Sunday, January 20, 2008

In The King's House: Esther & Moses

I recently watched a compelling movie entitled "One Night With The King." It was a particularly beautiful rendition of the story of Esther, although it certainly took liberties with the original text and incorporated some apocryphal references. I enjoy watching movies with biblical themes as they generally allow me to approach Tanakh from a new angle; an interesting idea occurred to me after watching it, namely, to compare the situations of Esther and Moses.

Esther and Moses are both children of (or in Esther's case, related to) the leaders of their generation, Mordechai and Amram respectively. They both have their true names, Hadassah and Tuvia, and secondary names (although perhaps more important), Esther and Moses. They are both taken from their houses and brought to the royal palace, where they are chosen against all odds to represent their people. Moses is raised as a son to Bithia and by extension Pharoah, perhaps becoming a Prince of Egypt, while Esther becomes Ahaseurus' Queen. Both of them seem to hide their identities, Esther, because she is charged to do so, and Moses, because he dresses in Egyptian fashion and carries himself in that way. In perhaps the high point of their careers, they both put their lives in danger when they walk toward the King, Moses because he is returning from exile when he was to have been put to death for his crime, and Esther because it is death to come before the King unsummoned. And in both scenarios, they are the ones who must save their people.

Tangential to these points, there is also the fact that evil advisors and good advisors are significant players in both stories (although by Pharoah, Bilam, Jethro and Job are only mentioned in a Midrash, while in the Megillah, Haman, Memuchan and Charbonah are written about in the very text.)

The great distinction between Esther and Moses lies in the techniques they utilize when attempting to help their people. Esther was originally charged by Mordechai not to reveal her Jewish origin or birth (Esther 2: 10). She refrains from doing so for as long as possible, but when Mordechai informs her it is her duty- and it seems that she needs persuading, for he warns her that if she does not fulfill her destiny, "relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father's house will perish" (Esther 4: 14), she dons royalty and appears before the King in the inner court. He extends his golden scepter to her and bids her approach; when she does so she creates the setting for a clever game, a deadly tea party. Esther has clearly mastered the art of diplomacy; she will create a situation that is conducive to her petition, and it is only then that she will ask it, in words that are meant to gain the King's pity and compassion.

Moses is quite different. Rather than engaging in any diplomatic sort of meeting with either Bithia his adoptive mother or Pharoah, his grandfather, he goes out unto his brethren and mingles with them, sharing their burdens and their pain. He does not enjoy the sly games and clever exchanges of diplomats; this easy exchange of words does not come naturally for one such as him. After all, is he not "slow of speech, and of a slow tongue?" (Exodus 4: 10) Moses is hotheaded, his actions impulsive; he acts without considering the full ramifications of his actions.
    11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. 12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.
This seems quite strange. Could not Moses, as the adopted son of the Princess, have ordered the man killed? At the very least, like Jezebel, could he not have created some trumped-up charges on which to have the man executed? (Kings I 21: 8-11) Why did he have to murder the man himself? If you say that it was necessary because there was no time- the taskmaster was engaged in beating the Jewish man to death right before Moses' eyes- could not Moses have the taskmaster thrown into jail, to await further charges? With all these options available, Moses' choosing to kill the Egyptian at that very moment in time suggests a rash and hotheaded action; after ascertaining that "no man" was there, he killed him and buried him. This leads to Pharoah wishing to "slay Moses" (Exodus 2: 15).

It is peculiar that the Midrash ascribes Moses a role in the proceedings that was diplomatic, and that did not involve his actually visiting his brethren in efforts to help him. Here, Moses takes on a more legislative role:
    The royal favor, which the king accorded him in ever- increasing measure, he made use of to lighten the burden laid upon the children of Israel. One day he came into the presence of Pharaoh, and said: "O my lord, I have a request to make of thee, and my hope is that thou wilt not deny it." "Speak," replied the king. "It is an admitted fact," said Moses, "that if a slave is not afforded rest at least one day in the week, he will die of overexertion. Thy Hebrew slaves will surely perish, unless thou accordest them a day of cessation from work." Pharaoh fulfilled the petition preferred by Moses, and the king's edict was published in the whole of Egypt and in Goshen, as follows: "To the sons of Israel! Thus saith the king: Do your work and perform your service for six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest; on it ye shall do no labor. Thus shall ye do unto all times, according to the command of the king and the command of Moses the son of Bithiah." And the day appointed by Moses as the day of rest was Saturday, later given by God to the Israelites as the Sabbath day. [ footnote72, which is Shemos Rabbah 1: 28, Yashar Shemot, 133a, Shibbole Haleket 55-56]
Now, if Moses was able to argue so persuasively with the King in order to lighten the load of the Hebrews, why did he not remain in that position? It seems very odd that he would act in so ineffectual a manner as to attempt to go out to his people and physically aid in the labor when putting his mind to the test and engaging in courtly intrigues would yield more productive results. It is possible that, as was to happen several times thereafter upon Moses' leading the Jews in the desert, Moses' emotions of anger overwhelmed him to the point that he acted, and suffered the consequences later. Moses killing the Egyptian is characteristic of Moses who pleads "Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth, that Thou shouldest say unto me: Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou didst swear unto their fathers?" (Numbers 11: 12), who passionately defends either God or His people as the occasion demands, and who calls his nation "Mordim," rebels. Moses works off of his emotions; he is honest in every way- what he thinks and feels, he says. This consistently gets him into trouble; whether it is God's being upset with his doubting the Jews, or using the term "Mordim" to refer to them, or his request that God kill him because he is "not able to bear all this people myself alone" (Numbers 11: 15), even his steadfast belief that if he simply pleads long enough and hard enough, God will allow him into the Land of Israel. Moses believes in passion and at times his passion rules him.

Esther, on the other hand, is not a particularly passionate, reckless, active creature. Indeed, she is far more measured; she deals in practicalities and realities as opposed to rash anger. When she is informed of a plot to kill the king, she tells it over "in Mordecai's name" (Esther 2: 22), perhaps thinking of how this will aid him, perhaps simply acting the dutiful daughter. Later, although she is deeply pained by the appearance of Mordechai at the gate, her first response is not to inquire as to why he is there, or what his message may be, but to send "raiment to clothe Mordecai; and to take his sackcloth from off him; but he accepted it not" (Esther 4: 4). She does not wish to act; indeed, she does not even ask in order to determine how she should act, and whether he desires clothes- she simply sends them, for no daughter should see a father thus disgraced. The text never suggests that she exerted any effort in an attempt to seduce Ahaseurus; rather, she "obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins" (Esther 2: 17). Esther is a more passive creature; she does what she is told. She appears before the King, and passively wins his regard. She refrains from telling the King about her birth and people because Mordechai has told her not to do so, and she obeys. When Mordechai informs her that she must go before the King unsummoned, although she is afraid for her life, she reverts to what she has always done, which is to obey Mordechai, and obeys him here as well. It is possible, then, that her diplomacy could be seen as a weakness; she uses words as weapons because she does not dare to truly act. On the other hand, it could simply reflect on her status as a woman, and thus someone who truly has no other ability to make her will known.

It's interesting to compare the respective walks of Moses and Esther. Both of them go before Kings who have every reason to kill them. Both of them must be coerced into doing so (God literally forces Moses to act as a leader, and sends Aaron along for moral support, while Mordechai informs Esther that she must act now if she does not wish to be utterly destroyed.) There is a famous Midrash about Moses' walk to Pharoah:
    Thereupon Moses invited the elders to go to Pharaoh with him, but they lacked the courage to appear before the king. Though they started out with Moses, they dropped off stealthily on the way, one by one, and when Moses and Aaron stood in the presence of the king, they found themselves alone, deserted by all the others. The elders did not go out free. Their punishment was that God did not permit them to ascend the holy mountain with Moses. They durst accompany him on the way to God only as far as they had accompanied him on the way to Pharaoh, and then they had to tarry until he came again.[ footnote 153, Shemos Rabbah 5: 13-14]
In a way, was not this walk as significant as Esther's walk before the King, where she came unbidden and unsummoned? Moses and Esther both risked death in so doing, though neither of them found it, and instead became the saviors of their people.


Anonymous said...

Could not Moses, as the adopted son of the Princess, have ordered the man killed?

That would assume that the man was acting against the law, but the implication of the text is that the Egyptian is simply following his orders from Pharoah.

could not Moses have the taskmaster thrown into jail, to await further charges?

Jail didn't really work like that in ancient times. You had to be fairly important to be worth the expense of keeping alive in a dungeon (note that the prisoners in the Yosef story are all high-ranking, trusted servants).

It's interesting to compare the respective walks of Moses and Esther.

There's a midrashic reading of a psalm (I can't remember which one, one of the early ones) that sees it as a commentary on Esther's walk to the king.

Ish Yehudi said...

Beautiful comparison and juxtaposition.

One small Quote + note:
"it [Esther's diplomacy in/by using words as weapons] could simply reflect on her status as a woman, and thus someone who truly has no other ability to make her will known."

Vashti seemed to make her point very clear by action (or a specific, intentional inaction despite a royal request/edict). Then again, you may argue that it was all she could do, which is why there is no reported action, only a message.

Anonymous said...

I think rashi is emphasizing the lack of emotion when he says vayifen koh v'koh = what he did in the home and in the field. He evaluated and decided as a ben noach the mitri should be killed

Financial Artist said...

saw the movie and was deeply disappointed. I think that of all the stories in Tanach, the book of Esther reads most like a screenplay. this movie was long on tedium and short on drama.

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