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From the Rabbi

Simcha 2015Esther’s Gambit

“And Esther said to return this answer to Mordecai.  Go, gather all the Jews who live in Shushan and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day.  Also I and my girls will fast as well.  And then I shall come to the king which in contrary to the law, and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” –Esther 4:15, 16

Mordecai tells Esther that she must try and save her people, but that is easier said than done.  Although she played a part in foiling the attempted assassination of Ahasuerus by Bigtan and Teresh (chapter two) and once was the king’s favorite wife, Haman, possesses an edict for the destruction of the Jews.  Not only is it too dangerous to approach the king uninvited, there is also the obvious problem of being a woman, another Vashti, a second class citizen, her word against a man’s word.  What is Esther to do?  In the words of Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha, “It doesn’t matter whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.”  Esther is prepared to lose her life, but will it save her people?

As if things weren’t bad enough, cousin Mordecai has no advice for her, no strategy to offer.  So Esther hits on a brilliant plan based what she knows about the respective personalities of Haman and Ahasuerus.  For his part, Haman is intoxicated by power.  The closer he gets to the throne the better.  The more he can influence policy the better.  Under the right circumstances, a palace coup is not out of the question for a clever minister.

For his part, King Ahasuerus sees the Hamans of the world as a necessary evil, exploiting their ambition for profit; but allowing them get too close is out of the question.  Esther sees an opportunity to intervene born of Haman’s lust and Ahasuerus’ mistrust.  Esther will skillfully play the one against the other.

The plot begins in chapter five.  Ahasuerus is happy to see Esther (he hasn’t seen her for a month), and offers her a gift of up to half the kingdom for the asking.  Verse 5:4: “Esther said, ‘If his majesty deems it proper, let his majesty and Haman attend, today, a feast which I have prepared for him.’”

Reading the verse backward we have the following: “I prepared a banquet for you, your majesty.  The food is ready now.  There is no time to think about it.  It will be an intimate gathering of the three of us: you, me, and Haman.”  Before the evening is over however, another party invitation will be extended for the next evening.  It will not a party for him (Ahasuerus), but for them (Ahasuerus and Haman).  His hubris makes it impossible for Haman to comprehend the danger Esther has put him in by making him a peer of the king of Persia.  The careful reader may sense that a ministerial moth is getting to close to the royal flame.

Ahasuerus is so upset by Esther’s invitations to Haman; paranoia and jealousy has gotten the best of him.  His wife has invited another man to dine with the king!  In Esther 6:1 we read, “On that night, the king’s sleep was disturbed, and he ordered to bring the book of the records, the chronicles, and they were read before the king.”  The medieval French commentator Rashi (1040 to 1106) offers the following teaching:

…the king’s sleep was disturbed…It was a miracle.  And some say that he took to heart that Esther had invited Haman; perhaps she had set her eyes upon him [the king, to hurt him], and he [Haman] would assassinate him. …to bring the book of the records…It is customary for kings that when their sleep is disturbed, parables and lectures are recited to them until their sleep is restored.  Our Rabbis, however, explained that since he took to heart [the matter of] Haman and Esther, he said [to himself], “It is impossible that none of my friends should know their plan and divulge it to me.”  He [thought] again and said [to himself], “Perhaps someone did me a favor, and I did not reward him and they don’t care about me anymore.”  Therefore, “he ordered to bring the book of the records [and thereby discovered that Mordecai had never been compensated for foiling the plot of Bigtan and Theresh].”

Although many details of the story have been omitted here, the reader can better understand the denouement in chapter seven in light of Esther’s gambit in chapter five.  For now we see clearly that Haman’s genocidal plot against the Jews (while damaging to the king’s financial well-being) is second to the king’s growing suspicion that Haman cannot be trusted and will trespass against him.  Verse 7:8: “Then the king returned from the palace garden to the place of the wine drinking; and Haman was falling upon the couch where Esther was.  Then said the king, Will he also force the queen with me present in the house? As the word went out of the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.”

Esther escapes implication in this dramatic farce as Haman’s co-conspirator partly because Ahasuerus is blinded by his love for her.  More than that, cold logic suggests that Esther would not conspire to destroy her own people; Haman is no friend of hers.  She twice demonstrates her loyalty to the king by informing him about the assassination plot of Bigtan and Theresh and by explaining to the king that he has much to lose by following Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish people.  Esther is a brave and clever queen, and whatever she did, she did for her king!

Each year brings a greater appreciation of the twists and turns in the Purim tale!

Happy holiday…see you at the Megillah reading!

—Rabbi Simcha Prombaum