Jennifer Raskas
Jennifer Raskas
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For goodness’ sake: Textual and ethical illuminations in Megillat Esther

How Esther and Mordechai take the very values of the realm and transform them into a more 'Jewish' approach
Illuminated Esther Scroll Manuscript; ink and pigment on parchment from Ferrara, Italy, circa 1615. (Ardon Bar-Hama)
Illuminated Esther Scroll Manuscript; ink and pigment on parchment from Ferrara, Italy, circa 1615. (Ardon Bar-Hama)

“In Jewish tradition, the right side of our body is often the side that symbolizes strength. We honor our right side by performing rituals to that side first, such as washing our right hand before washing our left hand when we first wake up. Why then did God create our heart, our ultimate source of strength, on the left side of our body? Should not God have created our heart on our stronger right side? One answer might be that when I am facing you, my heart is on your right side; the purpose of my heart is to give you strength. The purpose of all of our hearts is to give strength to one another.” So I learned years ago, from a cousin, at a family celebration.

This imperative, to use our hearts to strengthen others, is beautifully enacted by Esther and Mordechai in Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, that we read on Purim. In the Megillah, a strong contrast emerges between King Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) and the evil Haman, who focus their hearts on personal pleasure, and the heroic protagonists Esther and Mordechai, who direct their hearts towards saving the Jewish people. This contrast in actions is mirrored in the different ways the words tov, good, and rav, many, are used in the Megillah. The meanings of these words change depending on whether they are describing the selfish actions of Achashverosh and Haman, or the more selfless actions of Esther and Mordechai.

The Megillah opens with Achashverosh’s haughty display of extravagance while he hosts a mishteh, feast, that shows “the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty” (Esther 1:4). The word, rav, many, connotes lavish abundance, as it describes the bounty of royal wine drunk “according to every man’s pleasure” (1:7,8). The word tov, good, describes how Achashverosh is “k’tov lev ba’yayin” — “his heart is merry with wine” (1:10). At Achashverosh’s feast, tov and rav depict a culture set by Achashverosh that is rife with hedonism.

These words resurface almost immediately to depict the “rabah,” “great,” royal edict, as described by Achashverosh’s servant, that Achashverosh enacts to replace Vashti with a queen who will be “tovah,” “better,” than her (1:19-20). The text emphasizes Achashverosh’s egocentrism as his servants bring him “na’arot rabot,” an “abundance of young girls,” who are “tovat mareh,” “beautiful in appearance,” who will compete for over a year to become his queen. (2:2,8). Throughout these and further episodes in the text, Achashverosh repeatedly determines critical life-and-death decisions through calculating whether the decision is personally tov, pleasing, to him.

Haman displays selfish ethics too, mirroring those of Achashverosh. Haman seeks to destroy an entire people, the Jewish people, after one of its members, Mordechai, personally insults him. Haman displays immense self-centeredness when Achashverosh seeks his advice on how Achashverosh should honor someone, and Haman arrogantly assumes, be-libo, in his heart, that the king must intend to honor him. Haman then advises the king to publicly parade this individual crowned in the king’s robe, on the king’s horse (6:6). Given Haman’s selfishness, it is not surprising that the text then uses the word tov in a similar way to how it used tov in describing Achashverosh. Specifically, the word tov describes Haman’s heart as “drunk with wine and merriment,” and how Haman makes life-and-death decisions according to what personally “pleases” him (5:9,14).

In stark contrast, we meet Mordechai and Esther, who exude not hedonism, but deep modesty and concern for others. Early in the narrative, Mordechai adopts Esther, after she loses her parents, taking responsibility for his vulnerable niece. Mordechai is so concerned with Esther’s well-being that each day, he walks by the harem, while Esther is inside, to see how she is doing. In contrast to the ornate displays of riches by Achashverosh and Haman, Esther wears as little ornamentation as possible when she meets the king, and Mordechai publicly dons sackcloth as he mourns Haman’s evil edict. The root of the word rav now reappears in the text, not to describe extravagance or an abundance of wine, but to describe how “rabim,” “many” Jews, mourn over Haman’s decree (4:3).

A climactic encounter that demonstrates Mordechai and Esther’s concern for others, occurs when Mordechai implores Esther to see her royal status, not as a means of attaining personal pleasure, but as a tool to rescue her vulnerable people. Mordechai entreats Esther to use her relationship with the king to save the Jews, for, “who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained your royal position” (4:14).

Esther courageously acts by reclaiming the schema of mishteh, feast, and redesigning it in her image. Esther invites the king to a mishteh that is not an ostentatious exhibition of wealth, but a private affair for her, the king and Haman. Esther even appeals to the antithesis of the gluttony that surrounded the king’s feasts, by requesting that all the Jews in Shushan support her by fasting, abstaining from food and drink, for three days. She and her maidservants fast as well.

Esther’s plan succeeds, and Achashverosh orders that Haman be hanged on the tree Haman planned to hang Mordechai. Achashverosh’s servant here reminds the king that Mordechai is the one who had spoken “tov,” “well,” about the king (7:9). Here tov no longer connotes drunken merriment or self-centered decisions that lead to others’ death, but Mordechai’s prior heroic act that led to the saving of the king’s life. In reminiscence of the vindictive decisions that Achashverosh and Haman made previously, according to what was tov, personally pleasing to them, the king now encourages Esther and Mordechai to valiantly save the Jewish people according to what is “tov,” “good,” in their eyes (8:8).

When the Jewish people learn that they have a chance to defend themselves against Haman’s decree, they celebrate through a similar reclaiming of mishteh and the word tov. They celebrate their mishteh as a yom tov, a good day, or holiday. The word rabim reemerges too, to describe the many non-Jews who now seek to join the Jewish people (8:17). The Jews celebrate another mishteh and yom tov after they successfully defend themselves. Mordechai then declares an annual yom tov, and mishteh for the Jewish people to eternally celebrate their transformation from mourning to festivity (9:22).

The final verse in the Megillah grants the words tov and rav their ultimate redemption. Mordechai is accepted by the “rov,” the “multitude” of his brethren, as he seeks “tov,” “the good” for his people (10:3). Rav no longer depicts ostentatious abundance and tov no longer depicts drunken states of merriment or whims of personal pleasure. Instead, these words refer to Mordechai’s acceptance among his brothers, as he seeks the good for his people.

In contrast to Achashverosh and Haman, Esther and Mordechai devote their hearts and direct their power towards rescuing the Jewish people. Through this, Esther and Mordechai not only redeem the Jews from destruction, they also redeem the very notion of tov, goodness, for the rav/rabim, multitude. This lesson is a gift that Esther and Mordechai give us each year on Purim, a gift that we can all take to heart.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a trained facilitator through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across difference. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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