Thursday, March 27, 2014

Purim Afterthoughts II: The King and I

For maximum effect, I recommend reading part-one first. However, this piece stands alone quite well by itself.

The Talmud asks the question: Why did Esther invite Haman to her private party with Achadhveirosh? Her job was to beseech the king to revoke the decree against the Jews. There is no need for Haman to be there. (cf. Megillah 15b)

Many different explanations are proposed. Rabbi Nechemya explains that Esther was concerned that despite the terrible decree and the call for a fast, the Jews were not really praying. The man on the street just wasn’t worried. “We have a sister in the palace!” The Jews felt they had protexia; Esther would save the day. Esther needed to frighten them, so she threw a party for Haman and the king. The Jews had no way of explaining her behavior other than to assume she had abandoned her people and joined the enemy. Now they really started to pray. This is why Esther waited for the following day before she made her request.

According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, Esther’s plan was much darker. She planned to flirt with Haman at the party, giving Achashveirosh the impression that they were having an affair. She hoped this would infuriate the king and he would execute them both. The Talmud validates this approach, sourcing Achashveirosh’s inability to sleep to his fear of a coup by Haman and Esther (cf. Esther 6:1).

Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia has a different theory. He claims Esther was hoping “God would take notice and perform a miracle.” What does this cryptic statement mean? What exactly is it about Haman’s presence at the party that would inspire God to act? (cf. Rashi ad loc.)

* * * * *
As she prepared to enter the king’s chambers, “Esther dressed herself in royalty” (Esther 5:1). The simple meaning refers to her royal garments, but according to the Talmud it alludes to something far deeper: she clothed herself in the “divine spirit” (Ruach HaKodesh) (Megillah 14b). By force of her righteousness, the prophetess Esther brought down the Divine Presence and the Shechina rested upon her. (See Yoma 9b [bottom] where Ruach HaKodesh is equated with the presence of the Shechina.)

Esther then proceeded to walk towards the Throne Room, passing first through a hall filled with idols. The Divine Presence departed and Esther cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you left me?” (Megillah 15b).

Esther’s question doesn’t sound very intelligent. Was Esther unaware that the Shechina cannot tolerate idols? Moshe wouldn’t even pray in the presence of idols! (cf. Rashi to Shemos 9:29). Are we to believe that Esther was really surprised that the Shechina left? Assuming she knew this would happen, why did she invite the Shechina in the first place?

* * * * *

The Talmud tells us that the decree to annihilate the Jews was of divine origin, in response to the national sin of bowing before the statues of Nebuchadnezzar. But if the Jews were indeed guilty of idolatry, why then was the decree revoked? “[Since] their [worship of the statue] was only superficial (i.e., they didn’t put their faith in the idol, they were just frightened to disobey the law of the land, Rashi ad. loc.), the divine decree against them was also only superficial” (Megillah 12a). Their sin was only an act to save their necks and the judgment could be repealed. But they would need a good Jewish lawyer.

The tradition is well-known. Whenever the Megillah speaks of “the king” it is a reference to God. This character change is much more than a mere Midrashic curiosity. It creates nothing less than an alternate narrative, one that is typically missed as we follow the plain meaning of the text. But sometimes this unseen subtext breaks through to the surface with startling results.

Why did Esther invite Haman to the party? I believe she was orchestrating a secret message for God.

“Look what we have here,” Esther says to God at the party.

“Here we have a king and a queen. And the queen is fooling around with another man. Or, at least, it appears as if she is. She isn’t really being unfaithful. It is only an act.”

Esther is staging a reenactment of the current crisis facing the Jews! The king is God, Esther is the Jewish nation, and Haman is the idol. Just as the idolatry of the Jews was without substance, so is Esther’s “affair” with Haman. [Adultery is analogous to idolatry (cf. Yermiyah 3:1). We could also add that Haman considered himself a god (Megillah 19a) and wore an idol on his heart (Esther Rabba 7:5).]

This is Esther’s little Purim play.

“Now,” continues Esther, “Let us see what Achashveirosh will do.”

At first, Achashveirosh leaves the room, abandoning Esther. This is not what she was hoping for. But then Achashveirosh returns… and kills Haman!

While it is true that paganism cannot coexist with worship of the true God – “the bed isn’t big enough for two rivals!” (Yeshaya 28:20; cf. Yoma 9b) – it does not follow that paganism must result in either God's departure (cf. Shemos 33:3; Rashi ad loc.) or the annihilation of the Jews (cf. Shemos 32:10). There is a third option. This was Esther’s argument before the Heavenly Court:

“I fooled around with Haman, but Achashveirosh did not kill me; he killed Haman. Maybe the Jews fooled around with other gods, but You don’t have to abandon them or destroy them. You can destroy the idols instead!”

This was also Esther intent earlier when she walked through the idol-filled hall. She knew God would leave and she challenged Him with the question of the hour. “My God, My God! Why have you left me? Why give up on the Jews? Are idols the problem? Destroy the idols!”

Her request is not as outrageous as it sounds. There is a historical precedent. In the story of the Exodus, at the tenth plague, God entered the land of Egypt at midnight. And at that very moment every idol in Egypt disintegrated (Shemos 12:12). The Jews of Egypt were pagans, but God didn’t destroy them. He destroyed the idols instead. This is what Esther was asking for.

The Talmud has no less than ten theories on why Esther invited Haman to the party and Eliyahu informs us that they are all correct (Megillah 15b). The whole is now greater than the sum of its parts. Conflate Rabbi Nechemia with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha with Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia and you get Esther’s grand strategy: she wanted make Achashveirosh angry and jealous – and she wanted God to notice Achashveirosh’s response. But in order for this risky plan to work, Esther needed the people to return to the sincere service of Hashem alone. In other words, they had to really pray.

God took notice. He heard the people’s prayers, He accepted Esther’s argument and He performed the very miracle she requested. God saved the Jew and destroyed the idol. Better said, He destroyed idolatry itself. A few short years after Esther made her appeal, in the days of the prophet Nechemia, the Jews were finally fed up with their pagan tendencies and wished to end it once and for all. They prayed and “cried out to Hashem Elokim in a loud voice” (Nechemia 9:4) and “they fasted for three days and three nights” (sic!) (Yoma 69b). They learned it from Esther: faith can only be restored through prayers and fasting. God acquiesced and delivered the drive for paganism into their hands (ibid.).

No longer would the Jew struggle with that terrible force for evil. Thus were the Jews saved from sin and destruction, and thus did idolatry disappear from the annals of Jewish history.
* * * * *
Immediately after the hanging of Haman, “the King Achashveirosh gives Haman’s house to Esther the Queen” (8:1). Esther then puts Mordechai in charge of it (8:2).

Not only does the killing of Haman foreshadow the destruction of the pagan drive in the days of Nechemia, it also foreshadows the complete destruction of the Yetzer HaRa at the End of Days. We will then revert to the pure state of Adam and Eve before the sin (cf. Ramban to Devarim 30:6).

The Talmud tells us that “in the future, the officers of Judah will teach Torah publically in the theaters and circuses of Edom” (Megillah 6a). This is exactly what we find in the Megillah: the house of Haman (who descends from Edom) is taken over by none other than Mordachai (who descends from Yehuda). Mordachai, a member of both the Sanhedrin and the Great Assembly, undoubtedly taught Torah there.

May the day be soon when evil is vanquished and we can say shiurim in the Chinese Theatre.

ונהפוך הוא!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Purim Afterthoughts: No Speak the Language

After killing his wife Vashti, Achashveirosh justifies his violence with a quizzical new decree: “Every man must be the master of his household and speak the language of his nation” (Esther 1:22). In cases when spouses hail from different states of the Empire, husbands may no longer opt to speak their wives’ native tongue. Rather, all women must learn to speak their husband’s language.

Strange law. As far as P’shat is concerned, it seems to support the opinion that Achaveirosh was a fool (cf. Talmud, Megillah 12a). But, as in all things Megillah, there is more here than meets the eye.
The first thing we need to understand about the holiday of Purim is that it is a celebration of the power of prayer.
The prophets in conjunction with the court legislated and commanded the annual reading of the Megillah in order to recall God’s qualities, the salvations that He performed for us, and the fact that He was nearby when we called out [to Him]. This leads us to bless Him and sing His praises and makes known to future generations that the Torah’s promise is true: “Which other nation has a god that is close to it like Hashem our God [is close] to all who call out to Him!” (Devarim 4:7).
Rambam, postscript to Minyan HaMitzvos
The Rambam is referring here to the three-day fast which Esther declared for the Jews of Shushan (cf. Esther 4:16). Those three days of prayer saved the Jews and, according to the Rambam, it is the efficacy of those prayers that we are commemorating and celebrating on this holiday. This understanding of Purim’s central message is alluded to long before the prayers begin, in the Megillah’s introduction of Mordechai: “There was a Jew in the capital city of Shushan. His name was Mordachai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (Esther 2:5). The Talmud expounds the verse:
“Son on Yair” – a son who illuminated the eyes of the Jews with his prayers. “Son of Shimi” – a son whose prayers were heard [by God]. “Son of Kish” – for he knocked on the Gates of Compassion and they were opened for him.
Talmud, Megillah 12b
The role of prayer in the salvation of Purim is easily understood in light of the national sin which doomed the Jews to annihilation. For Haman’s decree was no mere anti-Semitism; it was rooted in a very real verdict made in the Heavenly Court: the Jews of Babylonia were guilty of bowing to the statues of Nebuchadnezzar (Talmud, Megillah 12a). Since it was idol worship that needed to be rectified, prayer – the worship of the One God – was the only viable response.  

This also explains Esther's directive to fast for three days and three nights. According to the Rambam, the offering of animal sacrifices on the Temple's altar functioned to counter and rectify the mistaken belief in other gods (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46; cf. Ramban to Vayikra 1:9). Fasting is nothing less than an offering of our very own flesh and blood (cf. Berachos 17a), so it presumably has the same effect. And prayer serves as a stand-in for sacrifices (cf. Berachos 26b), especially when the Jews are in exile and lack a Temple. It follows that the extraordinary self-sacrifice of fasting for three days straight, coupled with and directed by intense prayer, cleansed the Jewish mind of paganism and reset their hearts with a pure faith in the One God.
Since Purim is about prayer, it wouldn’t be off-topic here to ask a basic question about our Siddur. Originally, every Jew composed his own personal prayers. No text existed and the daily Mitzvah of Tefillah was fulfilled by simply praying for your needs in your own words. That is the way it was until two and half millennia ago when the Great Assembly produced the Siddur and required every Jew to say the same thing three times a day: the one and only “Shmoneh Esrei.”
Why the change? The Rambam has a theory.
When the Jews were exiled in the days of the evil Nebuchadnezzar they began to assimilate in Persia, Greece and other nations. Their children were born in the lands of the gentiles and were linguistically challenged. These [second generation refugees] spoke in a blend of languages and were incapable of expressing themselves in any one language without error, as the verse states, “Their children spoke half Assyrian and didn’t know how to speak Hebrew or the language of any nation” (Nechemia 13:24). As a result, when one of them would pray, he would be limited in his ability to express his needs or to praise God in Hebrew without also including words from other languages. When Ezra and his court recognized this [problem], they rose [to the occasion] and established the ordered brachos of Shmoneh Esrei.
Rambam, Laws of Tefillah 1:4
The above quote gives the impression that prayers must be said in Hebrew. A clear, unadulterated Hebrew. But things are not so simple. It is actually permitted to pray in any language and the Shmoneh Esrei may be read in translation (cf. Shulchan Aruch O.C. 101:4). So why did the men of the Great Assembly choose to compose our prayers in Hebrew and not in the spoken language of the Diaspora?
Some may suggest that Hebrew is the language of the Jews. Having all Jews pray in Hebrew would certainly go a long way to strengthen our national identity and unity in exile. Others would say that the use of Hebrew expressed the great longing of our people to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild. There may be truth to these ideas, but I believe they miss the point.
Hebrew is God’s language. It is the language He used to create the universe and the language He used to speak to His prophets. This is why Hebrew is called the “Holy Tongue” (Ramban to Shemos 30:13). If we must select a language for prayer, Hebrew is the natural choice; we should speak to God in His language. And if we don’t understand it, then we’d better learn it.
The Medrash tells us that whenever the Megillah speaks of “the king” (HaMelech), it refers not only to King Achashveirosh, it refers also to the King of kings, God Himself. This allows us to suggest a Midrashic reading of the King’s strange decree at the beginning of the Megillah.
This Megillah is going to be a story about prayer, and God, always setting up the cure before the strike, is giving us some helpful advice right at the outset. When a wife (i.e., the Jews) wishes to speak to her husband (i.e., God), it is recommended that she speak in His language, not hers.
The Jews took the hint and composed the Shmoneh Esrei in Hebrew, to great effect. The Jews prayed and God responded. And they lived happily ever after.
Continue with part-two here.