Esther, Chapters Five and Six: Rich and impoverished thinking as the difference between good and evil

Many more of us end up being evil than started out hoping to be. How does that happen? Chazal’s reading of Ester and Haman (and his daughter) in the fifth and sixth chapters of the Megillah suggest a contributing factor I have not often heard discussed.

The Basic Storyline                                        

As a reminder of the parts of the story relevant to this post, Ester goes to the king’s court, invites him and Haman to a party, where she invites them to another party the next day. Overnight, the king is reminded of Mordechai’s saving his life and, at Haman’s unwitting suggestion, has Haman parade Mordechai through the city streets on the king’s horse, with great pomp and circumstance.

I will focus on two issues: Why did Ester invite Haman, and what characteristics of Haman’s thought do we see here?

Paths to Haman’s Downfall

Megillah 15b wonders at Ester’s including Haman. I think the most common suggestion is that Ester was trying to spark her husband’s suspicions about his wife’s relationship with his top adviser, which is how Rashi expresses it in his commentary to the Megillah.

In the original source, R. Yehoshua b. Korcha says Ester was nice to Haman so that the king would kill both of them. This is similar to Rashi in that it sees her as deliberately sowing concern in Ahashverosh’s mind. But R. Yehoshua b. Korcha saw this as an act of self-sacrifice, as Ester knowingly endangering herself to bring down her people’s enemy.

The Gemara has many other options for what Ester was doing, some focusing on hastening Haman’s destruction, others on making a good outcome more likely (without trying to destroy Haman). For one example of each, R. Elazar suggests (based on Tehillim 69; 23) that evildoers trip themselves up, especially when they’re at meals. Ester invited him, in other words, to let him be the vehicle of his own downfall.

For one example of the other side, R. Nechemiah suggests that this was her way of avoiding the Jews’ feeling too comfortable with having a sister so highly placed in the kingdom, which might lead them to neglect to pray to Hashem for salvation. In a world where we have to balance our efforts with our reliance on Hashem, R. Nechemiah is noting the dangers of becoming too comfortable (we have such people today, but we also have those who err the other way, and think we can leave it all to Hashem.  I don’t think the Megillah or Gemara imagined people who would think they didn’t have to make any efforts to be saved).

You’re Also Right

These views are worth reviewing in their own right, but the Gemara adds a postscript that adds another crucial element to the discussion (and that will be the linchpin of our contrast of Ester and Haman), along the lines of the old joke where the rabbi hearing a court case tells each of the litigants they are right. When his wife protests, “they can’t both be right,” the rabbi says, “you’re also right.”

Rabbah b. Avuha, the Gemara tells us, encountered Elijah and asked him which of the suggested explanations for Ester’s motives was correct. Elijah says, all of them. It wasn’t that Ester had this or that idea, she had multiple pathways to salvation, all of them put into play by the simple act of inviting Haman to dinner. (Her idea was like an onion, with layers; or like an ogre).

Who’s In Charge?

In the sixth chapter, two incidents suggest Haman and his daughter had a contrastingly narrow range of thought. The Midrash Rabbah notes that when the king asks him how to best promote public admiration for someone, the verse says ויאמר המן בלבו, Haman said in his heart, which really means “Haman said to himself.”

The Midrash notes a difference in phraseology between Haman and other evildoers on the one hand, and Channah, Daniel, and David on the other. Evildoers speak בלב, in their hearts, where the righteous speak על or אל, on or to, their hearts. For the Midrash, this expresses the truth that evildoers are controlled by their hearts, where the righteous control their hearts.

I’m not sure Tanach is consistent about this, but I find the idea insightful, though, so I’m going with it. What we do with emotions is an important part of our humanity, and seems to me one easy way to be led down the path to evil. We can’t ignore our emotions, but we also can’t let them control us. We, ideally, speak to or at our hearts—we take our emotions and make conscious and well-considered decisions as to what to do with them.

Haman, for our example, could have noticed his strong feelings that there was no one whom the king should want to honor more than him, and then thought out his best move (especially in terms of checking whether the king meant him). Broadening his thought process rather than yielding to his first reaction would have taken him down a different road.

Losing Perspective

Megillah 16a tells us that Haman’s daughter, viewing the scene from a rooftop, assumed Mordechai was leading her father. She poured the contents of the chamber pot on her father, realized her mistake, and killed herself in anguish.

Both actions show narrow thinking. Even if Mordechai had been leading her father around, she had options other than dumping manure on him.  Similarly, it is unpleasant to have publicly humiliated your father, but it was unwitting and only one incident. Any meaningful consideration of what had happened would have told her it wasn’t worth dying over.

Broad vs. Narrow Thinking

Ester walks into Ahashverosh’s court with a plan with multiple aspects, many avenues of success. Haman lets his emotions rule him to the point that he thinks of only one candidate for whom Ahashverosh means to honor. His daughter is immediately sure of who’s leading whom, and then of only one possible reaction to her misdeed.

Life is big and complicated, I think these chapters are telling us. The road to success lies in being open to that complexity, recognizing we can’t control or narrow it to our will, and handling it as best we can. As Ester did, and Haman did not.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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