Sometimes we’re only surprised because we failed to pick up hints along the way. The Talmudic and Midrashic comments on the third chapter of Megillat Ester envision people catching some of what was going in their lives, but not the whole of it.
Let me say up front that I do not read these Talmudic and Midrashic sources as their view of how to reconstruct the actual history of the time of the Megillah; the events of the third chapter are there in front of us, and any additional guesses as to what happened are just that, guesses. I present these Midrashim more for the questions they can lead us to ask ourselves about what does and doesn’t successfully impinge on our consciousness.
The Crucial Pieces Are in Place Already
The Gemara notes that Hashem had put in place the way around Haman before he ever rose to power. On Megillah 13b, Rava comments that chapter 3 starts with the words אחר הדברים האלה, after these events, the king promoted Haman, which seems to relate what is about to happen to what has already occurred. Rava says that Haman only achieved prominence after Hashem put in place the salve for the wound. R. Levi cites a verse in Hoshea to generalize that, that Hashem never lets trouble arise for the Jewish people without an already available cure.
Later on that page, Resh Lakish sees the commandment to give a half shekel each year as Hashem’s way of anticipating Haman’s promise to give Achashverosh ten thousand shekel in return for the right to kill the Jews. That is why the courts would traditionally remind the populace of the half-shekel obligation on the first of Adar, because of the approach of Purim.
I don’t think the Midrash assumed Haman actually knew any of this, I think it was making a point about what he could have understood about the world, had he paid the right kind of attention. Similarly, Vayikra Rabbah Emor Parsha 27 has a long quote of R. Levi, who reads each generation of evildoer as having built on realizing what he saw as the mistakes of the previous one. Esav looked down on Kayin for having made the mistake of killing his brother when his father was still alive. [As Bill Cosby reports his father’s words to him, age seven, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out. And it don’t make no difference to me, I’ll make another one look just like you.”] Kayin’s mistake, in Esav’s mind, was that Adam could still have children.
Esav waited to kill his brother until after his father’s death. Paroh noted that that left Ya’akov alive long enough to have children, which makes killing him futile. To solve that, he had the midwives kill the babies at birth (and, later, drowned at birth). Came Haman to say that Paroh, too, erred, in that he left the women alive.
The useful truth underlying the Midrash is its seeing each of them as certain they can fix the crucial failure of the previous attempt. So much so that R. Levi tacks on Gog and Magog, the king and nation who will fight the battle of the End of Days. They ascribe Haman’s failure to his having taken on the Jewish people rather than their Protector, and wages war on Hashem.
Haman’s Narrowness of Vision
When the Megillah mentions that Haman saw Mordechai refusing to bow, R. Aybo comments (in Midrash Rabbah) that evildoers’ eyesight takes them to perdition. Meaning: Haman chose what to see—he saw Mordechai’s refusal to bow, and took that to heart, instead of letting it slide and/or dealing with it.
Megillah 13b speaks of Haman reacting to the lottery with similar partial blindness. Haman celebrated the lottery coming out in Adar, since that was the month Moshe Rabbenu passed away (hence an ill-fated time), ignoring that it was also the month in which he was born (hence, a propitious one).
These Talmudic and Midrashic statements remind or warn us that we can become stubbornly attached to a path, celebrating the facts that support our view and blocking out evidence to the contrary. There were and are many ways to know that taking on the Jewish people is a supremely bad idea. Part of being a Haman is to see what you want to see, to think you’ll be the one to be different.
Sadly, not only evildoers are beset by tunnel vision. We Jews struggle with it as well, as one more comment in the Gemara shows.
The Removal of the Ring
In Megillah 14a, R. Abba bar Kahana comments that Ahashverosh giving his signet ring to Haman had a greater impact than the exhortations of all the prophets (since the latter did not elicit meaningful response, but the threat of Haman led to fasting, crying, sackcloth and ashes). Torah Temimah adds to that, noting that had Achashverosh simply told Haman, verbally, that he could do with the Jews as he wished, they would not have taken it seriously enough. They would have assured themselves that he would change his mind, and thus minimized the danger. We as a people, apparently, have a bad track record of paying attention to what we need to until it is put into action.
How Mashiach Will Come
That depressing note takes center stage—and is pushed a step further– in a related discussion in Sanhedrin 97b, where R. Eliezer says that the only way for the final redemption to come is through repentance. R. Yehoshua objects to the implication that history might continue indefinitely, with no redemption. His view is that if we fail to repent soon enough for Hashem’s plan, Hashem will send a king whose decrees are as harsh as Haman’s, which will force us to repent.
He guarantees redemption, but possibly only with a harsh lead-in, a king whose decrees are so bad they stimulate the kind of national repentance we saw in the time of Haman (a repentance the Gemara views as having included a full and freewill acceptance of the Torah and its laws).
What I find upsetting is the possibility—I’ve been told it’s unchangeable “human nature” but refuse to believe it—that only Ahashverosh turning over his signet ring, or decrees of that level of threat, will push us to repentance (note that the Holocaust did not lead to the kind of national repentance being discussed here). Shouldn’t we recoil from the possibility that talking can’t work? Shouldn’t we work to change ourselves and those around us, to make ourselves more open to hearing the messages of the prophets, of the Sages, of thousands of years of Jewish tradition? Because the other option, as the Gemara sees it, is Hashem catching our attention forcefully, and upsettingly.
Forty years in the desert didn’t do it, the Jews of the first Temple didn’t do it, and, after the events of Purim, the Jews of the second Temple did it sporadically. Since then, we still haven’t done it, in one Jewish community and culture after another, through one time of tragedy or another.
Perhaps on this run-through of the Megillah, we will notice Achashverosh taking off the ring, realize that that’s what’s been our spur to repentance in the past, and decide that we won’t let it happen again.