Years ago, Steven Spear shared an idea for how to keep track of your personal interests, insights, and predilections. I forget the exact title, but the idea was that after each time you speak, you write down the key points. When you periodically review it, it shows you your interests and main themes over that period.
I think it works particularly well when you’ve made your way through a text, to then look back and see the recurring themes. I did this for the haftarot, in my book Educating a People: An Haftarah Companion As a Way of Finding a Theology of Judaism, (free download). I wrote a short essay on each of the haftarot, and then showed that the ideas the repeated were central Jewish ones.
Our review of the Megillah affords me the opportunity to do the same. I will first grab a main point from each chapter up, then briefly review the eighth chapter (I’ll do the 9th and 10th next week, for completeness), and then summarize where the journey has led us.
A Sentence or Two On Each Chapter
On the first chapter, we focused on Megillah 12a, that bowing to Nevuchadnezzar’s idol and eating at Ahashverosh’s feast rendered the Jews liable for destruction.
For the second, we noted Mordechai and Ester’s acting where they couldn’t know what results their good deeds would bring, but did them anyway, groping blindly towards salvation.
In the third chapter, Ahashverosh’s giving his ring to Haman roused the Jews more than all the prophets had, whereas Haman missed hints that he could not succeed at destroying the Jews.
In chapter four, Mordechai showed us the balancing act between too harsh and too welcoming, conveying to Ester the seriousness of the moment but also the glory she could bring upon herself if she acted properly.
In chapter five, we noted Elijah the Prophet’s telling Rabbah b. Avuha that Ester had many different motivations in inviting Haman to the feast, all of which might have contributed to the outcome.
In chapter six, we saw Haman and his daughter both being ruled by their thoughts and emotions instead of ruling them.
In chapter seven, Charvonah told us of the importance of noting and actively reacting to good and evil, but also of how (relatively) easy it can be to be good enough to earn honorable mention.
Chapter Eight: Guiding Frameworks of the Megillah
On Megillah 10b, R. Shmuel b. Nachmani reads Yeshayahu 55;14’s metaphor of a brier replacing a cypress and a nettle replacing a myrtle (תחת הנעצוץ יעלה ברוש וגו’) as a reference to Mordechai’s replacing Haman and Ester’s replacing Vashti. The end of that verse speaks of creating a name for Hashem, which R. Shmuel b. Nachmani takes to be about the reading of the Megillah, and the celebration of Purim as a “sign forever, that will never be cut off.”
The idea isn’t only a reading of the verse, but the opening R. Shmuel b. Nachmani would give when teaching the Megillah. Sefat Emet understands this to mean it was an idea he saw as central to the Megillah, that the righteous replacing evildoers leads to Hashem being recognized in the world.
R. Shmuel b. Nachmani wasn’t alone. Starting earlier on 10b and going to the next page, the Gemara presents numerous examples of how rabbis would open their discussions of the Megillah. The ideas (which I reviewed in full in my Shabbat morning class) fall into three basic categories: those that see the Megillah as a story of the punishment of evildoers, those that see it as a story of evildoers being replaced by the righteous, and those that see the Megillah as reminding us that we only open ourselves to dangers—whether major, like in Haman’s time, or relatively minor, like a lack of rain—when we either sin or fail to maximize our service of Hashem.
Here, the Gemara doesn’t say they’re all right (as Eliyahu had said about the views of why Ester invited Haman), but it seems a similar exercise in noting many valid options for how to answer a particular question. By seeing the sense in all of them, we remind ourselves of the richness of our human experience, and the importance of being alert to all of it which, to me, captures much of what we’ve been seeing as we’ve been going along.
Bringing It All Together
I don’t mean to pretend that I have now discovered the deep truth of the Megillah, only that this is what I noticed on this run through. Without my intentionally imposing a framework on the text, my chapter by chapter investigation kept leading me to sources that emphasized the richness or poverty of our thought as keys to taking us down successful or less than successful roads.
The pre-Megillah Jews couldn’t see how a small wrong act, like yielding to Nevuchadnezzar’s orders to bow to the idol or partaking of Ahashverosh’s meal, would have serious consequences.
Ester and Mordechai, on the other hand, knew that their small merits, such as quoting someone else, might lead to unforeseen wonders.
The Jews didn’t know to pay attention to their fate until Ahashverosh gave his ring to Haman, but Mordechai knew how to make Ester aware of the seriousness of her actions while also encouraging her with the possibilities of her success.
Ester comes up with a plan to defeat Haman that operates on many tracks at once, where Haman and his daughter can only see what’s right in front of them.
Charvonah is adept enough to see when it’s time to change sides. And, finally, generations of rabbis approached the Megillah, each with their own central message.
It is a rich, varied, and alert view of the world, and of texts, that gives us the most opportunities to see where we fit in Hashem’s plan to move this world in successful ways, and it is a narrow (and emotion-driven) view that convinces evildoers to take the road to perdition.
As we hear the Megillah this year, and close by cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai, let’s hope that we succeed at joining the ranks of those whose rich and varied thoughts takes us down those good paths, and that we not get locked in to the kinds of impoverished views that bring us closer to the other path. Purim Sameach.