Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On the Trail of Blessings: Spoiling the Spoils of Esther's War

[Although this is technically the ninth installment of a series on the development of the Birchas HaAvos, it stands on its own as a piece about Megillas Esther. But don't let me stop you if you wish to begin the Trail from the beginning.]

At the end of Megillas Esther, the Jews behave strangely.

After Esther has Haman killed, she convinces Achashveirosh to issue a new decree, allowing the Jews to kill their enemies. Nothing strange about that. [Simply revoking the original decree wasn't an option, for "something written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's signet ring cannot be revoked" (8:8).] In this new decree, the Jews are given license to annihilate their enemies and take spoils (8:11). The Jews take full advantage of their license to kill, but for some reason they take no spoils (9:10). Now, that's strange! If you're going through the trouble of killing your enemies, why not take their money?

In his commentary to Parshas Beshalach (Shemos 17:16), Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) explains this in line with the Targum which states that all those killed were Amalekites. It is forbidden to take pleasure in the spoils of Amalek, writes Rabbeinu Bechaye, and Mordechai remembered well King Saul's terrible mistake of taking spoils after his battle with Amalek centuries earlier. This, says R. Bechaye, is why the Jews didn't take the money.

There are three problems with this approach. Firstly, if their enemies were indeed Amalekites and Jews truly wished to observe the mitzvah of annihilating them, that would require the destruction of the spoils, not just abstaining from taking them, as the Torah states, "erase the memory of Amalek" (Devarim 25:19; cf. Rashi ad loc.). Secondly, according to R. Bechaye, how could Esther take Haman's house (Esther 8:1)? And thirdly, even if this explains why the Jews didn't take spoils, it makes it far more difficult to understand why Mordechai and Esther had the right to take spoils included in the orginal royal decree. (For an altogether different approach which lacks these problems, see R. Dovid Tavil, Drashos Beis Dovid 11.)

I believe the answer to Rabbeinu Bechaye's question can be found in Parshas Bo. When the Jews were just about to leave Egypt, Hashem made the following request of Moshe: "Please (נא) speak in the ears of the nation: they should borrow - each man from his [Egyptian] friend and each woman from her [Egyptian] friend - silver vessels and gold vessels" (Shemos 11:2). Although it is certainly a Jewish value to be polite, nonetheless, it is unusual for God to say "please." The Talmud explains. "The academy of Rabbi Yannai said, the word "נא" always connotes a request. Hashem said to Moshe, go say to the Jews, please borrow silver and gold vessels from the Egyptians so that Tzaddik [Avraham] won't complain [and say to Me]: "They shall enslave them and afflict them" (Bereishis 15:13) You fulfilled for them, but "afterwards they shall go out with great wealth" (ad loc.) You did not fulfill for them?!" (Berachos 9b).

No one demonstrated better than our father Avraham how a Jew can simultaneously be fabulously wealthy and lead the battle against paganism. Avraham understood the blessing of wealth to be integral to the mission of the Jew and he did not want to see the nation sidestep their destiny. So when they left Egypt, Hashem begged the Jews to take the money so that Avraham wouldn't complain.

The problem here is obvious. Since when do Jews need convincing to take money? Moreover, if Hashem promised that the Jews would leave Eygpt with wealth, then it should be the divine promise that drives this request, not the fear of Avraham's complaint!

Strange as it sounds, it seems that Moshe (and, presumably, the Jews) didn't want the gold of Egypt. Even Hashem's promise did not suffice, for a promise of wealth can always be pardoned by the recipient. It was only Hashem's "please," driven by "fear" of Avraham's complaint, that convinced Moshe to pass on the message.

Why doesn't Moshe want the gold? Well, we know what Moshe thinks: "Master of the World, it's because of the gold and silver that you gave the Jews until they said 'enough!' - that's what caused them to build a Golden Calf!" (Berachos 32a). As we have seen before, money is a leading cause of paganism. This is why Hashem had to beg Moshe to take the money. [The fact that this teaching was also taught by the academy of Rabbi Yannai, and its significance in understanding the reason why Hashem had to say "נא" was pointed out by R. Reuven Margolias (נצוצי אור, ברכות).]

The story of Megillas Esther occurs at the end of Galus Bavel, just a few years before the Second Temple is built. Just like at the Exodus, the anti-Semites are vanquished and the Jews are given the opportunity to take the wealth of their oppressors with them as they return to Israel. In the spirit of Hashem's promise to Avraham, "afterwards they shall go out with great wealth," Mordechai and Esther have the right to take spoils written into Achashveirosh's new decree. But the Jews don't take any spoils - history has taught them a thing or two.

The Jews know that the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and Haman's decree were both divine reactions to the sin of idolatry. They did not want to fall into that again. Last time, they acquiesced to Hashem's request. They took the Egyptian gold and silver and it led to the sin of the Golden Calf. This time they were more than happy to pardon Hashem's generous blessings.

The Jews return to Israel impoverished, barely able to cover the costs of constructing the Second Temple. The even had to settle with a wooden Menorah! But idolatry qua idolatry was not an issue in the Second Temple era. (The allure of Hellenism was more social than theological.) Unlike the First Temple, the second was destroyed not for idolatry but for baseless hatred - and with its unique set of mitzvos, Purim fixes that as well.

1 comment:

  1. How can you say that they would have been allowed to take the spoils just like in Mitzrayim? Amalek has a special rule that didn't apply to the Egyptians. Also the Heter to take Bais Haman was that Achashveirosh gave it to them. They didn't take it from Amalek themselves.