- 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.
- Is Judaism a nationality or a lineage? It is neither, really. Judaism is unique in that it breaks through all of the sociological definitions of groups. It is not a religion because one can be Jewish and yet not observant and not a believer in Jewish ideals, and still can be counted for a minyan. It is not a nationality because one has to be (or have parents who are) from a particular place, and Judaism has converts. It is not a “race” because Jews can have different colors, body types, hair textures, and any of the other qualifiers for this designation.
- According to the Iyun Yaakov, everybody in Persia wanted to know Esther’s nationality because she looked like she could come from any nation, as the Talmud (Megillah 13a) asserts. Only the king was interested in her lineage to see if she was fitting for a king to marry. He would have less problem marrying her if she were not a commoner, but of royal blood.
- The Rambam notes in his commentary on Megillas Esther that it is interesting that, although Achashverosh offered tax exemptions and other rewards for anyone who would share information regarding Esther’s background, the Jews unanimously refused to give her up, despite their dire poverty. Regarding this, the Rambam comments, paraphrasing a blessing in Mincha for Shabbos, “Mi ka’amcha, Yisroel!” (“Which nation is like you, Israel!”)
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.