Esther 1:1, Question 2. Why does the verse say “hu Achashverosh” (“he was the Achashverosh”) as if we know him already?

  • According to the Vilna Gaon in his Peshat (literal) explanation, the verse emphasizes that he was a different Achashverosh from one noted elsewhere in TaNaCh, the father of Darius (Daniel 9:1).
  • According to the Talmud (Megillah 11a), the word “hu” is used regarding people who do not change, as we see regarding Eisav (Bereishis 36:43), Dasan and Aviram (Bamidbar 26:9) and King Ahaz (Divrei HaYamim 1 28:22). Some people never change. Achashverosh, as the Midrash points out, didn’t kill Haman in the end because he saw the error of his ways. Rather, he was motivated by the exact same (self-) love that motivated his earlier execution of Vashti.
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Esther 1:1, Question 1. Why does the Talmud (Megillah 10b-11a) assume that “vayihee” (“and it was”) has negative connotations?

פרק א

א וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הַמֹּלֵךְ מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד-כּוּשׁ שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה

Chapter 1
1. And it was in the days of Achashverosh – he was the Achashverosh who rules from Hodu and until Cush, seven and twenty and a hundred state.

The Talmud (Megillah 11a) teaches that “vayihee” is an amalgamation of “vay” and “hee,” words that connote sadness and mourning even onomatopoetically, as they sound like cries. The reason for this is because people who are past focused instead of future focused are naturally unhappy. Like a housewife who is constantly doting over her wedding album as if no new memories are worthy of attention, people who are constantly singing “Those Were the Days” are not focusing on positive moments in the present like those who sing “These Are the Days.”

Introduction

The Scroll of Esther is a book in the Torah, but it can be difficult for many to see it as such. Firstly, the holiday of Purim can get in the way. It is a fun day, and at its most sober, Purim morphs into an almost totally child-focused holiday in most communities. The observant Jew hears the Megillah read twice on this annual day, but is more than likely too busy preparing the other mitzvahs of the day to pay much attention to the actual words within the folds of this scroll. Sure, they know the basics of the story, but they cannot be expected to wonder why it says Achashverosh’s name two times in the first verse, neither of which time identifies him as a king.

    But Esther is much more than the holiday of Purim, as great a day as it is. Being a Torah text, it contains unfathomable wisdom and depth. The greatest of scholars can plumb through it, and there will still be new insights to add. The holy Alshich says as much in the introduction to his commentary to Megillas Esther. He adds that we could all benefit from continued review of this shining example of H-Shem’s love for us and clear example of His contant supervision of our lives.

    But what makes this book a Torah book? It is a fair question since even the Sages of the Talmud note that the unique absense of H-Shem’s name in the body of this work certainly should make us suspicious of its holy origin. Other books, like Maccabees, were relegated to the Apocrypha (great ancient books not in the Torah cannon, but sometimes quoted in the Talmud and other later works) despite the fact that they may recall equally great miraculous rescues, and may even contain the added bonus of naming H-Shem as the Performer of these miracles. Even The Wisdom of Ben Sira, a book quoted often in the Talmud, and filled with wisdom not unlike Mishlei and Koheles, was for some reason not included in the cannon of Tanach.

    Answers abound, but what seems most clear is that it has to do with two interrelated factors – ruach hakodesh and language. Ruach hakodesh is the Divine, prophetic influence of a work. It is simultaneously a testament to a work’s holy root, and its universal, forever-relevant objective. Ruach hakodesh is the reason people who learns Tehillim in their times of worry, joy, and pain can feel as though Dovid HaMelech custom-tailored Tehillim for their very own situation.

    According to the Talmud (Megillah 7a), when Esther approached the Sages about writing this book, they were originally reluctant. Besides the concern about the number of times we may make mention of our defeating Amalek (or their descendants) due to a verse in Mishlei (22:20) and fear of anti-Semitic reprisals for the publishing of a Jewish victory, there is much discussion there as to whether or not the book was written with ruach hakodesh. For instance, Rabbi Akiva there uses the verse that says Esther “found favor in all who saw her” (Esther 2:15) as a proof that the Megillah was written through ruach hakodesh. Logically, a human author could not presume (in non-fiction) to know how other people feel, and would not then know how people felt about Esther. The proof is nevertheless rejected because the actions of people can often reveal their true feelings.

    Finally, a proof against which nobody could argue was the verse towards the end of Megillas Esther (9:27) “they accepted and committed themselves to the Torah.” The Talmud (Makkos 23b) teaches that, due to its grammatical structure, this verse is applying to two distinct groups. It means, then, that what was accepted on earth was also accepted in Heaven. No human author could know that without Divine inspiration. And it was Esther’s Divine inspiration, prompting the Sages to not only accept this work as a part of Tanach – but to also call it after her name. As mentioned earlier, she was the one, after all, who approached the Sages in the first place, and advocated successfully to be written “for generations” (Talmud, Megillah 7a). According to Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss, one of the reasons for this out-of-character, seemingly haughty request was that Esther’s prophecy allowed her to see that  Megillas Esther would contain valuable lessons for future generations. Like what, you ask?

    An oft-repeated Midrash (Bireishis Rabba 58:3 and Esther Rabba 1:8) relates that Rabbi Akiva once reenergized some slumbering students with the revelation that Esther earned the position of being queen of 127 states in the merit of being the descendant of the matriarch, Sarah, who lived 127 years. What does the one have to do with the other? Besides, why does the Midrash inform of of Rabbi Akiva’s students’ state of rest? Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter, the Chiddushei HaRim, explains that each country is made up by states, cities, neighborhoods, streets, homes, and rooms. A year, too, is made up of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and even seconds. Rabbi Akiva is pointing out to the value of time. Had Sarah not behaved in perfection for each moment of her 127 years of life, Esther’s kingdom would be missing some part. Rabbi Akiva, being the master educator, realized that his sleeping students needed to understand the long-term value of their actions. The Megillah is “for generations” because it is meant to wake us up from the droll of exile. This is not wasted time. On the contrary, this is the time for us to build our palaces of Truth through the Torah we learn.

    In preparing for the classes, I was struck by the sheer amount of learning surrounding Megillas Esther. Numerous commentaries are available in Hebrew and English, and I have attempted in this work to bring as many works as possible together in a sort of fluid collage of Torah scholarship. As most of the chiddushim below are not my own, in many ways I feel more like an editor than writer. As such, whatever errors and faults you find below may be placed squarely on my shoulders. On the other hand, any ideas in these pages which inspire you and in some way reveal the hidden the hidden mask of your Creator in your life and history should be credited to the Sages, living or departed, who have successfully led our nation through these difficult millenia of concealment.

Acknowledgments

First and foremost, I would like to thank H-Shem for the ability to learn and teach. Due to a combination of rather serious and seemingly negative events in my life, I have been granted this rare opportunity to devote my time to studying and teaching the precious Torah. On the same token, I would like to thank you for navigating to this blog. After all, your learning from these words makes the tragedies that led up to this moment not to have occurred for naught.

Of course, my wonderful community of Young Israel of San Diego deserves most of the credit for this work. They allowed me to have the classes of which this is but a outcropping in the shul. It goes without saying that the Megillah class (called an “in-depth discussion group” for a reason) would be an empty experiment if not for its seven regular participants and the few stray visitors. In particular, I would like to thank ES, the participant who put the entire class together, financially and otherwise. Some of the rather wise “chiddushim” I present as my own are actually things said in the group that I organically incorporated into my understanding of the holy text.

Our community’s venerable Moreh d’assra, Rabbi Hollander, has given me resources, knowledge, encouragement, inspiration, and love. On that last note, I must thank my ezer kinegdi, my wonderful wife, for her wise counsel, her building me to be my best, and her patience with my failings. She has a share in every word I write. May she and I merit to see our children grow to stand with the righteous amongst the myrtles, and see the sudden shift in events that will herald our redemption.