5770 - #20
There is a climactic verse in Megillat Esther that I have always found perplexing. Mordechai stands outside the king’s courtyard dressed in sackcloth in an obvious state of distress. Esther is informed of this and so begins a dialogue, through intermediaries, upon which the fate of the Jewish People would seem to depend. And then, when Mordechai delivers his final plea and request, his words seem to be the exact opposite of what is expected. One would assume that he is about to declare to Esther that she is the last hope, that for the sake of the nation she must undertake this perilous mission -- that there is no other option. But, what does he say in Esther 4:14: essentially that we don’t really need you. Mordechai effectively tells Esther that God will save the Jewish People really no matter what she does – revach v’hatzalah ya’amod l’yehudim mimakom achier, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from somewhere else. So why then should she go, especially at such great peril? What is even stranger is the fact that this line actually seems to be part of the very charge to Esther – almost go because the nation will be saved in any event. This is, bluntly, bewildering.
Of course, the verse itself does continue with Mordechai presenting a subsequent reason for why Esther should still go to the king: v’at u’beit avich to’veidu, you and your father’s house will be lost, if you do not take this action and, therefore, allow and cause the Jewish nation to be saved in another manner.1 Still, is this a reason for why Esther should accept this life threatening risk? Furthermore, as explained in T.B. Megilla 15a, this course of action is filled with halachic difficulties. Until this time, every meeting between Achashveirosh and Esther was instigated by the king, with Esther acting solely under duress; in this case, it is would be her who is initiating contact. Perhaps, we could understand this desperate necessity if undertaken to save the entire Jewish nation, but is Mordechai actually telling Esther to go to Achashveirosh simply to rectify Shaul’s misconduct with Agog (for, after all, the Jewish nation will be saved in any event)? Furthermore, is it not strange that Esther is being directed to undertake an action of sin, notwithstanding the fact that she may not be culpable, solely to rectify the misdeed of Shaul?2 Given what Esther had to do, perhaps it really would have been better for deliverance to have occurred in another manner.3 Yet, everything points to the fact that Esther and Mordechai’s decision was the correct one. I am left simply trying to understand why.
One more item also concerns me. This assumed shift in focus would also seem to change our understanding of the heroism of Esther. Pursuant to the simple rendition of the story, Esther is a woman, motivated by the dire state of her nation, who, at great personal risk and with great personal loss,4 acted to save her nation from destruction. Pursuant to this fuller, textual understanding, Esther would seem to be a person motivated by family honour or, even, with the hope to save herself. The further strange thing, though, is that the text still also presents her as a leader and heroine of her nation. We seem to have two visions of Mordechai and Esther. One is as individuals acting to save their nation, whose sole heroic concern is their nation. It is within this context that Esther directs Mordechai to instruct the Jews of Shushan to fast on her behalf and then she will undertake the task that is before her. Yet, we also have this other perspective of Mordechai and Esther; two individuals who know deliverance will come anyway to the Jewish People but undertake this mission for personal reasons. It just seems that within one perspective we are to look at Esther’s actions as the necessary, risky undertaking of a heroine whose sole intent is to save her people and who recognize her as the only hope. And, paradoxically, at the same time, we are to recognize, as also did Esther and Mordechai, that deliverance would still come about in any event, and that this undertaking is really not ultimately necessary except in its personal and spiritual effect on the one who must meet this challenge and her lineage.This, actually, is the reality of derech hatevah, the way of nature, within the context of the Divine. Ultimately, nothing in nature is absolute. When confronted by what would seem to be a bleak situation and a lack of alternatives, the reality of God informs us that this is not so. Everything is in the Hands of Heaven. Then why live in and confront the world of nature? This is Mordechai’s charge to Esther. We know that everything ultimately is in the hands of God and we have faith that this will yield positive results – yet God has placed us within a world of derech hatevah for a reason. It is within our confrontation with this world and the rules of nature that we can meet God’s challenge to us to grow. Mordechai and Esther were working on two planes. One was deciding how to act given the rules of nature. Esther risking her very life to attempt to save the Jewish People was the conclusion that they reached in this regard. That is what they had to do; it is God’s Will that we must make decisions pursuant to derech hatevah for that is the way we meet God’s goal and directive to us. But they had a further question: what could be the possible purpose in this conclusion? Why, on the larger scale, is God forcing us to make this decision? It is for the House of Saul that God put Esther in this situation. It is not why she acted this way; she made her decision pursuant to the natural facts. It is why, as her and Mordechai understood it, God placed them in that decision-making situation.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail
1 There are different views within the commentaries as to what this means i.e. what is the specific concern to which Mordechai is alluding? Within the context of the Insight, I will be referring to a view presented by Alshich, built upon T.B. Megilla 13a,b which informs us that Haman was descended from Agag, the Amaleki king who Shaul Hamelech kept alive and that Esther’s and Mordechai were descended from Shaul. Esther and Mordechai’s actions to defeat Haman are seen, within this context, as intended to rectifiy Shaul’s misdeed.
2 In the broader context, Alshich contends that, to rectify the sin, since Shaul, by leaving Agag alive, enabled a woman to have relations with this unholy king of Amalek, a female descendent of Shaul, a proper Jewish woman such as Esther, had to atone for this sin by having relations with another unholy person, such as Achashveirosh. He, unfortunately, though, does not explain why this was so.
3 It was once related to me that there is a commentator who explains Esther 10:3 in a manner that would reflect this very issue. The verse states that Mordechai was looked upon favourably by most of his brethren, and the question is why not all. This specific commentator responded with reference to the fact that Mordechai called upon Esther to act in the manner that she did – and that some, albeit a minority, felt this was inappropriate. I have not, though, been able to find this commentator.
4 According to the view that Esther was Mordechai’s wife, her action in initiating contact with Achashveirosh would, sadly, forever bar her from reuniting with Mordechai. See Rashi, Esther 4:16.
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