Esther 4:7, Question 5. Why does the verse emphasize Mordechai’s telling Esther about the destruction of the Jews?

  • 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.

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Esther 4:1, Question 5. Why does the verse stress that Mordechai’s cry was “great and bitter?”

  • 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.

Esther 4:1, Question 3. Why does Mordechai dress in sack and ashes?

  • According to Rav Dovid Feinstein, Mordechai dressed in sack and ashes because the Talmud (Moed Katan 26a) writes that one should tear one’s clothing when one hears bad tidings.
  • Yosef Lekach adds that Mordechai’s sensitive emotions allowed him to feel the pain of the potential threat of genocide, that he mourned as if people had already died.
  • Seeing as nobody was allowed to enter the king’s gate dressed in such a manner (see Esther 4:2 below), the P’dus Yaakov writes that, by doing so, Mordechai was indicating that his rightful place was with the people rather than with the king.
  • In Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer, Mordechai is compared to the king of Ninveh (Yona 3:6), who is praised for immediately donning sack and ash upon hearing that H-Shem planned to destroy his city for their erstwhile evil behavior.
  • It is possible that, by using ash, Mordechai was invoking the merits of the Jewish forefathers. R’ Elazar of Germiza writes that Mordechai chose ash to recall before H-Shem the merit of our forefather, Avraham. After all, Avraham risked his life to prove the truth of monotheism by being thrown into a flaming furnace. In recognizing H-Shem’s Mercy in saving his life, he later called himself no more than “dust and ash” (Bereishis 18:27). According to the Targum, Mordechai was invoking the merit of another forefather, Yitzchak. Because he laid himself down on an altar dutifully prepared to be slaughtered like a sacrifice by his father (ibid. 22:9), H-Shem credits him with remaining as ash on the sacrificial altar. Finally, Mordechai invoked the merit of Yaakov, who wore sack after the sale of Yosef (ibid. 37:34). The Maharal notes that the verse in Tehillim (20:2) invokes “the G-d of Yaakov” in that fervent prayer for salvation because Yaakov was the forefather whose difficult life deserved more of H-Shem’s Mercy.
  • R’ Elazar Shach points out that the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:19) teaches that the Jews of Egypt wore sack before their miraculous redemption. By tapping into this ancient tradition, Mordechai was showing his faith in H-Shem and the Torah.
  • On a more mystical note, R’ Raphael Moshe Luria writes that Adam and Chava before the sin wore “ohr” (light, spelled aleph-vuv-reish), but were demoted to the status of needing to wear “ohr” (skin, spelled ayin-vuv-reish) as a result of the sin. Based on R’ Moshe Cordevero, Rav Luria continues with the idea that garments of light help one to serve H-Shem, and this is why one was not allowed to enter the “king’s” gate when not properly dressed. Doctors must shed their suits to don scrubs, rubber gloves, and bouffant caps for surgery. The soul, too, must shed the Divine light in which she is dressed to don the hazmat suit that is the earthly body to utilize the physical world in a continued effort to fulfill H-Shem’s Will. In our analogy, the difference between the soul and the doctor is that the soul’s skin automatically turns into light with the achieving of a spiritual goal.
  • The Ginzei HaMelech brings down from the AriZal that the gematria of “sak” (sack, 300+100=400) is an allusion to the four hundred officers whom Esav commands in his meeting with Yaakov (Bereishis 33:1). Kabbalistically, these themselves represent the four hundred powers of tuma, or manners in which impurity can enter our lives. He brings from the Imrei David that wearing sackcloth [perhaps through its ability to instill humility] gives one the ability to fend off impurity.