Esther 5:3, Question 2. Why does Achashverosh offer up to half of the kingdom?

  • The Maharal says that Achashverosh offered Esther only half of his kingdom because any more would make it so that it is no longer his; he would no longer be the majority stock holder in that corporation. He therefore offers her 49% of the kingdom.
  • The Talmud (Megillah 15b) says he was not willing to give her something that would “chotzetz,” divide the kingdom – the Beis HaMikdash.
  • R’ Dovid Feinstein writes that Achashverosh wants to feel in control of the world, and a rebuilt Temple guarantees that a portion of his population – ever so small – would have allegiance to something other than him.
  • Rashi (on the Talmud there) quotes the Mishnah (Yoma 5:2) that the Beis HaMikdash is the center of the kingdom because it contains the even shasiya, the foundation stone from which the earth was made. Based on this, the Ohel Moshe asks, why did Esther not ask for the Temple to be rebuilt? He brings the Megillas Sesarim that Amalek needs to be destroyed before the Temple is rebuilt.
  • The Sfas Emes notes that it is ironic that Achashverosh does not want the Temple rebuilt. After all, it was his decree that inspired the Jews to unite, earning them the privilege to build the second Beis HaMikdash. The Sfas Emes points out that this order is alluded to in our weekday Shemoneh Esrei prayer. First, we pray that H-Shem eliminate the wicked, then we pray that H-Shem elevate the righteous, and only then do we pray that H-Shem rebuild Yerushalayim1.
  • R’ Moshe Meir Weiss mentions that we first mention the righteous and then the rebuilding of Yerushalayim because it is not possible to take ownership of the Land without righteous leaders. Without holiness, there is no protection.
  • As a Kabbalistic allegory, the Rema writes that the body requires half of the malchus (royal spirituality), while the other half has to be material and physical. The holiest people in the world still need to invest in this physical reality.
  • Perhaps another reason Achashverosh considered Yerushalayim so important to his rule can be gleaned from an earlier discussion in the Talmud (11a) that quotes a braisa saying that only three kings – Achav, Achashverosh, and Nebuchadnetzer – ruled the entire known world. The Talmud asks why Sancherev was not included in this list, and responds that he ruled everything except Yerushalayim. In effect, not controlling Yerushalayim means not being king of the entire world. As such, Achashverosh would have been reluctant to part with the city that held the key to his inclusion into such an exclusive group.

1In the Purim story, too, first Haman is defeated, then Mordechai is promoted, and then Israel received permission to return to the Land.

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Esther 5:2, Question 1. Why does the verse use the word “vayehi” (“and it was”) here?

ב וַיְהִי כִרְאוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶתאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה עֹמֶדֶת בֶּֽחָצֵר נָשְׂאָה חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַיּוֹשֶׁט הַמֶּלֶךְ לְאֶסְתֵּר אֶתשַׁרְבִיט הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדוֹ וַתִּקְרַב אֶסְתֵּר וַתִּגַּע בְּרֹאשׁ הַשַּׁרְבִיט

2. And it was, when seen by the king was Esther the Queen standing in the courtyard, she received favor/grace in his eyes, and the king extended to Esther the gold scepter that was in his hand. And Esther came closer, and she touched the head of the scepter.

  • According to the Talmud (Megillah 10b-11a), the use of the the word “vayehi” indicates a negative event. In its simplest meaning, this was certainly a negative event for Esther, as she was risking both her life and her relationship with Mordechai by approaching the king unannounced.
  • The Maharal adds that this meeting was also bad for Achashverosh. Citing a Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni (1056) that an angel turned Achashverosh’s face towards Esther, the Maharal writes that this is bad for Achashverosh because the only thing we have in this world is our free choice. Once it is taken away, even momentarily, by an angel, we lose something of our humanity, making this a negative event, indeed.
  • Rabbi Avraham Sutton writes that H-Shem always saves us at our lowest point. Following Esther’s life of being an orphan, being raised in secret, being forced into the king’s harem, being chosen to be his wife, everything in her life seemed to her to be in a progressively worsening spiral. At this point, risking her life to save the Jews, she can be said to be at the lowest point in her life.

Esther 3:1, Question 2. Why does the king promote Haman?

  • Apparently basing itself on the idea that King here refers to H-Shem, the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:1) cites a verse in Tehillim (37:20) to relate that H-Shem allowed for Haman to be elevated only in order for his fall to be all-the-more steep and painful. There is a parable told there of a horse, a donkey, and a pig. The farmer feeds the donkey and horse a limited amount, and feeds the pig without measure. One day, the horse asks the donkey, “We do actual work, yet are fed less. This is not fair!” The wise donkey tells the horse to be patient and realize that the pig is not well-fed for its own good, but to be fattened up to be eaten by the farmer.
  • In the next Midrash (ibid. 7:2) a story is told of a king who felt it beneath his dignity to kill a peasant, so he promotes him in order to execute him without degrading himself. Such is the case with Haman, made great only to be cut down the more painfully.
  • The Chida calculates that Haman was at the peak of his power for a total of seventy days. He sent out the letters to kill the Jews on the 13th of Nisan. Seventy days later, on the 23rd of Sivan, Mordechai sent out the letters for the Jews to rescue themselves. Similarly, there are seventy verses between this verse where Haman is elevated and the verse where Haman is hanged (7:10).
  • The Ginzei HaMelech writes that, by elevating Haman, H-Shem was rewarding him for his advice to rid the world of the evil Vashti.
  • According to Rav Dovid Feinstein, Haman was elevated at this point as a consequence for King Shaul’s (Mordechai and Esther’s ancestor) misdirected kindness in keeping Agag (Haman’s ancestor) alive.
  • Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (21) writes that Haman’s elevation is a reward for Agag’s sincere prayer when he was locked up in prison, awaiting his death. Because of this evil man’s last prayer, a ruler was destined to come from him, as is alluded to in the verse (Bamidbar 24:7), “and He raised from Agag his kingship.” Based on this, the Ginzei HaMelech asks, how could Haman, a thoroughly evil man only in power for 70 days, be considered a reward? He answers that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 96b) teaches that Haman’s grandchildren learn Torah in Bnei Brak, truly a reward for anybody.
  • The Maharal writes that Haman is rewarded here instead of Mordechai because the righteous generally are not rewarded with wealth in this world, but accrue reward in the World to Come.
  • Rav Shmuel Aharon Rubin cites Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak in the Talmud (Megillah 11a), who applies the verse in Tehillim (124:2) that discusses H-Shem rescuing us from a man to the Purim story. Since kings have not free will of their own, he continues, H-Shem needed to elevate a man – since free will is the mark of humanity – to this position from which he could threaten the Jewish people. It is a bigger miracle that Pesach in that way because Pharaoh’s heart was Divinely hardened. Haman, on the other hand, could make his own decisions, and chose evil all the same.
  • The Vilna Gaon tells us that if Haman is Memuchan (as asserted before), the human king had reason to reward him, as well. After all, it was Haman who advised that Vashti should be removed. First, this advice allowed the king to marry Esther. Second, Esther helped save the king’s life from the assassination plot of Bigsan and Seresh (Esther 2:21).
  • But if the motivation to elevate Haman came from Achashverosh for this, why did he not reward Mordechai? The Tirosh Vayitz’har writes that Achashverosh was unsure about Mordechai’s intention. Perhaps he was a part of the plot, after all. The only one he was sure of was Esther, so he rewarded her by elevating the man whose advice led to her being queen.
  • Rabbi Shlomo Kluger writes that, after surviving the assassination attempt, Achashverosh realized that he was at risk – especially from Haman – and knew that he needed to keep him close by. As the old saying goes, “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
  • This is the exact opposite view from Chacham Tzvi, whose opinion is that Achashverosh mistrusted Haman and thought he conspired together with Esther to kill him. However, once Esther reported the assassination plot in Mordechai’s name – Mordechai being Haman’s arch rival – Achashverosh (thought he) knew that Haman was loyal.
  • According to the Malbim, the king simply forgot about Mordechai completely.
  • Rabbi Yehonasan Eibshutz notes that it makes little logical sense for Mordechai to have been so passed over, and instead condemned to die along with the other Jews. After all, he saved the king’s life when he had no need to. Therefore, this verse is yet another proof that it is impossible to understand the Purim story – or even Jewish history, in general – without the understanding that H-Shem miraculously protects His beloved people.

Esther 2:3, Question 1. Why does the verse contain the unusual phrase “appoint appointed ones?”

ג וְיַפְקֵד הַמֶּלֶךְ פְּקִידִים בְּכָלמְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתוֹ וְיִקְבְּצוּ אֶתכָּלנַעֲרָהבְתוּלָה טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה אֶלשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה אֶלבֵּית הַנָּשִׁים אֶליַד הֵגֶא סְרִיס הַמֶּלֶךְ שֹׁמֵר הַנָּשִׁים וְנָתוֹן תַּמְרוּקֵיהֶן

3. “And the king should appoint appointed ones in all the states of his kingdom and they should gather all of the young virgins who look good to Shushan the capital to the house of women, through Heigeh, eunuch of the king who guards the women and gives them their ointments.

  • This beauty contest extended over a large area. The final verses in Iyov (42:15) attest to the fact that “nowhere could more beautiful daughters [than Iyov’s daughters] be found.” The Talmud (Baba Basra 15b) notes that Iyov must have been a contemporary of Achashverosh’s, or else how could one know that there was nobody more beautiful? There must have been a beauty contest in which they were involved, and Achashverosh’s was the only one recorded. Since it would seem impossible to transport (and fit into the king’s harem) all of the beautiful women from the 127 states, the advisers told Achashverosh to appoint administrators in each state to choose the best to then send to the central competition in Shushan. This is much like beauty pageants and sports competitions in America today. They first choose the “best” of each state, and only then have them compete for the top prize in the nation. In Achashverosh’s individual states, administrators were appointed whose thorough knowledge of the local populace would seemingly better equip them to judge the qualities of the local contestants.
  • The Baal HaTurim writes in his commentary on Mikeitz (Bireishis 41:34) that the phrase, “appoint appointed ones,” is used only twice in TaNaCh. There, Pharaoh has Yosef collect grain, and his prudent behavior leads to his wealth and power. Here, Achashverosh collects women as trophies for his harem, and his over-indulgence and dehumanizing disrespect precipitates his eventual ruin.1 There is a fascinating book entitled Tzafnas Mordechai (and published as Links Beyond Time in English) that discusses numerous similar parallels between this story and that of Yosef.

1See 10:1 below and Talmud (Megillah 11a) which describes Achashverosh’s levying enormous taxes on his people, an act otherwise unnecessary unless his own wealth needed replenishing.

Esther 1:1, Question 5. Why is the quantifying of Achashverosh’s geographic reign in reverse order?

One would expect for the verse to write the number from numerically larger to smaller denominations, as the Torah usually does. However, as the Talmud (Megillah 11a) relates, Achashverosh first conquered seven lands, then twenty more, and finally one hundred more, spreading out his kingdom until he was ruler of 127 provinces. Taking his cue from the earlier mentioned idea that Achashverosh was an unworthy upstart, Rabbi Dovid Feintein writes in Kol Dodi that we are influenced psychologically by the first number we see. This is why marketing executives write $9.99 as the price for an item rather than $10. The 9 that people see first makes 10 seem much larger. This verse, accordingly, is emphasizing again that Achashverosh is an upstart, worthy of only the first seven of his 127 states.

Esther 1:1, Question 4. Where are Hodu and Cush, and why does it matter?

There is an argument in the Talmud (Megillah 11a) regarding whether Hodu and Cush are near each other or far apart. Either way, the Talmud concludes, Achashverosh’s conquest of them was indicative of his great power. If they were far apart, the phrase “from Hodu and until Cush” shows that his kingdom was large geographically. If they were close, “from Hodu and until Cush” shows that his powerful influence was just as strong in Hodu and Cush as it was in the more far-flung provinces of his kingdom. This is unlike even more recent dictatorships like the Soviet Union, where the government’s anti-religious laws were far more influential in the capital, Moscow, than far-away Tashkent. Whereas Moscow Jews did not by and large get circumcisions, did not eat kosher, and could not learn basic Jewish traditions, the situation was markedly different for the Jews of Tashkent and its surrounding environs. The Rema famously writes that the two opinions in the Talmud are not necessarily contradictory. He writes that the distance from Point A to Point B on a sphere depends largely on which direction the line is going. If two people are next-door neighbors, and one takes the long route around the globe to reach the other, that person traveled an unnecessarily circuitous path, covering far more ground. This, according to the Rema, is indicative of the sheer size of Achashverosh’s kingdom – it covered all the the known world.

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.”