Me’am Loez writes that this was the first time Achashverosh felt anything like insomnia, and he was therefore greatly concerned. Since this strange, out of the ordinary event transpires in this verse, perhaps this is the reason for the custom (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 690:15, Mishnah Berurah 690:52) to read this verse in a unique tune1.
The Midrash writes that Achashverosh had trouble sleeping because he was afraid Haman would try to kill him.
R’ Rephael Shapiro of Volozhin wonders why the crux of the Purim miracle hangs on this seeming lie; after all, Haman was not planning on killing the king at this point. He answers that Achashverosh saw in his dream that Haman wanted to kill Esther’s husband. What he did not know was that Esther’s actual husband was not Achashverosh, but Mordechai.
Since every reference to the “king” is really a reference to the King of Kings – H-Shem – the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 10:1) continues that H-Shem was “awakened” from His throne of Glory. How could H-Shem, who neither sleeps nor slumbers (Tehillim 121:4) have been sleeping? The Midrash explains that H-Shem can be said to be “sleeping” when the Jews are not living up to the standard set for them, as it says elsewhere in Tehillim (78:65). Torah Temimah explains that H-Shem ignores our needs sometimes, and only prayer and repentance can “awaken” Him.
The Talmud (Megillah 15b) cites an argument about which king’s sleep was disturbed. The first opinion says it was H-Shem’s “sleep.” The second opinion is that the sleep of both the upper world and the lower world was disturbed. The third opinion is that it was Achashverosh’s sleep, and that it was due to his concern over the nature of the relationship between Esther and Haman, as she had intended by inviting Haman to her feast (see below). Achashverosh thus becomes concerned that nobody seems to be saving him.
Interestingly, Rashi uncharacteristically quotes both the miraculous and natural interpretations of this verse. R’ Avigdor Bonchek writes that Rashi does so to emphasize that the main theme of Megillas Esther is that the true, miraculous nature of things is constantly concealed within seemingly everyday events. Maharal points out that this can be seen in the verse’s choice of calling Him/him “king” without mentioning Achashverosh’s name. If the verse is discussing H-Shem, it is fitting to call Him King. If the verse is discussing Achashverosh, it must be that he was concerned about kingly, political affairs.
Furthermore, Maharsha notes that any instant in TaNaCh in which someone’s sleep is disturbed, the next verse explains the reason. For example, when Yaakov had a dream about the ladder, the next verse (Bireishis 28:10) explains why. Also, when Pharoah had his prophetic, confusing dreams about cows, the next verse (Bireishis 41:1) explains the reason. This verse’s lack of explanation leads one to conclude that something else is going on – namely, H-Shem’s “sleep” is also being “disturbed.”
Based on the fact that the root of “nadidah” (“shaking”) is “nada,” R’ Mendel Weinbach points out that the verse’s use of two letter daleds indicates that there were two disturbances – one in the Heavens and one on Earth. The Midrash Abba Gurion writes that the angel, Gavriel, kept Achashverosh awake telling him, “do good for the one who did good to you.”
The Ben Ish Chai writes that “nadidah” can be read as “nadad Hey,” or “H-Shem Stirred.” He writes it can also be read as “fifty (gematria of the letter nun) dadah.” Since “dadah” can be seen as the root of “edadeim” (“movement”) in Tehillim (42:5), Ben Ish Chai writes that fifty moved Achashverosh. Specifically, he quotes the Ari Z”l that the first verse in Shema contains twenty-five letters. Since we typically say Shema twice every evening and twice every morning, these fifty letters (twenty-five letters repeated) Mordechai was saying came to protect Mordechai. These fifty letters saved Mordechai from the fifty amos of the gallows Haman prepared, zeh l’umas zeh.
1 The classically given answer for this custom is because this verse is the one in which there is a turnabout – when obviously good things are in store for the Jews.
3. And the king said to her, “What is for you, Esther the Queen, and what is your request? Until half of the kingdom, and I will give it to you.”
R’ Mendel Weinbach writes that, since angels just appeared, Achashverosh realized something of tremendous import was happening. He was therefore asking Esther what important thing she had to say.
The Vilna Gaon and Malbim write that Esther broke the law to appear before the king, and she looked weak. Those, then, were the subjects of Achashverosh’s questions: what is happening that you felt compelled to break the law, and why are you looking ill? He likely surmised that either the queen is bothered by something, or she is petitioning the king on behalf of someone else.
Class Participant RS suggests that the return of the king’s eyesight compelled him to wonder about the significance of the unfolding events.
12. And they elaborated to Mordechai the words of Esther.
The simplest explanation as to why the verse uses the plural “vayagidu” (“and they elaborated”) instead of the singular “vayaged” (“and he elaborated”) comes from the Malbim. He writes that Hasach simply had other messengers with whom he worked, and they are the ones who delivered this message.
The Talmud (Megillah 15a) understands that Hasach avoided delivering this message personally because he was reluctant to deliver a negative message – in this case, a message negating Mordechai’s order. This is because of the ethical principle that, as much as possible, we try not to deliver bad news.
The Maharal writes that Hasach did not want to go back alone in order to avoid arousing suspicion.
The Targum writes, “Haman the wicked saw Hasach, also named Daniel, going in and out of Esther’s room. He went and he killed him. The message was delivered from Esther through Michael and Gavriel.” In this version, Haman seems suspicious of Esther’s close relationship with a Jew. Yalkut Shimoni and Talmud Yerushalmi say similarly.
R’ Moshe Dovid Valle writes that Haman realized that Hasach was speaking to Mordechai in code. The code to which he is referring is the deeper levels of the last few verses.
R’ Mendel Weinbach points out that we sometimes have to deliver bad news, but only if it will practically change something. Pointless bad news need not be delivered. When Rav Elyashiv was ill and his daughter, Rebbetzin Kanievsky, passed away, the current halachic authorities advised that he not be told of her passing. He was not in condition to sit shiva, and the news might have actually affected his erstwhile frail health.
The Ginzei HaMelech wonders why, if this is indeed a negative message, did Hasach not reprove Esther? After all, there is a halacha (Rambam, Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Deyos 6:7) which says a person has the responsibility to correct those who are in the wrong. The reason is that Esther was not necessarily in the wrong. She had a legitimate halachic opinion, as follows: The Pischei Teshuva (Yoreh Deah, 252:2) writes that one is forbidden to risk one’s own life for the life of another. Therefore, Esther had a legitimate reason to avoid risking her life. However, had Esther not maintained a halachic basis for her rejection of Mordechai’s order to visit the king, Hasach would, indeed, have had reason to be reluctant in reporting this to Mordechai, based on the Talmudic dictum that we avoid sending negative messages.
Rav Shimon Schwab asks why this is the first time Hasach felt this reticence. After all, had not this entire conversation of the last few verses (Esther 4:7-12) been negative? Rav Schwab answers that, actually, even the threatened extermination of the Jewish people is not bad news as long as they have the opportunity to do teshuva! However, the fact that Esther refuses to sacrifice for the sake of her people is negative, and this is the information Hasach does not want to deliver to Mordechai.
Rav Henach Leibowitz quotes the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 10b) where Rav Chanina ben Chama brought the Roman Caesar Antoninus’s slave back to life to avoid having to tell him that his slave had died. Rav Leibowitz writes that this shows the extent to which we are expected to avoid delivering bad news. This is despite the fact that this idea is not explicit in the Torah, but is only implicit in the behavior of Hasach. He concludes that so, too, must we be careful to accustom ourselves to the behavioral and ethical lessons of the Torah.
R’ Eliezer Schwartz, the rabbi of Ohev Tzedek, brings from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik that part of the conflict between Esther and Mordechai is the oft-repeated conflict between women and men in TaNaCh. For example, he says that women and men acted differently with regard to the Golden Calf is that women see a wider view of a given situation. This is the reason for the Kli Yakar’s comment (on Bamidbar 13:2) that when H-Shem criticizes Moshe for “the men he sent,” He is implying that He would have preferred that women be sent to spy out the land of Canaan. Female spies would have seen the situation differently, and would have come up with the correct, positive interpretation of the events they witnessed. Similarly, women like Sarah in regard to Yishmael, Rivkah with Eisav, and numerous other examples show that women can see the long-range big picture, whereas men are limited to a short-term view of a situation. Here, Esther sees this situation as one that needs time to plan. Mordechai, however, seeks immediate action.
M’nos HaLevi writes that Esther was distressed because Mordechai chose not to tell her the reason for his behavior, himself.
The Talmud (Megillah 15a) takes the unusual word, “vatis’chal’chal” (“and she was distressed”) literally as “became empty.” In other words, the Talmud says that, upon learning this news, Esther either became a niddah (began menstruating) or had loosened bowels. In other words, as Rabbi Mendel Weinbach puts it, the news for Esther was so intense, that she lost control of her physical functions.
The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 8:3) similarly says that Esther miscarried at the news of Mordechai’s mourning. Torah Temimah says the Midrash here is using the root of the word, “chalal” (“empty”) to refer to the last chapter in Yeshaya (66:8) where the prophet says that Tzion will have troubles (“kee chala gam yalda”), and will give birth, indicating a relationship between this word and childbearing.
On a simple level, Malbim, writes that Mordechai went out “into the city” to better publicize the decree he just learned. According to the Malbim, this would encourage the Jews to beseech Achasverosh to rescind the decree.
Similarly, R’ Mendel Weinbach writes that Mordechai’s intention was to advertise the decree to Achashverosh directly, in case he had not heard of it yet.
The Me’am Loez writes that the people of Shushan were confused about Haman’s new promotion from lowly barber to the point where he had the power to order the annihilation of an entire people.
Still going according to his theory, the Malbim says the confusion stemmed from nobody knowing the content of the letters.
R’ Mendel Weinbach adds that, since nobody knew which group was being wiped out on the thirteenth of the following Adar, each ethnic group in Achashverosh’s 127 states was worried that they were the intended target.
However, the Yerushalmi writes that the confusion of Shushan stemmed from the polar opposite reactions to this decree (which the Yerushalmi clearly presumes everybody knew). The Jews in the city were scared and simultaneously anti-Semites in the city were overjoyed.
The Talmud (Makkos 12a-b) discusses a case in which a tree is planted on the border of the city of refuge to which a person who committed negligent homicide must flee, and asks if such a killer would be allowed to safely stay under this tree. After all, while he is in the city of refuge, the “go’el hadam” (“blood avenger”) cannot kill the negligent killer (Bamidbar 35:19). The Talmud answers that we follow the lenient opinion, but the lenient opinion for whom – the go’el hadam or the accidental murderer? Just like the news in Shushan about the impending annihilation of the Jews, it is a question of perspective.
Similarly, the Vilna Gaon writes that the gentiles did not know for what they needed to be prepared, while according to Rashi, the Jews were confused because they were pondering the age-old question of why the Jews are so hated.
The Yalkut Shimoni and the Alshich comment that this confusion came from seemingly random accidents occurring throughout the city as the city became suddenly accident-prone.
R’ Dovid Feinstein suggests that the gentiles were concerned about the economic effects of the upcoming massacre. When the Jews are in trouble, commerce is affected. As it says in Mishlei (29:2) “When evil rules, the nation sighs.” In other words, everybody loses when wicked are in charge; even the wicked leader’s allies cannot sleep securely.
R’ Shlomo Kluger writes that the people were worried because Achashverosh had just drunk. With a history of abhorrent behavior when imbibing (see 2:1 above), the people were scared about what he may do next.
The Maharal has the exact opposite opinion. According to him, the two sat down to drink in order to calm the populace. They were sending the message, “We are not doing anything to serious. Look, we are just sitting down for casual drinks.” Perhaps the order of these last two verses are testifying to the fact that this plan failed miserably, as the entire city was lost in confusion.
Ultimately, regardless of the reason for the city’s confusion, Rav Hirsch (Collected Writings, Volume II, 404) writes that Achashverosh’s drinking at this historical crux shows he was “aloof from his subjects in unapproachable majesty.”
R’ Yehonasan Eibshutz quotes Yosipon as saying that, in the ancient world, making a decree and then drinking means agreeing with the decree, and that it cannot be rescinded. However, making a decree after drinking means the decree is not legitimate, and can therefore be rescinded. Later in the story (Esther 8:8), when Achashverosh allows Mordechai and Esther to uproot this decree, he was implying that they drank first, which is clearly a lie. The city was confused because they did not know the order in this case. This is a powerful contrast from the Jewish G-d, the King of Kings, who, as we shall see in the coming chapters, cares intimately about His people, and has orchestrated these events in a way that will ultimately lead to the Jews’ salvation, it should come soon. Amen.
The Talmud (Megillah 14a) compares Achashverosh and Haman to two land owners. One has a giant mound of excess land. The other has a ditch in his field. The person who has a ditch wants land to fill in the field. The person with the dirt is looking for a ditch to dump his dirt. Simply put, this analogy indicates a symbiotic relationship between Achashverosh and Haman; the two need each other. Achashverosh has too many Jews, while Haman is looking for Jews to kill.
The Ben Ish Chai on the Talmud (in Sefer Benayahu) writes that this analogy means to indicate that, like the dirt-owner, Achashverosh did not accept Haman’s financial offer because he was doing him a favor ridding the nation of Jews.
R’ Meir Shapiro and the Chasam Sofer say that Achashverosh and Haman had different theories as to how to defeat the Jews. Achashverosh thought the best method for this was to invite them to his feast, elevate them, and watch as assimilation destroyed the Jews from within. Therefore, he built them up, like a mound. Haman, however, considered the best method degradation, making them low as if they were lower than a ditch1.
Similarly, R’ Mendel Weinbach writes that Achashverosh considered the Jews a threat to his power. After all, if the Jews were to rebuild their Temple, Achashverosh would lose some of his esteem. Therefore, to him, the Jews were respected, like a mound. In contrast, Haman considered the Jews disgusting and lowly, like a ditch. Rabbi Weinbach also writes that the mound and the ditch metaphors can be different ways for Jews to view assimilation. One way to avoid assimilation is to build up Jews like a mound, placing them on a pedestal by pointing out Jewish accomplishments to build up Jewish pride. Another way to avoid assimilation is to paint Jews as so different, so “uncool,” as to belong on a completely separate level, like a ditch.
In answering the question of why Achashverosh does not seem to be punished in the end of Megillas Esther, the Ben Ish Chai tells the following parable: two hooligans kidnap the king’s son. When the king refuses to pay their ransom, Hooligan A becomes incensed, and wants to kill the prince. Hooligan B feels this to be unnecessarily cruel, and they begin to argue. As they do, they are both captured. The king pardons Hooligan B for being kind to the prince, but Hooligan A is summarily burned for his evil intentions. Similarly, both Achashverosh and Haman are, indeed, evil. However, due to the respect Achashverosh will show the Jews (see 6:10 and 8:1-2 below), he will be treated in a kinder fashion.
1It is amazing how Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as dirty rodents on the one hand, and over-intellectual snobs on the other, ignoring the inherent contradiction in these estimations.