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Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahasuerus by Ernest Normand

At first glance, it appears that there is no way out. The sentence has been handed down and the king’s envoys have been sent across the kingdom to herald the news of the final solution. Mordechai puts on sackcloth and ashes and sends Esther a message that “she should go in unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him, for her people.” Esther does not know what to do; arriving uncalled to the king is punishable by death. Mordechai responds that her welfare stands against the lives of the Jews of the kingdom and that in any event, her closeness to the king will not spare her life as antisemitism is stronger than family ties and the evil will arrive at her doorstep too. If she fails to act, Mordechai warns her, relief and deliverance [will] arise to the Jews from another place,” but she will perish from her people’s history.  “Who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as thisת” Mordechai continues. In other words, if Esther was wondering why it was her fate to marry a king she did not desire to, here was her answer. Esther is persuaded to go to the king despite the risks – “and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther wears her royal dress and presented herself to the king who held out his golden scepter as a mark that she had found favor. “If it seems good unto the king, let the king and Haman come this day unto the banquet that I have prepared for him.” Our sages ask, what was Esther’s plan? The Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (15b) asks what did Esther see when she invited Haman to the banquet? Following are some of the interpretations – some contrary and some complementary – that the Talmud offers for her deeds.


2. Rabbi Elazar says: She hid a snare for him, as it is stated: Let their table become a snare before them” (Psalms 69:23). In other words, the idea was to invite Haman to a banquet, where she would be able to trip him up. “Rabbi Yehoshua says: She learned to do this from the teachings of her father’s house, as it is stated (Proverbs 25:21): ‘If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat (and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will be scooping coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you).'” Esther’s plan was to curry favor with Haman by inviting him to the banquet with the king. The end of the saying from Proverbs, “the Lord will reward you”, is interpreted as meaning that if one invited one’s enemies, God will help you make up with them (a play on words based on the common root in Hebrew for pay and make up)

“Rabbi Meir says: So that he would not take counsel and rebel.” In other words, so as not to give him the time to organize a rebellion against Ahasuerus when he discovered that the king was angry with him. “Rabbi Yehuda says: She invited Haman so that it not be found out that she was a Jewess.” After all, it was Haman who planned the final solution against the Jewish people, and she wanted to dupe him so that he would not be suspicious while she plotted to turn the king against him behind his back. “Rabbi Neḥemya says: She did this so that the Jewish people would not say: ‘We have a sister in the king’s house,’ and consequently neglect their prayers for divine mercy.” In other words, so that they would not think that everything would work out because “we have ties in the palace,” but on the contrary, Esther ignores their peril and collaborates with the enemy leaving them with no one to rely on other than God in heaven and they would therefore continue with their prayers.

“Rabbi Yosei says: So that Haman would always be on hand for her.” Esther wanted Haman to be present when she made her accusation so that there would be no interval between her complaint and the king’s investigation of the affair because were that to be the case the king’s anger would die down and he would make other considerations. “Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya says: Perhaps God will perform a miracle.”  He will see that even Esther is collaborating with Haman and that only divine intervention will save the day. Rashi offers another explanation: Inviting Haman to the banquet is an act of flattery; God will see what depths Esther has sunk to, and will take mercy and save the situation.

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karḥa says: She said to herself: ‘I will act kindly toward him.'” He explains that her intention was to lead the king to suspect she was having an affair with Haman so that both she and Haman would be hanged. Esther was willing to sacrifice her life for the sake of her people and she went to the banquet knowing that she may not leave alive. “Rabban Gamliel says: Ahasuerus was a fickle king.” He was unstable and could change his mind. Therefore, it was important to seize the moment. According to Rashi: Esther says perhaps I can tempt him and kill him, and if Haman is not there then perhaps the hour will pass and the king will change his mind. In other words, it’s all a question of timing – when to tell the king in order to obtain the desired result.

3. But our sages weren’t satisfied with these interpretations and looked for further explanations for Esther’s plan. “Rabban Gamliel said: We still need the words of Rabbi Eliezer HaModa’i to understand why Esther invited Haman to her banquet…  She made the king jealous of him and she made the other ministers jealous of him.” This is the most straightforward explanation: She sowed jealousy in the palace and discord between Haman and the king and his ministers and in this way she brought about his downfall. The king was jealous because he suspected that something was going on behind his back; all of a sudden he was competing with Haman for Esther’s heart. And on top of that, all the ministers were jealous of Haman for the honor he had received.

“Rabba says: Pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). Esther was taking advantage of a well-known human failing: Meteoric rise gives way to evil and to a feeling that ‘no one can overcome me’ (hybris); stricken by pride, one ceases to be careful and the conditions are created for a painful fall – from the greatest heights to the lowest depths.

“Abaye and Rava both say: When they are heated, I will make feasts for them, and I will make them drunk, that they may rejoice, and sleep a perpetual sleep” (Jeremiah 51:39). A banquet leads to drinking which leads to arrogance which leads to carelessness and thus to a fall. Rashi: “Esther said: From the banquets of evil men comes calamity.”

4. On the festival of Purim, we sing the praise of a brave and brilliant woman who at the moment of truth knew how to spin a web that would bring down her people’s enemies. Was it a miracle? The Ba’ale haTosfot medieval commentators on the Talmud define a miracle as: “a spirit of valor and knowledge to fight” (Tosfot, Bava Matzia 106) Valor in itself is not enough; a person can be courageous and stupid because he has not properly estimated the danger and the strength of the enemy. The hero must also be smarter than his enemy. It is important not to lose one’s senses at the decisive moment (spirit of valor), but one then has to call one’s wisdom and cunning to overcome the danger.

The Talmud ends the discussion as follows: Rabba bar Avuh once happened upon Elijah the Prophet and said to him: In accordance with whose understanding did Esther see fit to act in this manner? What was the true reason behind her invitation? He, Elijah, said to him: Esther was motivated by all the reasons previously mentioned and did so for all the reasons previously stated by the tanna’im and all the reasons stated by the amora’im.

After all that, Esther takes on the mission of her life, only after ensuring that the people are united behind her: “Go and gather all the Jews… and fast for my sake…  for three days, night and day; Then I will go to the king…” (Book of Esther 4:16) Will we learn that lesson today?

{Reposted from Israel HaYom}



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