Between the Lines of the Scroll of Esther

Dear Josep,

As you know, I have always dearly loved the holiday of Purim. But not only because of the costumes. The story of Esther is really a great story, and the Scroll, if you look at it carefully, is quite a literary masterpiece. Especially when you learn how to cantillate it (or parts of it) for the congregation, as I have, you notice some really interesting things about it.

I wanted to share some of the thoughts that occurred to me this year when I read along at the Megillah reading.

First: “Esther would not tell her lineage or her nationality, as Mordekhai had commanded her, for Esther kept Mordekhai’s orders as she had when she was raised by him.” (Esther 2:20)

Why?

Seriously, why did Mordekhai tell her to keep her lineage secret?

This wasn’t, like, Nazi Germany here. The king was clearly indifferent towards Jews, seeing them as just another group of people in his vast empire. There isn’t a clear indication in the text about the general feeling of the population towards Jews–just that of Haman, the villain.

And, I mean… think about this. You saw me trying to observe Judaism in a non-Jewish environment that was indifferent to my practices. Imagine if I had tried to keep the fact that I was Jewish secret. Wouldn’t that have made life so much harder for all of us?! Not that telling them that I was Jewish and had certain religious needs actually helped me, but it certainly didn’t hurt. The Judaism of Esther’s day was quite different from how we practice today, but she still had to keep kosher and observe Shabbat. Imagine a queen who refuses to eat anything but fresh vegetables at the royal banquet–or one who insists on only hiring Jewish cooks, and mysteriously retreats into her quarters and does nothing one day per week. Couldn’t she just have told them to begin with that she was Jewish, and made it clear that attending to her needs would be more trouble than it was worth? “Look, guys, this is all a big misunderstanding; I may be pretty and all, but I am high maintenance on a totally different level than all these other ladies here. Maybe let’s just call this off and I go home?”

Esther
“Seriously guys, I am super uncomfortable with all this.”

But actually, she comes off as extremely low-maintenance: “And when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Avihayil, Mordekhai’s uncle, who had taken her for a daughter, came to go in to the king, she requested nothing, except what Hegai, the king’s chamberlain, the guard of the women, would say, and Esther found favor in the eyes of all who beheld her.” (Esther 2:15)

So. Why didn’t she tell?

My theory about this is that the Scroll of Esther assumes that we know about an unspoken hatred of Jews that existed throughout the kingdom.

The reason I think that is because otherwise–the whole story with the decree against the Jews and then the decree against the decree just doesn’t make any sense.

Here’s what I mean. The story goes that Haman issued a decree in the king’s name that on the 13th of Adar, they would basically have a “Kill Jews Day.” (Like matar judíos, just without the lemonade. 😛 ) It wasn’t a Nazi-style systematic extermination of the Jews he was planning. He didn’t need it to come from the government or the army. All he needed to do was give permission for people who wanted to kill Jews, to just go ahead and do so.

Basically, the only thing standing between the Jews and genocide was the law.

That’s pretty disturbing.

Furthermore, when Esther begged the king to cancel the decree, he said he couldn’t–that once something had been decreed and sealed with the king’s seal, it could not be repealed. (That’s a pretty dumb rule to have, IMHO, especially when the king seems to be pretty moody and change his mind about things every few minutes. But no one asked me.) However, he said, you can issue another decree that the Jews may defend themselves when attacked.

In other words, all these decrees did, was give the green light for a war to happen. It unleashed the dark forces of hatred that were lying there in plain sight, but reined in in the name of law and order. “To destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews, from young to old, little children and women, and their spoils to be taken as plunder.” There were people out there, tens of thousands of people, who were perfectly happy to take a day to just slaughter their Jewish neighbors in cold blood and steal their property–and this was a fact that was known and accepted as a given.

So no, maybe it wasn’t like Nazi Germany. It was more like Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where the local population, once given the green light to murder and plunder their Jewish neighbors, rose to the occasion with great enthusiasm.

In Chapter 9 of the Scroll of Esther it recounts the day of the war. The Jews gathered together and stood up to their enemies, and killed around 76,000 people–“but on the spoils they did not lay their hand.” They wanted it to be clear that this was a war of self-defense, not for personal gain.

Good thing the UN wasn’t around at the time, because we all know how they would have spun it. 😛

Anyway, back to Esther and Mordekhai. In the middle of the story, you find a highly poignant conversation between the queen and her uncle. Mordekhai tells her she must go to the king to plead for the lives of her people. This is how she responds:

All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who comes to the king, into the inner court, who is not summoned, there is but one law for him, to be put to death, except the one to whom the king extends the golden scepter, that he may live, but I have not been summoned to come to the king these thirty days.” (Esther 4:11)

Okay. Back up a minute here.

Why was it necessary for Esther to physically walk into the king’s inner court? We know from the rest of the story that all she did when she was there was invite him to a party, where she would invite him to another party, where she would finally plead with him for her people. Clearly, she was in no rush. Couldn’t she have sent a messenger to invite him to the party? Why did she have to risk her life?

Even if she couldn’t have sent a messenger, couldn’t she have done what Haman does two chapters later?  “And the king said, ‘Who is in the court?’ And Haman had come to the outside court of the king’s house, to petition the king to hang Mordekhai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.” (Esther 6:4) Meaning, apparently, there was an outer court, where people who wanted to see the king could come wait for permission to have an audience with him. Why couldn’t Esther go to the outer court and wait there? Surely someone would notice her and tell the king!

I was not able to find anyone asking this question in the rabbinic commentaries I checked. (If anybody finds something on this, let me know!)

So here’s Perush Daniella–based on the bits and pieces of related teachings I have heard. I’m going to do that Weird Jewish Thing where I answer a question with another question: Speaking of Esther’s method of getting the message across to the king, why the whole song and dance, with the two banquets? Why didn’t she just tell him right away? Okay, so maybe in his court there were a bunch of other guys around and she didn’t want everyone to hear what she needed to say to him. So she invited him to a private banquet with Haman. That makes sense. But then she still didn’t tell him! She said, “Come to another banquet tomorrow, and then I’ll tell you.”

Why all the mystery?! Spit it out, girl!

I took a class once where the teacher argued that Esther was making skilful use of dramatic tension to turn the tides against Haman. She wanted to make 100% sure that she had the king’s attention and sympathy on this matter, and she only had one chance to ask. So she did everything she could to pique his curiosity and make him crazy to know what she wanted. And we know she succeeded, because “On [the] night [after the banquet], the king’s sleep was disturbed…” (Esther 6:1) It doesn’t specify what was troubling him, but it’s easy to imagine him tossing and turning over his wife’s mysterious request. If you’ve ever had a woman tell you “We need to talk” and then make you wait to find out what is bothering her, you will understand his agony!

So I think the reason Esther needed to appear in his inner court was just that. “And it came to pass when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she won favor in his eyes, and the king extended to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand, and Esther approached and touched the end of the scepter.” (Esther 5:2)

“When the king saw…”

He needed to see her.

He needed to see her lovely face, sad, pale, and weary from three days of fasting. It would be easy to shrug off a messenger or written invitation to a banquet. But to have the queen standing there, risking her life to come speak to you… he must have been crazy with curiosity. And that’s exactly what she needed.

Well, that’s my take on it, anyway.

Love,

Daniella

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