Esther 5:9, Question 3. Why does Mordechai refuse to perform these two actions?

  • The Vilna Gaon writes that Mordechai did not get up as if Haman were not even there.
  • The Ohel Moshe reminds us that Nefesh HaChaim (3:12) writes that a powerful spiritual power we have is to internalize the idea that no influence can affect us besides H-Shem. Mordechai’s believing this is one reason he refuses to even rise for Haman.
  • The Maharal writes the two actions of standing and stirring refer to Mordechai giving no sign of respect to either Haman, nor the idol he had constantly about him. He quotes the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:8) that Mordechai felt Haman made himself into an idolatry. In other words, borrowing a phrase from Yeshaya (2:24) such a person has “his soul in his nose,” or considers his own self-aggrandizement before anything else. For this self-worship is what Mordechai could not stir.
  • Rebbetzin Heller writes that when the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch was is Russia, he quoted a Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a-b) that there are three things for which Jews should give up their lives to avoid transgressing. Put simply, these three “cardinal sins” are idolatry, adultery, and murder. However, that is only true under regular circumstances. However, if a nation attempts to destroy Judaism altogether, even the “smallest” of sins cannot be committed under threat of death. Therefore, in communist Russia too, where their laws added up to a struggle against Judaism, all of their laws could be ignored.
  • In an interesting gematria, the phrase v’lo kam v’lo za (“he did not rise and he did not stir”) (6+30+1+100+40+6+30+1+7+70=291) less the two mentions of v’lo (“and he did not”) (6+30+1=37×2=74) is equivalent to 217, the numerical value of eretz (“land”) (1+200+90=291). Perhaps this indicates that Mordechai’s refusal to do these actions helped the Jews merit re-entry into the Land of Israel in the following Persian reigns.
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Esther 4:16, Question 5. Why does Esther require three days of fasting?

  • R’ Avigdor Miller points out that fasting for three days is difficult, and accomplished an unprecedented amount of teshuva.
  • The Talmud (Yevamos 121b) uses this verse to inform us that it is difficult, although not miraculous to be without food for that long.
  • The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 8:7) writes that these three days corresponded with the 13th, 14th, and 15th of Nisan, which included the first day of Pesach. When questioned regarding why Pesach should be foregone, Esther pointed out that there would be no Pesach if the Jews were wiped out.
  • The M’nos HaLevi quotes from the Yalkut Shimoni that these three days were the 14th, 15th, and 16th of Nisan. The Ohel Moshe points out that the main difference is whether or not the Jews of Persia had the second Seder.
  • The Maylitz Yosher writes that the Jews were expected to fast on Pesach in order to shock them into realizing the seriousness of their predicament.
  • The M’nos HaLevi writes that the three days correspond to three sins regarding which Esther expects to be guilty: eat non-kosher food, submit herself to Achashverosh, and partial complicity in the death of Hasach.
  • Rabbeinu Bachya writes that H-Shem only challenges tzaddikim for three days. For example, when Avraham went to potentially sacrifice his son, he found Mount Moriah in three days (Bireishis 22:4). Also, when the brothers were taken by Yosef, they were imprisoned for three days (Ibid. 42:18). Furthermore, Yonah remained inside the big fish that swallowed him for three days (Yonah 2:1). R’ Dovid Feinstein writes that the three sections of the Written Law (Torah, Nevi’im, and Kesuvim) were given to three groups of Jews (Kohanim, Levi’im, and Yisroelim) for which they needed to prepare for three days (Shemos 19:11).
  • The Ben Ish Chai writes that the Torah affects us on three different levels: thought, speech, and action. Therefore, Esther was telling Mordechai that the Jews need to prepare these three days to perform honest repentance through thought, speech, and action.
  • The Ginzei HaMelech quotes the Vilna Gaon (on Bireishis 27:13) that when Rivka told the nervous Yaakov to place the blame of his upcoming deception “eilai” (“on me”), this word can be an acronym for Eisav, Lavan, and Yosef. Those may be the greatest of Yaakov’s tests in life, that came along with the blessing he gets from his father.
  • Also, the Ginzei HaMelech points out that these are three different types of people: Eisav represents a glutton; Lavan represents idolatry, and Yosef represents the challenge of intermarriage. These same three issues are the ones for which Jewish existence was threatened in the Purim story. Pri Tzedek quotes from the Zohar on Chukas that the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, represent three characteristics: kindness, awe, and truth. These are the polar opposites of the three characteristics which, according to the Mishnah (Avos 4:21), destroy one’s life: jealousy, lust, and honor. During these three days, then, Esther wanted the Jews to perfect themselves in these three areas.
  • The Ben Ish Chai points out that three days is 72 hours, and this is the gematria of chesed, (“kindness”) (8+60+4=72). Therefore, the Jews were supposed to spend these days evoking H-Shem’s Kindness.
  • R’ Avraham Sutton points out that 72 is also the gematria of H-Shem’s four-letter Name when each letter is spelled out with all the yuds included ([10+6+4]+[5+10]+[6+10+6]+[5+10]=72).

Esther 4:7, Question 5. Why does the verse emphasize Mordechai’s telling Esther about the destruction of the Jews?

  • The Vilna Gaon writes that the verse emphasizes Mordechai’s telling Esther about the destruction of the Jews to clarify that the public documents vaguely informing Shushan to be ready actually intended the annihilation of the Jews.
  • R’ Yehonason Eibshutz breaks apart the word “li’avdam” (“to destroy”) into the words “lo badam” (“not with blood”). In explanation, he cites the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:14) that relates the following allegorical anecdote:

[After the Satan convinced H-Shem to agree that Yisroel deserved destruction, and various levels of H-Shem’s servants respond,] Eliyahu (of Blessed Memory) ran in terror to the Patriarchs and Moshe son of Amram. And he said to them, “How long will the Patriarchs of old remain asleep? Are you not paying attention to the evils in which your children find themselves? The ministering angels, the sun, the moon, the stars and constellations, Heaven and Earth, and all the Heavenly servants are bitterly crying. And you are standing by, not paying attention?!” They said to him, “Why [were they found worthy of destruction]?” He said to them, “Because Yisroel enjoyed themselves at the feast of Achashverosh. Because of this, H-Shem decreed upon them a decree to annihilate them from the world, and to destroy their memory.” Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov said to him, “If they transgressed the Will of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and this decree is sealed, what are we able to do?” Eliyahu returned, and said to Moshe, “Trustworthy shepherd! How often have you stood in the breach for the sake of Yisroel, and nullified the decree against them to avoid their annihilation? As it is written, ‘Did not Moshe, His chosen, stand in the breach before Him to turn back His anger from destroying’ (Tehillim 106:23). How do you answer this evil?” […] Moshe said to him, “Is there anyone good in this generation?” [Eliyahu] said, “There is, and his name is Mordechai.” [Moshe] said to him, “Go and tell him that when he stands there to pray, and I from here, and he seeks mercy for them before the Holy One, Blessed is He…” [Eliyahu] said to him, “Trustworthy shepherd! It is already written, this letter of destruction of Yisroel!” Moshe said to him, “If it is written in clay, our prayers will be heard. And if it is written in blood, it is already done.” [Eliyahu] said, “It is written in clay.” Moshe our Teacher said to him, “Go and tell Mordechai.”

 R’ Eibshutz asks on this this story: What is the symbolic significance of the document being written in blood or clay? Why would a decree written in blood be irreversible? He explains that Adam was created from earth and soul (Bireishis 2:7). Clay is made from earth and the Torah testifies that blood is the essence of the nefesh, soul (Vayikra 17:14, see Ramban to Vayikra 17:11). Thus, clay represents the physical and blood represents the spiritual. In the Midrash, then, Moshe was asking Eliyahu if the decree against the Jews was written for physical reasons (i.e. their enjoying Achashverosh’s feast) or spiritual reasons (i.e. bowing to an idol of Nevuchadnetzer). Had it been for their spiritual rejection of H-Shem (G-d forbid!), the decree would stand. In our verse, Mordechai was telling Esther that the decree was “lo b’dam,” not written in blood, and thus had a physical root that could be reversed with the power of prayer1.

1It is unclear to the author why the cause should be unclear; the above-cited Midrash explicitly stated that the decree was written and sealed due to the Jews’ enjoying Achashverosh’s feast. Perhaps the question was regarding the Jews’ motivation in attending the feast, and is not related to the seeming worship of Nevuchadnetzer’s statue. Tzarich iyun.

Esther 4:1, Question 5. Why does the verse stress that Mordechai’s cry was “great and bitter?”

  • The Talmud (Megillah 15a) records an argument about what, exactly, Mordechai was calling out as he went through Shushan. One opinion there has it that he yelled out, “Haman is greater than Achashverosh” in order to arouse the king’s jealousy. The other opinion is that Mordechai yelled out, “The King above is greater than the king below” in a euphemistic fashion to imply that Achashverosh was attempting to usurp H-Shem’s Power.
  • Yalkut Shimoni writes that there is generally a difference between Jewish prayer and idolatrous prayer; whereas Chana’s prayer was quiet (Shmuel 1 1:13), Eisav’s prayer was a “great and bitter cry” (Bireishis 27:38). Like dogs that bark loudest when they have the least bite with which to threaten, an idol-worshiper’s prayer needs to be loud since it has the least spiritual power behind it.
  • Furthermore, Rav Eliyah Lopian suggests that, whereas physical people cry over physical phenomena, spiritual people cry about spiritual matters. Here, however, to counteract the possible spiritual effectiveness of Haman’s ancestor’s (Eisav) “great and bitter cry,” caused by the actions of Mordechai’s ancestor (Yaakov).
  • According to Yosek Lekach and the Vilna Gaon, Mordechai’s cry was inspired by his feeling responsible for the decree against the Jews. After all, his decision to refuse to bow to Haman, regardless of the logic, is what led directly to Haman’s anger with the Jews of Persia and beyond.
  • R’ Henach Leibowitz points out in his characteristic way that this should be a powerful lesson to us about how careful we must be to avoid hurting someone, even when we are in the right!
  • Taken as a unit, some commentators find great significance in the combination of these three motifs of the sackcloth, the city, and the crying. According to the Ginzei HaMelech, the loud voice represents Avraham because he spoke out powerfully against idolatry in a world filled with idols (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avoda Zara 1:3). The ash represents Yitzchak who allowed his father to symbolically sacrifice him. The sackcloth represents Yaakov, who mourned in sack upon being told of his son’s untimely death (Bireishis 37:33). Therefore, in a thoughtful, calculated action of spiritual symbolism, Mordechai used these to recall the merits of the forefathers, whose merits always protect their descendants.

Esther 4:1, Question 2. What does the verse refer to as “all that was done?”

  • Rashi writes that Mordechai’s dream revealed to him not only that the Jews deserved annihilation, but also “all that was done” – the reason for H-Shem’s decree against the Jews; the Jews had bowed to an idol in the days of Nevuchadnetzer and enjoyed Achashverosh’s party.
  • Interestingly, R’ Avigdor Bonchek notes that these two reasons – the idol-worship being spiritual and the party being physical – match up perfectly with dual parts of the decree, killing the Jews spiritually and physically, respectively.

Esther 3:12, Question 3. Who actually wrote the letter?

  • The verse seems to intentionally obscure the identity of the letter’s author. Although the scribes were called in, it does not say who actually wrote it. The Yosef Lekach notes that the word “nichtav” (“he wrote”) is a verb grammatically in the singular form because H-Shem was the Author of the decree to destroy the Jews. In fact, as has been mentioned previously, there is a discussion in the Talmud (Megillah 12a) regarding the reason the Jews deserve such a harsh decree at this time. One opinion is that, decades earlier, the Jews bowed down to a statue of Nevuchadnetzer (Daniel 3:6). The other opinion is that the Jews enjoyed the feast celebrating their exile in the beginning of Megillas Esther.
  • Rav Shimon Schwab writes that the Jews then performed both of these action to maintain good relations with the nation around them – not to actually worship idols or celebrate their exile, G-d forbid. For whatever reason, H-Shem decided it was deserving, and this is the fate He sealed. He is the King referred to in this verse, Whose ring sealed the Jews’ fate. Of course, every sealed fate can still be re-opened with the power of Teshuva (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuva 1:3).

Esther 3:9, Question 3. Why does Haman choose the specific number of 10,000 loaves of silver?

Many commentators, the Rambam included, believe that numbers have no significance in the Torah. According to them, the main purpose served by numerology and gematria is pedagogic; they can serve as mnemonic learning tools to help students better remember key information. In the philosophy of the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46), a particular number of sacrifices is mentioned in reference to one sacrifice over another only to emphasize its seriousness. If we were to ask why a particular number is used rather than another number, we could never be satisfied. In our case here, had Haman offered 9,000 loaves of silver, would we not ask why that number? Moreover, would we not be able to think of a great many powerful reasons? Despite this, the vast majority of opinions accord with the idea that numbers do have symbolic significance throughout the Written and Oral Torahs. Especially in a book like Megillat Esther, which we have seen is densely coded to add levels of meaning, numbers seem to play a significant role in understanding the text1.

  • The Vilna Gaon says here that the significance of this number of Haman’s offer is that it is a monstrously huge amount. A shekel is 0.8 ounces of silver. A loaf (or bar) of silver is 30,000 shekels, or 24,000 ounces of silver. Therefore, Haman’s 10,000 loaves of silver are equal to 24,000,000 ounces, or 750 tons, of silver. Class participant JS calculated that such an amount would be equivalent to $941,280,000 in 2012 standards.
  • According to Ibn Ezra, this is amplified. He considers this an abbreviated phrase, and that the money offered by Haman is 100,000 loaves of silver.
  • Rav Dovid Feinstein says Haman offered this particular amount because he projected this to be the cost of killing off the Jews.
  • The Targum translates this verse as “100 times their amount.” What is meant is probably related to the Talmud (Megillah 13b) that states that H-Shem, for Whom time does not exist, gave the Jews the law of giving the half-shekel (Mishnah, Shekalim 1:1) to counteract the effect of Haman’s offer.
  • According to Ben Ish Chai, this ratio is alluded to in a blessing for the Jews (Vayikra 26:8) that “one hundred of you will pursue ten thousand.”
  • According to the Rambam, such is the power of a mitzvah that each Jew’s individual half-shekel is enough to outweigh the worth of any number of loaves of silver, or anything else.
  • According to the Talmud (Megillah 16a), upon confronting Mordechai before leading him though the city on the king’s horse (6:11 below), Haman himself acknowledges to Mordechai that the half-shekel given by the Jews overpowered his offer to the king.
  • According to Tosvos on that page (d.h. “Vidachei”), the half-shekel given by the Jews leaving Egypt equaled exactly the 10,000 loaves of silver. Tosvos, however, note there is a difficulty with the math. Otherwise, why would the half-shekel of 600,000 men aged 20-70 leaving Egypt, which should equal 300,000 shekels, be comparable to 10,000 loaves of silver, or 30,000 shekels?
  • Rav Yaakov Emden’s solution to this problem is to point out that in earlier manuscripts of Tosvos, it does not say “chetzi shekel” (“half-shekel”), but the acronym “Ch’Sh,” which could mean “chamishim shekel” (“fifty shekel”). When fifty shekel are multiplied by 600,000, the result is 30,000,000 shekel, the value of Haman’s offer.
  • The Bach answers Tosvos’s math problem by explaining that in an average lifetime of seventy years (see Tehillim 90:10), a man will give a half-shekel fifty times between the ages of twenty and seventy, or twenty-five shekels. 600,000 men giving twenty-five shekels would be 15,000,000 shekels. These 15,000,000 shekels divided by 1500 shekalim (the value of a Beis HaMikdash loaf) would be exactly 10,000 loaves.
  • Rabbeinu Bachya (on Shemos 38:25) and the Torah Temimah answer Tosvos’s math problem differently. According to them, the half-shekel given by the Jews in the desert was a dedication of money representing the valuation of their own worth. According to the Torah (Vayikra 27:2), each man is worth 50 shekels. All 600,000 men donating their own worth of 50 shekels each would be worth 30,000,000 shekels. These 30,000,000 divided by the 3000 totals 10,000. When they actually gave this half-shekel, the Torah testifies (Shemos 38:25) that this silver totaled one hundred loaves, plus one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels. Therefore, Haman’s loaves were one hundred times more than the hundred loaves of the Jews leaving Egypt. Furthermore, the number of Jews contributing is given in the next verse (ibid. 26) as 603,550. The additional 1755 shekels were given by the 3550 people.
  • Rabbi Aryeh Naiman reminds us that the whole purpose of the half-shekel was to an indirect form of census-taking. The more direct form, actually counting individuals is a sure recipe for plague, as the Torah (Shemos 30:12) warns. Rashi there explains that because of “ayin hara” (“the evil eye”). The evil eye is caused by people being jealous of what others possess. When Person A becomes jealous, he begins to question why Person B deserves the luxury Person A desires. In Heaven, too, where the Heavenly angels mirror our behavior (see Nefesh HaChaim 1:7), they also begin to question why Person B deserved that object. After all, who is truly worthy of all the blessings bestowed upon us by H-Shem? It is only through the Chesed (kindness) of H-Shem that we are not judged more harshly. He, in His Mercy, over-values our merits, and temporarily overlooks our deficiencies to give us the opportunity to improve (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuva 3:5). When the Heavenly court focuses on one person due to our jealousy, that person’s good fortune will be restrained. Rashi (on Shemos 30:12) points out that this taking of a person out of the general populace and examining him or her with more scrutiny is the cause of plague. Incidentally, in the laws of kashrus, too, Rabbi Naiman points out, if a drop of milk falls into a pot of beef stew, the milk would probably be nullified in the majority. However, if that drop is recognizable still, even if the pot were the size of football stadium, the milk would not be nullified, since there is a rule (Talmud, Zevachim 73b) that one cannot nullify what is recognizable. Regarding people, too, without a community, one does not have the merits of the community with which to stand judgment. Regarding the half-shekel, everybody – rich and poor – gave the same amount (Shemos 30:15). Also, everybody gave one half of a shekel, rather than a complete amount. In a symbolic sense, Person A’s half-shekel was made “whole” only with Person B’s contribution. In the desert, the shekels were used to cast the sockets of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) (see Rashi to Shemos 30:16). Each individual socket was used as the base for the beam just like each individual in a community helps make a foundation for everyone else. When there were later censuses taken, the half-shekels were used to fund communal offerings (see Rashi to Shemos 30:15). Interestingly, Amalek first attacked the Jewish people (Shemos 17:8) when the Jews began to speak in first-person, individual language (ibid. 3). Amalek gains strength when Jews lose focus of their nationhood. Rabbi Naiman quotes R’ Yeshayahu Horowitz as saying that Haman’s claim to Achashverosh is that the Jewish people are vulnerable because they do not care about their national identity. Only then can Haman’s 10,000 loaves overpower their offerings. This is why it was so important for the Jews to unify in order to nullify Haman’s decree.
  • Another answer comes from Rabbi Mordechai Kornfeld who brings the Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu on the Talmud (Kiddushin 12a) that dates in Persia were once worth more than silver. If silver was so devalued, Haman’s 10,000 loaves were indeed equal to the Jews’ contribution in the desert.
  • Rabbi Zev Reichman quotes Rabbi Moshe Wolfson with an interesting question; assuming the 600,000 people’s half-shekel pieces correspond with 10,000 loaves of silver, what does Haman make of the extra 1775 shekel pieces given by the extra 3550 people in the census? There were people of the tribe of Dan who walked through the desert worshiping idols, oblivious to the open miracles all around them. In fact, when Amalek attacked, their victims were these “nechshalim” (“stragglers”) (Devarim 25:18). According to the Maharal (Gevuras H-Shem), the 600,000 is a symbolic number. It represents perfection. The remaining 3550 represent the people lacking in their spiritual perfection. Amalek attacks those very people because they sense their weakness. Haman, too, ignores their contribution because, in his estimation, the G-d of the Jews should not care about them. Indeed, his silver loaves match the contributions of the 600,000. But it was the 1775 shekels of the Jews Haman thought G-d forgot that outmatched Haman’s offering, and effectively rescued the Jews. Incidentally, the gematria for the Hebrew word “kikar” (“loaf”) (20+20+200=240) equals exactly the gematria of Amalek (70+40+30+100).
  • On another level, the Rabbeinu Bachya writes that Haman’s 10,000 loaves of silver were meant to counter the power of the Ten Commandments since Haman’s word “eshkol” (“will be weighed out”) can be broken up into “eish” (“fire”) and “kol” (“voice/sound”). Fire and sounds marked the giving of the Ten Commandments (Shemos 19:18-19).
  • The Ben Ish Chai writes that the Jews of Achashverosh’s reign, confident that the Temple would be rebuilt, were accruing funds for that purpose. The money they gathered were called adrochanya, worth two shekel. 600,000 representative number of Jews gathering these 800 loaves for the twelve years of Achashverosh’s reign would be 9600 loaves of silver, 400 less than Haman’s. This is why the Jews needed from that Nisan to the next Adar to gather 800 more loaves. This totaled 10,400. The additional 400 represent the 400 men who came with Eisav when he met up with Yaakov (Bereishis 33:1). According to Kabbalistic literature, this number thus represents 400 forces of impurity. This extra number of loaves overpower Haman – descendant of Eisav.
  • The Steipler Gaon asks why this number has to match at all. After all, Haman is evil, and the charity given by the Jews is pure. When Yaakov met up with Eisav, he told him he had lived with Lavan (Bereishis 32:5) as a sign of humility. He was saying that he lived with Lavan, but did not learn from him (see Rashi there). What could Yaakov learn from the evil Lavan? Enthusiasm. Yaakov should have learned to perform mitzvos with the same enthusiasm with which Lavan sinned. The Steipler says that the Jews’ gifts need to match up mathematically with Haman’s offer because the Jews, too, need to match his enthusiasm for hate in order to overpower it. In short, as is true in various areas of Jewish philosophy, R’ Gedalya Schorr brings up that there needs to be a certain amount of good to balance out the bad, a concept known as “zeh l’umas zeh” (“this instead of this”, a phrase borrowed from Koheles 7:14). One could imagine spirituality as a bottle. This bottle is always full. Like all other things in nature, spirituality abhors a vacuum. So, if there is less holiness in that bottle, evil will take up that space so that the bottle is complete. The same zeh l’umas zeh dichotomy exists in all areas of life – love and hate, beauty and ugliness, kindness and meanness, etc.2

1 Otherwise, why does the text mention Achashverosh’s party lasting for 180 days? Why does the text mention the day of the party on which Vashti was killed? Why does the text mention the number of Achashverosh’s officers? Why does the text name and number certain months? Why does the text mention the number of Haman’s sons)? Why does the text mention the number of Persians killed by the Yehudim?

2This idea helps explain why prophecy ended when H-Shem fulfilled the Rabbis’ prayer to remove the desire for idol worship from the world (Talmud, Yoma 69b). Prophecy and idol worship, after all, are just different sides of the same coin.