Marianne Novak

Megillat Esther: Two Models to Affect Change

A number of years ago, I taught Megillat Esther to adult students through the Florence Melton School for Adult Jewish Learning. My goal in the class was to improve the students’ text skills and to have them learn to be truly careful readers of every word of the Megillah. My theory was, that with careful reading, the Megillah was understandable on its own without the need for any or just a few commentaries. To be honest, my goal was not only to improve text skills, but also to stay away from some of the more fantastical midrashim surrounding the Megillah:–such as, Vashti had a tail, Esther’s complexion was green, etc. Some of my students were not happy with this project but some were always surprised about how much could be revealed in the Megillah by just a close read. Granted, every close read, will never be understood in a vacuum. It would be impossible for us to get to the original meaning of the Megillah and that indeed is the basis of the project of the responses of the commentators. No matter how closely we read just the words of the Megillah, every reader brings her own lens to the text– lenses of personal experience, community experience and world experience. Many might bristle with this method for reading any part of Tanach. However, with the Megillah, we have some support that this read–with all of our modern sensibilities– may be not only recommended but rather required.

The Mishna in Masechet Megillah, Chapter 2:1 states:
פרק ב :א הַקּוֹרֵא אֶת הַמְּגִלָּה לְמַפְרֵעַ, לֹא יָצָא.
One who reads the Megillah, out of order, does not fulfill [her] obligation. Some understand this directive to mean that one should not read the Chapters out of order–the story is chronological and thus we should read the Chapters in order. The Baal Shem Tov, in Keter Shem Tov paragraph 100, has a different understanding of the Mishna’s directive and states that it does not mean, not to read the Chapters out of order but rather the directive to us is not to read it as only a fantastic tale or just a dusty old piece of ancient history. Thus according to the Baal Shem Tov, the best way to read the Megillah is precisely with our modern sensibilities and in light of current events.

With the Baal Shem Tov’s understanding in hand, I began rereading the Megillah with my own personal lens and in light of the current US national situation. Now, if you are hoping that my read consists of comparing a bumbling ruler, a Jewish Queen and an evil anti-semitic advisor to those currently in power, I regret that you will be disappointed. (Honestly that read is just too easy and frankly a little lazy). What I did find in the Megillah however are two very different yet necessary ways of affecting change. Two approaches of how to essentially make things better in the face of great adversity. One model is what I will call the ‘negotiating behind the scenes’, private approach or the Esther model– the other is the public protest model or the Mordechai model.

Before delving into the models themselves, it is important first to look at why a dual pronged approach was necessary in the context of the Purim story.
We first get a clue in how the entire Vashti event was handled –or rather mishandled.

As we will ready shortly, the Megillah tells us of the absolutely over the top party Ahashverosh has not only for his inner court but also the entire city of Shushan. On the seventh day of this lavish bash, the King has his cabinet summon Vashti from her women’s party to his party in the palace. Vashti refuses and the King is very angry. The incident up until this point is an internal palace matter. Perhaps the best way to have resolved it, was for the King and his advisors to have discussed the matter with Vashti in private. The entire event could have been fixed in house.

However, when the King asks for advice from his closest advisors they have a completely different idea. Haman (according to commentators name Memuchan here) takes this private matter and blows it up into a national incident as he states in Chapter one, verses 16-20:
טז וַיֹּאמֶר מְומֻכָן [מְמוּכָן] לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַשָּׂרִים לֹא עַל־הַמֶּלֶךְ לְבַדּוֹ עָוְתָה וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה כִּי עַל־כָּל־הַשָּׂרִים וְעַל־כָּל־הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל־מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ:
Thereupon Memuchan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahashverosh.
יז כִּי־יֵצֵא דְבַר־הַמַּלְכָּה עַל־כָּל־הַנָּשִׁים לְהַבְזוֹת בַּעְלֵיהֶן בְּעֵינֵיהֶן בְּאָמְרָם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ אָמַר לְהָבִיא אֶת־וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה לְפָנָיו וְלֹא־בָאָה:
For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahashverosh himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.
יח וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה תֹּאמַרְנָה ׀ שָׂרוֹת פָּרַס־וּמָדַי אֲשֶׁר שָׁמְעוּ אֶת־דְּבַר הַמַּלְכָּה לְכֹל שָׂרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וּכְדַי בִּזָּיוֹן וָקָצֶף:

This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!
יט אִם־עַל־הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב יֵצֵא דְבַר־מַלְכוּת מִלְּפָנָיו וְיִכָּתֵב בְּדָתֵי פָרַס־וּמָדַי וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תָבוֹא וַשְׁתִּי לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ וּמַלְכוּתָהּ יִתֵּן הַמֶּלֶךְ לִרְעוּתָהּ הַטּוֹבָה מִמֶּנָּה:
If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahashverosh. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she.
כ וְנִשְׁמַע פִּתְגָם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה בְּכָל־מַלְכוּתוֹ כִּי רַבָּה הִיא וְכָל־הַנָּשִׁים יִתְּנוּ יְקָר לְבַעְלֵיהֶן לְמִגָּדוֹל וְעַד־קָטָן:
Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast thought it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.

Haman takes what should be an interior event and super-sizes it with far reaching consequences. Vashti’s refusal now has import beyond the palace gates and her treatment becomes the basis of national law and policy that affects not only those in the inner court circle but also Ahashverosh’s entire kingdom. It is important to note that it is this very decree that sets into motion Esther’s move into the palace and her becoming Queen.

We see this absurd expansion from the private to the public yet again with Haman’s interaction with Mordechai. In Chapter three, Haman is promoted to Achashverosh’s chief advisor. The king ordered that all courtiers should bow to Haman. Mordechai of course refuses. The other courtiers try to get Mordechai to comply–they try to solve this in-house–but Mordechai refuses. The courtiers then go tell on Mordechai to Haman. Haman’s response is not to talk to Mordechai directly but rather to turn this private beef into a national brouhaha. As it states in Chapter 3, verse 5 and 6:
ה וַיַּרְא הָמָן כִּי־אֵין מָרְדֳּכַי כֹּרֵעַ וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לוֹ וַיִּמָּלֵא הָמָן חֵמָה:
When Haman saw that Mordechai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage.
ו וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו לִשְׁלֹח יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּוֹ כִּי־הִגִּידוּ לוֹ אֶת־עַם מָרְדֳּכָי וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הָמָן לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל־מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ עַם מָרְדֳּכָי:
But he disdained to lay hands on Mordechai alone; having been told who Mordechai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordechais’ people, throughout the kingdom of Ahashverosh.

Haman chooses to take the national route to rectify what is a really a personal vendetta. The dual nature of the decree against the Jews: a national decree borne from Haman’s issues with Mordechai, thus calls for a two-pronged approach to save the day. Both the Esther mode and Mordechai mode were necessary to negate Haman’s nefarious plans.

Esther as she is portrayed in the Megillah and by the chachamim (green color aside) is the consummate diplomat and an astute reader of human nature. The Chachamim describe her as one who could successfully insert herself into situations. For example, in Masachet Megillah, 13b, expounds on the verse 15 in Chapter 2 of our Megillah which states:
טו וּבְהַגִּיעַ תֹּר־אֶסְתֵּר בַּת־אֲבִיחַיִל דֹּד מָרְדֳּכַי אֲשֶׁר לָקַח־לוֹ לְבַת לָבוֹא אֶל־הַמֶּלֶךְ לֹא בִקְשָׁה דָּבָר כִּי אִם אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר הֵגַי סְרִיס־הַמֶּלֶךְ שֹׁמֵר הַנָּשִׁים וַתְּהִי אֶסְתֵּר נֹשֵׂאת חֵן בְּעֵינֵי כָּל־רֹאֶיהָ:
When the turn came for Esther daughter of Avichayil-the uncle of Mordechai, who had adopted her as his own daughter-to go to the king, she did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women, advised. Yet Esther won admiration of all her saw her.

Rabbi Elazar here explains that this statement teaches us that ‘to everyone she looked like a member of his own people.’ ((מלמד שלכל אחד ואחד נדמתה כאומתו
Perhaps this also describes Esther’s innate ability to read people, understand their strengths and weaknesses and use them to her advantage. By looking like everyone or being familiar, Esther was able to gain the trust and confidence of those around her. (She is not only a diplomat but someone of a con-artist -as confidence artist as well.) At both the first and second private parties she holds for Ahashverosh and Haman, she plays upon each of their fatal flaws–Haman’s megalomania and Ahashverosh’s paranoia regarding the legitimacy of his rule and those possibly trying to wrest it from him. Her skill of course saves the day and by the end of Chapter 7, in the great reversal of fortune, the נהפך הוא, Haman is then impaled on the very stake he had made to kill Mordechai. If this interior drama was the entire story of Purim, the Megillah should have ended after Chapter 7. (For those of you reading the extremely long chapters 8 and 9 today, perhaps you might wish that Chapter 7 really was the end of the story!)

However, the Megillah is not over for although the palace intrigue has ended–the personal nature of Haman’s decree has been reversed– the public and national elements of his plan have not. While Esther was taking care of business on the inside, Mordechai as the public model, was tending to the matters outside the palace.

Mordechai is initially portrayed in the Megillah as someone who sits at the gates. The Chachamim characterize him as the head of the Sanhedrin in exile, ruling at the gates where legal courts usually sat. He is known to the King’s inner circle but is not one of Ahashverosh’s inside men. When Esther is taken into the palace, Mordechai stands at the palace gates to give her advice and to keep an eye on her. His placement at the gates of course allows him to overhear Bigtan and Teresh’s plan to poison Achashverosh. It is also at the gates–on the outside–where Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman. In Chapter 4, when Haman’s evil decree is promulgated, Mordechai increases his public presence by donning sackcloth and ashes and going about the city crying and wailing along with all the Jews in the entire kingdom. He stands by the palace gates essentially having his own public protest about national policy. Esther is very distressed that he is making such a spectacle. She has proper clothing sent out to him but he refuses to change. He sends a message to Esther that she must do something–use her power within the palace–to save the Jews. She hedges and then Mordechai sends back a stern message basically telling her:–The only reason you are in the palace dear is to save us. If you don’t come through, you will perish and someone else will take your place. ‘Esther sees Mordechai’s challenge and responds by first telling Mordechai- ‘Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf…’

Esther is saying, ‘You Mordechai are the guy on the outside in the community. You are the community organizer so to speak and now is time for you to do your job and galvanize the Jewish people.’ Esther agrees to plead before the King although she will risk her life to do so. She ends her directive with the famous words:
‘וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי’-’and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

While many see Esther’s words here as sad, I see this as Esther’s shining moment. She rises to the occasion and tells Mordechai essentially- go away and let me do my inside job. You, Mordechai are the public rabble rouser. You do your best work on the outside. Please go do that job Mordechai and let me do mine. We don’t hear from Mordechai again in the Megillah until Esther has completed her task.
After Chapter 7, when the Esther’s job is over, we then see the great importance of Mordechai’s public role. While Haman is dead, his decree is still in affect. Due to the somewhat absurd and cumbersome nature of the Persian legal system, King Ahashverosh cannot simply send out a decree to repeal Haman’s. The only way to stop the initial ruling apparently is to send out another decree which would effectively gut the power of Haman’s. The second decree then allows the Jewish people to form armies and take up arms. I would like to suggest that the Jews were able to move from being oppressed and terrified to immediately being able to assemble an army only because of Mordechai’s community building of the Jewish people in the kingdom. They Jews would not have won the war if they weren’t physically and spiritually on the same page. On a technical note, the Chachamim seem to reflect this understanding of Mordechai in that all the verses of the Megillah that we as a kehillah will say out loud are mostly about Mordechai. (Eliyahu Ki Tov in his wonderful Book of Heritage notes that this minhag is also to prop up Mordechai’s ego since the Megillah is Megillat Esther and not Megillat Mordechai!)

In the end for the complete reversal of fortune to occur, both modes of activism were necessary: diplomacy and public protest and action. When reading the Megillah with our modern lenses, we learn the very important lesson of how best to make things better. In both modes–the Esther mode and Mordechai mode–however, it is important to always have a clear goal in mind when trying to affect change. Protest for protest sake is not enough and neither is diplomacy. The wisdom of the dual approach that Megillat Esther teaches us, allows for the truly miraculous to occur and allows us all to live in a better world.

Chag Sameach!

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.