Esther 4:1, Question 1. How does Mordechai know about what happened?

פרק ד

א וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָדַע אֶתכָּלאֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה וַיִּקְרַע מָרְדֳּכַי אֶתבְּגָדָיו וַיִּלְבַּשׁ שַׂק וָאֵפֶר וַיֵּצֵא בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדֹלָה וּמָרָה

Chapter 4

1. And Mordechai knew all that had happened and Mordechai ripped his clothes and dressed in sack and ashes, and he went out within the city and cried a great and bitter cry.

  • The simplest explanation to how Mordechai knew about the decree to kill the Jews, assuming that is what he knew, the Alshich says, is that Mordechai was privy to that information because he sat at the king’s gate (see above 2:19).
  • Rashi, however, writes that a dream revealed to Mordechai that the Jews deserved annihilation.
  • It would seem that Rashi’s usually simple explanation is not as basic as the Alshich’s. R’ Dovid Feinstein writes that Rashi is focusing on the word “kol” (“all”), which implies that Mordechai knew everything about the decree – even the unpublished story of the decree’s history.
  • Rav Gedalya Schorr points out that Rashi knew Mordechai learned it from a dream because the Talmud (Chagiga 5b) writes that Jewish leaders learn about future events in dreams during eras of Divine concealment. When we are not close to H-Shem and do not deserve His Favor, He does not lead us with the clarity we would want.
  • R’ Hanoch of Alexander writes that Mordechai was shown the story of the decree in a dream because he knew that parts of dreams are fictional (Talmud, Brachos 55a), and he was concerned that the happy ending he foresaw was not necessarily going to happen. It was for this reason that Mordechai felt the need to bring the Jews to repentance.
  • The Yismach Moshe agrees that Mordechai’s dream was limited in order to garner the greatest amount of sincere teshuva from the terrified Jews.
  • According to the Yismach Leiv, Mordechai did not learn of the decree through the usual ruach hakodesh expected of a prophet because Shushan was confused (see above 3:15). Whatever the cause of the confusion, this turmoil is not conducive to prophecy. Prophecy requires genuine peace of mind and even happiness.1

1 This is the reason for Yaakov’s spiritual revival upon learning of his lost son’s positive turnabout (see Rashi to Bereishis 45:27).

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Esther 3:14, Question 2. Why is a copy necessary at all, and what is being “revealed?”

  • The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:24) uses this verse to contrast Jewish prophecy from gentile prophecy. Gentile prophecy is vague to the point that all they see is, for instance “killing,” and they do not know if they will be doing the killing, or if they will be killed. As an example, the Midrash tells the following parable:

A man is walking on the road. When his legs begin to hurt, he says, “If only I had one donkey…” Just as he says this, a Roman whose she-donkey just gave birth passes by him. The Roman sees the man and orders him to carry the donkey colt on his shoulders. The man says, “I asked, but did not ask correctly.” This is the prophecy of the gentile nations. They are vaguely instructed to “be ready,” (Esther 3:14) but they did not know if they were to be ready to kill or be killed. Jewish prophecy is explicit, as when it says, “…to allow the Yehudim to prepare for this day to avenge themselves from their enemies” (ibid. 8:13).

  • The Malbim explains that this is a copy for the regular people. According to him, the letters sent out previously (Esther 3:12) to the governors and lieutenant governors were sealed, so even they did not know what was happening.
  • The Vilna Gaon disagrees, and writes that the officials knew what was happening, but the general populace was kept in the dark. The Vilna Gaon and Malbim agree, however, that these copies mentioned here, like contemporary movie posters, intentionally revealed very little in order to better surprise the Jews. Quite literally, these public copies might only say, “Be prepared…”
  • The Me’am Loez writes that very little was revealed because Achashverosh and Haman feared that some fanatical Jew-haters might have acted prematurely, spoil the surprise, and accidentally allow some Jews to escape annihilation.
  • Parenthetically, there is an interesting story about the Maharil Diskin. After he passed away, his students poured over his unpublished work in hopes of finding material for publication. A note fell out of one book. It read: “tefillah b’kavanah u’bipeirush, udvidah d’chamor,” which means “prayer with intent and explanation, story of the donkey.” For a long time, the students did not know what this meant. Upon asking R’ Raphael Katennellenbogen, he explained this note referred to the above parable. When people pray, they need to be as detailed as possible. Prayer require thought and understanding. If one prays for wealth, for instance, it would be wise to mention as many specific details as possible in order to get the wealth you actually seek, and not something different.

Esther 2:22, Question 2. Why does Mordechai report the plot?

  • Rav Shmuel de Ozeida writes that, if Mordechai learned of this plot through prophecy, of course he had to do something with that knowledge. After all, one does not learn information through prophecy for naught.
  • Midrash Panim Acheirim posits that Mordechai reported this plot for three reasons:
    1. By getting in the good graces of the king, Mordechai hoped to win permission to rebuild the Temple.
    2. More generally, being liked by the king, Mordechai would be able to have influence for the sake of Jewish causes.
    3. More practically, he had to do this in order to not be blamed for this plot. Although this would be neither the first nor last time a Jew is scapegoat in political intrigue, this is especially true according to the Ma’amar Mordechai’s opinion mentioned before that the plotters had originally attempted to sway Mordechai into joining their conspiracy.
  • The Ben Ish Chai brings from the Midrash (Bireishis Rabbah 39:12) that it is the duty of a Jew to save the world. Jewish advisers to foreign kings throughout our history have rescued them from impending doom whenever possible. Mordechai could not turn his back to this ancient tradition. Furthermore, writes the Ben Ish Chai, anybody would do similarly, at the least in order to avoid suspicion. The Maharal and the Me’am Loez both quote the Mishnah (Avos 3:2) that a Jew should pray for the peace in the government because anarchy and unrestrained progressive change can be dangerous.

Esther 2:7, Question 2. Which is her real name, Hadassah or Esther?

  • The Rabbis of the Talmud (Megillah 13a) heavily debate whether the title character’s real name was Hadassah or Esther. One opinion (R’ Meir) was that her name was Esther, but she was righteous, and the righteous are compared to myrtles (“hadas”) in beauty based on a verse in Zecharya (1:8). Why is the myrtle an appropriate plant to which to compare a tzaddik? Alshich says a myrtle is as successful in the summer as it is in winter. A Tzaddik is righteous all the time, consistently, and not different at home than outside. Avraham who was 75 when he left Haran (Bireishis 12:4). The Midrash (Bireishis Rabbah 39:13) says H-Shem told Avraham that in the merit of his leaving everything he knows and loves at the age of 75, the rescuer of the Jews (presumably in the Purim story) will also be 75 years old. Hadassah (5+4+60+5) is the gematria of 74, and with the principle of im hakollel, the numbers can be equal. Rabbi Shaul of Amsterdam points out another proof to Hadassah’s age being 75. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) calls her one of the seven prophetesses of Israel. According to the Talmud (Moed Katan 25a), prophecy can only occur in Israel (which is the reason Yonah tried to flee). Esther was then born in Israel, which occurred at least seventy years before, since that was when the Temple was destroyed and Mordechai was exiled, and she would have needed to be at least at an age of some consciousness (presumably, 5) to experience prophecy.
  • The second opinion in the Talmud (R’ Yehudah) is that her name was Hadassah, but she kept the secret (“hester”) of her nationality. Maharal points out that this secrecy is also indicative of tznius, modesty, the stamp of a Jewess. The idea of modesty is not the hiding of something evil, but rather the protecting of that thing to keep it special. It is the defining characteristic of a Jew, contrasting sharply against the characteristic of Eisav and his spiritual/ philosophical descendants. This is seen in the verse (Bireishis 27:22) “the voice is the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Eisav.” In other words, the primary actions of the spiritual Jew is non-physical, represented by the invisible, ephemeral voice. The primary world-view of Eisav’s heirs is rooted in the visible, represented by the creative, physical hand. Rav Hutner similarly adds that Purim is an example of H-Shem’s modesty in that the miracles in Megillas Esther, as we have seen, are hidden behind the political, natural events of the written story. According to the Zohar (Devarim 226a), H-Shem kept Hadassah hidden by allowing her to utilize mystical powers to create a “sheid,” or demon, to get out of having relations with Achashverosh.
  • A third Talmudic opinion (R’ Nechemya) states that her name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther because the nations of the world call her Sahara, which means moon in Aramaic. The moon represents beauty as in Shir HaShirim 6:10), and the nations of the world thus compliment Hadassah’s appearance. Another possibility is that the nations of the world call her Ashtahar, which Yalkut Shimoni informs us is Estera, the Greek name for the planet Venus. Class participant CL informs us that this is the brightest planet from Earth’s perspective.
  • A fourth opinion in the Talmud (Ben Azzai) says that she was called Esther because she was neither tall nor short, but medium height. In Chana’s prayer for a child, she asks for “zerah anashim” (“male seed”) (Shmuel 1 1:11). Rav Dimi’s interpretation of this phrase (Talmud, Brachos 31b) is that she wants a son “like other men,” of average height, so that he would not stand out. In Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, we find a model of the tallest person and the shortest person, but no average-est. Being “normal” according to the standards of the time and location is what makes people attractive, but one should not use that line on a first date!
  • A final opinion (Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha) says her name was Esther, but she was called Hadassah because she was as green as a myrtle. This either means that she was beautiful, with an olive-green complexion popular in the Middle East and elsewhere. Otherwise, it is indeed not easy being green, and this pale, unseemly color made her ordinarily unattractive. She thus had to attract the king miraculously through a “string of kindness,” as we shall see, with H-Shem’s help when we study 5:2 below. Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg teaches that Esther smelled as sweet as hadassim, and notes an interesting point regarding the custom to use myrtles for Havdalah. The sweet smell of myrtles, he says, is only harvested when the myrtles are crushed. So, too, Esther’s greatness became manifest through her difficult life. Taken together in the final analysis, this debate in the Talmud whether Esther/Hadassah was righteous, secret, beautiful, average, or green indicates an amazing idea – our title character is so hidden, we do not even know her name!