In Machir Yayin, the Rema writes that the verse’s use of the phrase “al nafsham” (“on their souls”) rather than “al gufam” (“on their bodies”) implies that the Jews’ targets were their spiritual enemies, not their physical enemies. In other words, Jewish survival depends upon their defending themselves from sin.
The Sfas Emes focuses on the word al (“on”). He explains in this context that teshuva out of a sense of love is greater than teshuva out of fear. According to him, the Jews were on a higher level at this point – no longer threatened with annihilation – and the verse therefore uses the word al.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Talmud (Megillah 13b) and the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:12) both interpret “yeshno” (“there is”) as rooted in the Hebrew “yashan,” (“sleep”). According to the Talmud, Haman was maligning the Jews to Achashverosh by claiming their sleeping, or spiritual lethargy in performing the mitzvos that the king otherwise feared would protect them.
- The Midrash there, likewise, interprets this word as a means for Haman to allay the fears of the rightfully nervous king by claiming that H-Shem, Himself was sleeping, or not concerned about the goings-on in the world. In the Midrash, H-Shem responds by quoting Tehillim (121:4) that “the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers.”
- In Ohr Gedalyahu, Rav Gedalya Schorr cites Nefesh HaChaim that these two opinions are not necessarily contradictory, for when the Jews act toward H-Shem with indifference, mida kineged mida (measure for measure), H-Shem will look upon them with indifference, as well.
- The Sfas Emes writes that the reason Haman thought that H-Shem was “sleeping” was because the Jewish people were too focused on their “yesh” (“there is”), their possessions, the physical. The more the Jews focus on yesh (the physical), the more they will be yeshno (spiritually sleeping). As the Ohr Gedalyahu puts it, Jews are sleeping when they perform mitzvos without care. This is often a consequence of thinking that abandoning Jewish observance will cause the gentiles around us to behavior towards us in a a more favorable fashion. On the contrary, Rav Hirsch (Collected Writings, Volume II, 366) writes that it is a “self-deception for us to imagine that we could buy the friendship of the peoples and permanently assure it to ourselves by discarding this Jewish distinctiveness.”
- The Torah Ohr points out from the Talmud (Baba Basra 16a) that the Yetzer HaRah (Evil Inclination) is the Satan (Heavenly Accuser), and that is the Angel of Death. What this means is that the very thing in our lives that seduces us to sin is also our judge and executioner. Haman acts the very same way; Haman is the seducer in setting up the feast where they Jews sinned, Haman is the judge who decided the Jews deserve death, and he wishes to be the one who does the actual killing. Certainly, being seduced by the Evil Inclination is not an excuse for misbehavior. On the contrary, H-Shem gives us all precisely the very tools – whether psychological, spiritual, physical, or otherwise – needed to successfully combat the exact temptations we experience (Nesivos Olam).