"HE EXALTS NATIONS – THEN DESTROYS THEM" – AN ANALYSIS OF MEGILLAT ESTHER
(translated from an article by Rav Mordechai Sabato in Hadassah Hi Esther)
A close reading of Megillat Esther reveals that it is constructed along the lines of the principle that "before the malady comes forth, the cure blossoms." In other words, only upon completing the Megilla does one realize the full meaning and importance of every story that occurs throughout the course of the book. Only after the entire ten-year history has been read can one fully appreciate the significance of every detail and nuance.
Thus, for example, the story of the party that opens the book only receives its full importance once Esther's role in the salvation of the Jews comes forth. Only then can we see that the entire part of the story of the party is to tell about the fall of Vashti and her replacement with Esther. This point is underscored by Mordechai's statement to Esther: "And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis." (Esther 4:14) The same idea holds by the story of Bigtan and Teresh. Originally, it seems to be completely lacking significance. However, we eventually see that it serves as a major factor in the elevation of Mordechai to power.
The gemara also takes this approach. In Megilla 12b, Rava states that "if it were not for the first letters, the Jews would not have been saved at all."Rashi explains that the "first letters" refers to Achashveirosh's decree for every woman to respect her husband, a decree that was more or less ludicrous. However, if not for this first decree, the people of his kingdom might have taken him more seriously and may not have waited to kill the Jews. Fortunately, having made himself appear to be a fool once, the people waited until the appointed day [presumably to see if the "crazy king" had any other crazy ideas].
In light of this, we can ask about the story of Haman leading Mordechai around Shushan on the horse of the king. While this story is fine and wonderful in and of itself, and it certainly is a dramatic moment, it is seemingly superfluous. Would the Megilla really be missing anything if it was not here? It would seem that the miracle would proceed as planned anyway, and thus we have to ask why we need this story here?
II. A MIRROR MEGILLA
The theme of "v'nahafoch hu" – and it was turned upside-down – appears to be a major motif in the Megilla. This theme is highlighted very strongly in the letters written by Haman and Mordechai. Both are written in exactly the same words, and only the victims and the victimizers are different. There are numerous other examples throughout the Megilla: Haman was hanged on the gallows that he prepared for Mordechai; the house that Haman built was ultimately given to Mordechai; the ring of the king that was originally given to Haman eventually wound up in the hands of Mordechai; the city of Shushan that was described as being "dumfounded" (3:15) was ultimately described as "ringing with joyous cries." (8:15); and finally, a situation where many Jews were mourning turned into a situation where many non-Jews converted to Judaism.
It thus appears that the entire Megilla can be split into two opposite and parallel sections. Everything that happens in the first half of the Megilla happens in the opposite way in the second half. This phenomenon leads us to ask what the turning point of the story is?
There is no doubt that that the 'center of gravity' of the Megilla is the story of Haman leading Mordechai around on the horse. Until that juncture, Haman's star was continuously rising – he was among the seven close advisers to the king (accepting the view that Memuchan was Haman), he had been raised to an extremely high position by Achashveirosh (3:1), and all of the kings subjects were commanded to bow down to him (3:2). Haman was so important in his own eyes that he deigned to eradicate an entire nation because of the insubordination of one man.
More than the importance that was already arrogated to him, Haman had visions of even greater grandeur. In his attempts to wipe out the Jews, he successfully procured the king's ring, the seal of a decree that could not be revoked, and a symbol of a person of supreme stature in the Persian government. Even further, Haman recognized the significance of his being invited to dine with the king and queen. Finally, Haman makes his most direct play for the ultimate promotion in advising Achashveirosh what to do for the person that the king liked the most. Haman could not figure that the king referred to anyone other than himself, and thus he counseled the king to dress the person in the royal clothing and the king's crown and lead him through the city on the royal horse. In his own eyes, the time was ripe for Haman to be included among the royals.
In is at this exact point that the downfall of Haman begins. First, Haman suffers the humiliation of leading Mordechai through the city. Upon returning home, while he is still "covered in mourning," the king's servants come to rush him to Esther's second party, where he is ultimately implicated at the one who is plotting to destroy her people. Things only get worse for him as he falls on the bed in order to plead for his life. An act that he did to try to save himself contributed further to his downfall when the king walked in and thought that Haman was trying to have his way with the queen. And, finally, Charvona sticks his head into the feast and points out that there is a big gallows ready in Haman's backyard – perfect for hanging Haman on.
On the other hand, the story runs in the opposite direction for Mordechai. Until the point where he is lead through the city, Mordechai was at the bottom of the ladder in Shushan. He dressed in sackcloth and wore ashes on his head, thus disqualifying himself from entering the palace gates. However, once he rides through the city, everything turns around. Mordechai soon after seizes the power that once belonged to Haman, along with his adversary's house and the royal signet ring. At that point, Mordechai reached the highest level that Haman reached before falling. However, Mordechai goes one step further, meriting to wear the royal robes and a golden crown on his head (8:15).
It thus appears that the entire Megilla can be seen as a battle between Haman and Mordechai, a battle whose turning point is the story of the horse. Yet, while this story clearly signals a shift in advantage, why is this story in particular the one that is chosen to represent this turnaround?
While the entire Megilla is the story of the confrontation between these two men, there are actually only two moments when they come into direct contact with each other. The first is when Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman, thus defying the king's orders and angering Haman. The second time is when Haman leads Mordechai though the streets, and this time the orders of the king are dutifully obeyed. Both times there was a standing order of the king to be obeyed. However, while Mordechai refused to obey it, Haman knuckled under and did as he was told.
There is, however, a deeper level of contrast that must be understood here. The reaction of the courtier's to Mordechai's refusal to bow down to Haman was one of shock (3:3). They could understand how or why a person could endanger his life and defy the king. Mordechai knew what he was doing – even after the decrees of Haman were sent out, Mordechai remained adamant in his refusal to bow down (5:9). Clearly, Mordechai's refusal to bow was intentional (we are setting aside the view that Haman wore an idol around his neck and thus it was actually forbidden for Mordechai to bow down; the Yalkut Shimoni cites two other views that frame this conflict as a matter of national pride, and we are working within those opinions). From this confrontation, Mordechai emerged with the advantage. However, Haman still had a trump card. He could still claim that had he been given the chance to obey the king, he too was capable of exercising his right to refuse and not subjugate himself to Mordechai. As such, there was the need for a second direct confrontation, one where the tables would be turned, and it was the story of the horse that was to fill this slot.
We should take note that not only did Haman lose in his second confrontation in Mordechai, but he lost in a big way. Bowing down to Haman at the height of his power would not have been a major admission of defeat or subservience on the part of Mordechai, and nevertheless he refused to do it. on the other hand, when Haman led Mordechai through the streets, he was at the height of his power, and Mordechai was at the nadir of his. And yet, the command of the king proved to be too potent for Haman to resist. It is this incident which shows just how powerful the king's word was, and thus retroactively clues us in as to how great Mordechai's risk was in not bowing down.
It is now clear why this story is the fulcrum of the Megilla. In this incident Haman willingly subjugates himself to Mordechai, on the road to forcibly being upended by his archenemy. This story is not one of the several that push forward the narrative of the Megilla. Rather, it is THE cause that led to the miracle that ultimately occurred.
III. HISTORICAL VINDICATION
The gemara in Megilla 12a says that the Jews at the time of Esther deserved to be wiped out because they ate from the feast of the wicked Achashveirosh. The gemara accepts this view as far as the Jews of Shushan are concerned, but asks why all of the Jews deserved to be wiped out if they did not partake of the feast? The gemara answers that they had bowed down to an idol, which Rashi explains this to mean the idol of Nevuchadnezzar (see Daniel 3).
It thus seems that the sin of the Jews had been in the bowing down to an idol, and thus their salvation was to come in the form of a refusal to bow down, specifically Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman. Mordechai, who refused to bow down when it was permitted for him to do so, served as the atonement for the Jews who did bow down when it was completely forbidden for them to do so. This self-sacrifice can only be appreciated after the story of the second confrontation between the two men.
What is striking here is the difference in perspective taken by man and Hashem. From our viewpoint, Mordechai's refusal to bow down was the cause for the destruction that almost befell the Jews. However, from the viewpoint of Hashem, it was precisely this act which was the beginning of their salvation.
IV. CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Returning to the gemara cited in the previous section, we see that the Jews of Shushan deserved death for a second reason as well – their partaking of the feast of Achashveirosh. As their sin was twofold with regard to the rest of the Jewish world, it is only proper that their salvation should be twofold as well. As such, they needed something in addition to Mordechai's actions in order to justify their being saved. This atonement comes in chapter four, when all of the Jews in Shushan were ordered by Esther to fast on her behalf. Their feasting turned into fasting, and with that they merited salvation.
If they sinned twice and atoned twice, they should reap the reward twice as well. An thus we see that Esther asks Achashveirosh to let the Jews of Shushan fight for one more day after all of the Jews elsewhere had ceased. This additional day was set down for the generations, as the Jews of Shushan and other walled cities keep the fifteenth of Adar, and not the fourteenth, as Purim. While we might have thought that they should have two days of celebrations, in fact the true reward was not in the rejoicing but in the revenge that they took on their enemies. And thus while the eternal reflection of this is merely a delayed holiday, the original Purim in Shushan came after they had received their just double reward.
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