April 21, 2024
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April 21, 2024
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Megillas Esther Meets the Red Carpet

One of my favorite lessons is Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s approach to Megillas Esther which he reads as a satire. The Megillah, a story which every Jewish child knows from a young age, is full of larger-than-life characters: Haman, the evil villain; Esther, the queen who becomes the reluctant heroine; Mordechai, the wise sage advising Esther; and Achashverosh, the bumbling king. On closer analysis, my teenage students realize how strange the Megillah appears when compared to other books of Tanach.

Rabbi Leibtag notes that the story begins almost like a fairy tale with Achashverosh ruling the vast kingdom of Persia and Media but with no historical introduction to put him in the context of the other Persian kings in Tanach like Cyrus who preceded him, or Darius who likely came after him. At the time of the Megillah, the Jews already have a small yishuv (settlement in Judea from the time of the famous Cyrus Proclamation which appears twice in Tanach, at the end of Chronicles and in the opening chapter of Ezra. In this proclamation, Cyrus allows any Jew who wants to leave the exile of Babylonia and Persia to return to establish a second Jewish commonwealth in Judea. But no mention is made at all in the Megillah of Jerusalem or Judea even though Achashverosh is referenced by name in the fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra.

Other parts of the story seem outlandish or downright bizarre. For example, Megillat Esther begins with a feast throughout the Persian empire lasting 180 days! And an after-party for all of the residents of Shushan, the capital, lasting a week! There is an inordinate numberof verses devoted to the party, the draperies, the furnishings and the floors, to the goblets and the wine. These are details that rarely appear elsewhere in Tanach which is usually more driven by dialogue and action than interior decorating and party planning.

And the name of God never appears in the entire Megillah, leading to the well-known comment by Chazal that when it says King Acheshverosh it is a reference to the king of Persia but when it says Hamelech, the King, alone, it is a veiled reference to Hashem, the King of Kings. This is most notable in the famous verse from the opening feast which led to the banishment of Queen Vashti.

כְּטוֹב לֵב־הַמֶּלֶךְ בַּיָּיִן אָמַר… לְהָבִיא אֶת־וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת לְהַרְאוֹת הָעַמִּים וְהַשָּׂרִים אֶת־יׇפְיָהּ כִּי־טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִיא׃ וַתְּמָאֵן הַמַּלְכָּה וַשְׁתִּי לָבוֹא בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ… וַיִּקְצֹף הַמֶּלֶךְ מְאֹד וַחֲמָתוֹ בָּעֲרָה בוֹ׃

When the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded… to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on. But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment… therefore the king was very wrathful, and his anger burned in him.

Viewing this verse as a metaphorical reference to God, transforms our understanding of the setup to the story, as our rabbis in the Sifri explain:

ר’ יודן ור’ לוי אמרו משמיה דר’ יוחנן כל מקום שנאמר במגילת אסתר מלך אחשורוש באחשורוש הכתוב מדבר, ובכל מקום שנאמר מלך סתם במלך מלכי המלכים הכתוב מדבר, כטוב לב המלך ביין, כטוב לבו של הקב”ה ביינה של תורה.

Rav Yudun and Rav Levi explain in the same of Rav Yochanan: Every place in Megillat Esther where it says King Achashverosh it is a reference to Achashverosh, but every place where it says King by itself, it refers to the King of Kings, “When the heart of the king was merry with wine”, when the heart of Hashem was merry with the wine of Torah….

Hashem, “drunk” with Torah, proclaims to all the peoples of the world to bring his queen, the Jewish people, to return to Judea through the Cyrus Proclamation. And the overwhelming majority of the Jews refuse to heed the call, with only 42,360 Jews returning, as recorded in chapter two of the Book of Ezra.

Rabbi Leibtag explains that the Megillah is written in the literary style of a satire. It is meant as a satirical commentary on the Jews who chose to stay in Persia with Achashverosh as their king and Shushan as their capital rather than returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple for Hashem.

It is not for nought that our rabbis explain in Megillah 12a:

שָׁאֲלוּ תַּלְמִידָיו אֶת רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַאי: מִפְּנֵי מָה נִתְחַיְּיבוּ שׂוֹנְאֵיהֶן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁבְּאוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר כְּלָיָה?… מִפְּנֵי שֶׁנֶּהֱנוּ מִסְּעוּדָתוֹ שֶׁל אוֹתוֹ רָשָׁע.

The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoai asked him: For what reason were the enemies of Jewish people, a euphemism for the Jewish people themselves when exhibiting behavior that is not in their best interests, in that generation deserving of annihilation?… It is because they partook of the feast of that wicked one, Achasheverosh.

Mind you, reading the Megillah as a satire does not mean that the events of Megillat Esther didn’t occur. We are all too familiar with competing narratives in our social media world where two accounts can portray the same events in vastly different ways. Rather than portray the events of Megillat Esther in a historical fashion, like most of the other books of Tanach, Mordechai and Esther chose to write the book in a satirical fashion with a focus on externals, the pomp and circumstance of this bumbling king and his evil henchman with whom the Jews chose to celebrate at his drunken feast rather than return to Israel. You can read Rabbi Leibtag’s entire piece at https://www.etzion.org.il/en/holidays/purim/megillat-ester-its-hidden-message.

When I teach this approach to my class, I often give an example from the Oscars. One can read about the Oscars in the NY Times or in People Magazine and receive two very different accounts of what occurred. The Times would likely focus on which films won, the relative merits of each, and the various speeches given by the winners. People Magazine will cover the same events but focus on who walked down the red carpet, what they were wearing, the fashion designers who spent months creating their elaborate gowns, and who attended which of the various after-parties. These two accounts are both “true” but represent different truths. This is similar to the competing accounts of the books of Ezra and Esther to the overlapping events in the time period known as Shivat Tziyon, the Return to Zion.

However, this year, as with everything these past six months, the Oscars took on a very different meaning when viewed from a Jewish lens, particularly with the focus of so many attendees on political advocacy against the State of Israel. Unlike the Grammys which had touching tributes to the victims of 10/7, sympathy for the Jewish people was glaringly absent from the Oscars. One self-hating Jew even took the occasion of his winning an Oscar for a film about the Holocaust to rant against the right of the Jewish people to defend themselves against Hamas in Gaza. And what was so apparent were the many celebrities who chose to wear a pin with a red hand and black heart, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. When analyzing this pin and the “useful idiots” who were wearing it as a form of virtue signaling, I cannot help but realize that we are living today in the same satirical world that Esther and Mordecai were mocking in their writing of the Megillah.

Let me explain with a tweet. Trigger warning. I am going to recount some of the most horrifying and heinous events from the Second Intifada back in 2000.

Anyone knowledgeable about the Ramallah lynching back in October of 2000 cannot help but notice that the “ceasefire” pin is modeled after the mass celebration of murder and carnage that occurred on that day. When two Israeli soldiers took a wrong turn into the Arab city of Ramallah, they were torn to pieces by a Palestinian mob with the leader parading his hands soaked in Jewish blood from the window at the cheering crowd. One cannot fail to notice the similarity between this photo, which became a rallying cry for Arab terror, and the “ceasefire” pin. But, unfortunately, it gets worse. I will not post a picture of the following but those who cannot fathom such evil can easily look it up. The bloodthirsty mob paraded the internal organs of those who were murdered including their hearts. So the pin with the red hand and black heart actually celebrates the murdering and mutilation of Jews by Arab mobs. And the useful idiots wore this pin at the Oscars as a badge on behalf of “peace.”

We are living through extraordinary times when it is hard to distinguish between fact and fiction, seriousness and satire. Certainly, the designers of the ceasefire pin knew what they were doing. Were the celebrities wearing the pin trolling us Jews or were they just useful idiots who had no clue? Does it even matter?

As with the Megillah, it is our job as Jews to examine current events carefully in order to see the hidden messages all around us in the antisemitic demonstrations in the name of “peace.” And we must continue to advocate on behalf of our Jewish brothers and sisters both to our fellow Jews and Gentile neighbors and to people in positions of power. We hope and pray that just as the events of the Purim miracle led to a Jewish awakening when everyone gathered together to pray and fight for our people, the events of 10/7 can continue to be a source of Jewish unity and pride, leading to a lasting peace and mass jubilation in our homeland and throughout the diaspora.

As we will proclaim this Motzei Shabbat at Havdala, and as we read the Megillah:

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר

The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy and honor.

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of Educational Technology at Yeshivat Frisch. He can be reached at [email protected].

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