets of Egypt upon appointing him viceroy - "vayarkeiv oto b'mirkevet ha-mishneh...vayikra lifanav avreich..." (41:43)
III. THEMATIC PARALLELS
In addition to all of these textual similarities, there are also several more general area in which the two stories resemble each other. On the most general level is obviously the fact that both stories are tales of Jews who rose to power in a foreign land, ultimately using that power to save their families or people. On a slightly more specific level, both heroes are descendants of Rachel - Yoseif her son, and Mordechai from the tribe of Binyamin. Beyond that, in both cases we see examples of Hashem preparing the cure before the affliction actually strikes - Yoseif is put into power before the famine begins, Esther becomes queen before the ascent of Haman, and Mordechai saves the king before the ascent of Haman.
Beyond those general points, the unraveling of both stories are very similar, especially near the end. The story of Yoseif approaches its climax as his brother Yehuda approaches him and pleads on behalf of Binyamin. Similarly, one of the tensest moments in Megillat Esther is her approaching Achashveirosh at the risk of her own life, to open the door for her to beg on behalf of the Jews. The next stage in each story is the revelation of a character previously unknown - Yoseif to his brothers and Haman to Achashveirosh as he who was plotting against the Jews. In the wake of the climaxes of each story, the parallels continue. Yoseif brings his family to Pharaoh, who grants them the best part of the land, and Esther reveals her relationship to Mordechai to Achashveirosh, who places Mordechai in charge of the house of Haman, as well as giving him the ring that he had previously given to Haman.
Finally, the story of Yoseif reverts to the mundane, telling about the economic plan that he enacted to see Egypt through their famine. Perhaps reflecting this is Esther 10:1, when we are told that Achashveirosh placed a tax on the lands he controlled (I am actually still looking for a really good explanation for this verse. The fact that it may come as a parallel is possible, but still does not explain the verse within the Megilla itself).
There are two major plot-oriented parallels between the two accounts. The first is at the turning points. Both stories get turned around when the king cannot sleep. Pharaoh's dreams lead directly to Yoseif's coming out of jail, interpreting the dreams, and being appointed viceroy. Achashveirosh's insomnia leads him to request a "bedtime story," and that night's tale 'just happened' to be about Mordechai, leading to the series of events that caused the downfall of Haman and the elevation of Mordechai. Even more than this similarity is the presence of a recurring type of event which pushes each story forward. By Yoseif, the catalyst is dreams - Yoseif's dreams which ignite his brother's anger and lead to his sale, the dreams of the butler and baker which plant the seed for Yoseif's ultimately being freed from jail, and the dreams of Pharaoh, which are the final step in Yoseif's coming out of jail and into power. In Esther the catalyst is parties - the party made by Achashveirosh which led him to kill Vashti, the party made in honor of Esther upon her appointment as queen, and the parties made by Esther at which she finally revealed herself to Achashveirosh and revealed the plots made by Haman against her people.
IV. SO WHAT?
We now need an answer. Why is Megillat Esther written in such a way as to so obviously parallel the story of Yoseif? What is not written in the actual words of the Megilla that can be seen hidden in it based on this parallel? I believe that the key may lie partially in the difference between the catalysts just cited. In Yoseif's story, the narrative is pushed forward by dreams, and specifically dreams that prove to be prophetic. Clearly, there is an element of divine guidance in that story. By Esther, the catalyst is the exact obvious - parties that focused on wine, appealing to the basest element in man. And yet, from these drunken orgies emerged the seeds of redemption and ultimately the redemption itself for the Jews in the Persian Empire. Similarly by the sleeping problems of the two kings. We are told what disturbed Pharaoh - a prophetic dream. By Achashveirosh, by contrast, something is missing. We are told that he could not sleep, but we are not told why not. The guiding hand is not mentioned.
Our point should be emerging by now. As Chazal repeatedly point out, there is no mention of Hashem throughout the entire book of Esther. Yet, at the same time, the sequence of events contained therein are obviously being guided by a higher power. To bring across this point, the author of Esther wrote his book in such a way as to remind the reader of a similar story where Hashem is very clearly present. Yoseif constantly mentions that it is actually Hashem who is directing his interpretations of the dreams, and the Torah repeatedly mentions Hashem's role in guiding the progression of events. Just as the providence and intervention of Hashem is clear and distinct in the Yoseif narrative, so too should it be in the Esther story.
Yet, we still have one question left unanswered: why is Hashem left out of the book of Esther? Chazal tell us that the time of Esther was a time of "hester panim" - Hashem was hiding His face, as it were, from the Jews, and bringing salvation for them only in hidden ways, ways that could be mistaken for human acts. Why was this so? To answer his, we briefly summarize a view developed by my Rebbe, Rav Menachem Leibtag. Without going into all of the details, Rav Leibtag has pointed out that there are many similarities between the descriptions of the palace of Achashveirosh and the descriptions of the Temple in Jerusalem. Why is this so? The Jews' exile to Persia was only supposed to last 70 years (according to the prophesies of Yirmiyahu), after which time they would be able to return. However, as we know from the opening chapters of the book of Ezra, even when they finally did return, very few actually did so. The story of Esther happened during this time period when the prophesies had expired, and from a divine perspective the Jews were now allowed to return to their land. However, they chose instead to remain in Persia, where they lived in the lap of luxury. Thus, the author of the Megilla paints a picture of a palace similar to the Temple in order to show that the Jews had replaced the true Temple with a false one. Returning to our point, we can suggest that the Jews brought the "hester panim" on themselves - they turned their back on Hashem when He gave them the opportunity to return to them, and thus He reciprocated by hiding His face from them when they needed it. However, while Hashem may have hidden Himself, He still clearly was controlling the events, fulfilling his promise echoed through the prophets that he would not forsake the Jewish people at any time in history, in whatever land they may be in, and at whatever level they reached in their relationship to Him.
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