Friday, March 21, 2008

Thoughts on the Megillah

I had the exquisite pleasure of learning with my brothers tonight, who are creative thinkers and afforded me many insights and ideas into the Megillah. Thank you so much for learning with me!

1. What decree did Vashti defy?

I noticed something very interesting tonight. Note the precise formation of the sentences.

יב וַתְּמָאֵן הַמַּלְכָּה וַשְׁתִּי, לָבוֹא בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר, בְּיַד הַסָּרִיסִים; וַיִּקְצֹף הַמֶּלֶךְ מְאֹד, וַחֲמָתוֹ בָּעֲרָה בוֹ. {ס}
12 But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by the chamberlains; therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him. (Esther 1:12)

טו כְּדָת, מַה-לַּעֲשׂוֹת, בַּמַּלְכָּה, וַשְׁתִּי--עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָשְׂתָה, אֶת-מַאֲמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, בְּיַד, הַסָּרִיסִים. {ס}
15 'What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she hath not done the bidding of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?' {S} (Esther 1:15)

Why the need to state that Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by the chamberlains? This would be understood from context!

For this I turn to the following idea brought down in The Midrash Says on parshas Balak.
    When Bilam rose the next morning, he relayed the Almighty's message only in part. Instead of admitting that God had forbidden him to leave, the arrogant Bilam explained, "God does not let me go with you." He emphasized "you," leading the delegates to infer that God did not permit him to travel in their company because they were of inferior rank.

    They returned to King Balak with the reply, "Bilam does not consider us sufficiently distinguished to invite him!"

    ~Bamidbar Rabbah 20:10, The Midrash Says, page 307
For this reason, explains Midrash Rabbah, it says:

טו וַיֹּסֶף עוֹד, בָּלָק, שְׁלֹחַ שָׂרִים, רַבִּים וְנִכְבָּדִים מֵאֵלֶּה.
15 And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.

What then, was Vashti saying? She was not truly planning on defying the King's order. Rather, she was going to defy his order so long as it was his chamberlains that he had sent to escort her. Were he to come in person and escort her to the meal, she would certainly have come. Similarly to Bilam, or the way in which Bilam presented himself, Vashti only wanted a more distinguished and honorable escort.

2. Vashti did not die.

If you look at the pesukim, there is absolutely no support for the idea that Vashti was killed. Look at the advice of Memuchan:

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.

19 If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus, and that the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.

And then we see later on:

א אַחַר, הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, כְּשֹׁךְ, חֲמַת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--זָכַר אֶת-וַשְׁתִּי וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂתָה, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-נִגְזַר עָלֶיהָ.
1 After these things, when the wrath of king Ahasuerus was assuaged, he remembered Vashti, and what she had done, and what was decreed against her.

What happened to Vashti? She was forbidden to appear before the King. Quite probably she was placed in the keeping of Shashgaz, Keeper of the Concubines. The King made an unalterable decree about this, and he is therefore forbidden to revoke it, in the same way that we later see that letters stamped with the royal seal cannot be revoked or repealed. The fact that we have letters issued to the entire country here as well demonstrates the unrepealable status of the decree. Vashti is alive and the King misses her, but he has absolutely no power or ability to bring her back; he made an unalterable decree and must live with the consequences.

Incidentally, my brother Urchin has always understood it this way. Good for him!

Look also at Memuchan's advice. Note the peculiar term utilized.

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.

19 If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus, and that the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.

The King is to give Vashti's malchus to another who is better than she. JPS translates this word as "royal estate." That translation makes no sense, because when Haman's estate is mentioned in context of its being given to Esther, it is clearly called "beit Haman." If we were talking about a physical estate, it ought to be consistent and say "beit Vashti" or the like. Rather, the King is giving Vashti's power, her Queenship, her very malchus to another. This may be symbolized by the passing on of physical items, such as certain jewels, gowns or attire that only the Queen may wear.

It is in context of this that a different pasuk makes sense. There is a very peculiar pasuk that appears before Esther ventures before the King.

א וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת, וַתַּעֲמֹד בַּחֲצַר בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ הַפְּנִימִית, נֹכַח בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ; וְהַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁב עַל-כִּסֵּא מַלְכוּתוֹ, בְּבֵית הַמַּלְכוּת, נֹכַח, פֶּתַח הַבָּיִת.

1 Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king's house, over against the king's house; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the entrance of the house. (Esther 5: 1)

The JPS translation adds in the word "apparel," but strikingly, there is no such word included in the pasuk. This is different from the verse in 15: 8, which clearly states that Mordechai had donned levush malchus, royal apparel. Esther actually dons malchus, the attribute of malchus.

Why does Esther do this?

It is because it is precisely this malchus which was given to her by the King, taken from Vashti and given to her due to her being "better than she [that is, Vashti.]" It is possible that this was symbolized by certain garments or jewels that only a Queen might wear, and indeed, perhaps they were even Vashti's garments. When Esther appeared before the King, she was making a strong statement. "I am Esther, wearing malchus. These are the clothes that you gave to me that were once Vashti's; I am Esther, whom you chose over Vashti, and upon whom you bestowed her malchus. I am coming to you wearing these clothes, while Vashti refused to come before you at her request; I come even without your request"! Esther's donning malchus is her deliberate reminder to the King of who she is, why he chose her (i.e. she is better than Vashti), what was given her (malchus), and an active demonstration of how she differs from Vashti- while Vashti did not love the King enough to honor his request, Esther loves him enough to risk her life to see him.

3. Why were the virgins rounded up a second time?

This is my brother Taran's idea.

יט וּבְהִקָּבֵץ בְּתוּלוֹת, שֵׁנִית; וּמָרְדֳּכַי, יֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר-הַמֶּלֶךְ.
19 And when the virgins were gathered together the second time, and Mordecai sat in the king's gate--

Why were the virgins gathered together the second time? The Midrashic explanation, which my father offered, is that the King wished to make Esther jealous, and therefore pretended that she too was replaceable and that he desired to find another wife. Despite this, Esther kept her secret and did not divulge her identity, nor that of her nation.

Taran has a far simpler approach. Why were the virgins rounded up a second time? Why, because the King had chosen his bride! The women who had slept with the King were confined to the keeping of Shashgaz, Keeper of the Concubines. But what happened to the women who had not yet had their one night with the king, who were still virgins? Well, the King had chosen his Queen, that is, Esther, and the next verses go in order. First he makes her Queen, then he throws her a lavish party and gives gifts to the promises, and then all the remaining virgins are gathered up in order to go home. After all, what use could they possibly serve? The beauty pageant is no longer running.

And that is why the verse mentions the fact that Mordechai was sitting in the sha'ar hamelech- quite possibly this group of virgins, those who were gathered for the second time (as in, they were gathered once to meet the King, and then gathered so that they might return to their homes) passed him on their way out!

I love how that's beautifully simple. Thanks, Taran.

6 comments:

The Cousin said...

While Vashti was not killed off in the physical sense, perhaps the whole notion that she was "killed" was not a literal translation.

Perhaps her decrease in social status had the pyschological effect of "killing" her. Or the fact that she was "exiled" to wherever, her dissapearance may have lead people to think she was "dead". What's that literature term I'm looking for to describe this phenomenon.....
Or a better analogy, it's as if Vashti had been a full box of brand new crayons...and now she's just a bunch of ground down indistinguishible stumps, missing their wrappers and smeared with other colors.

Hag Sameach!

Anonymous said...

Excellent point about מלכותה.

As for the second gathering, it bothered me too while I was following along this year. While your father's explanation is ok (but not great), your brother's doesn't explain the word שנית.

Also, you seem to assume that Esther is a בתולה - an assumption I always made too - but one that I didn't find in the pesukim. In fact, Achashverosh is said to find Esther better than all the בתולות. Food for thought (unless I'm missing something very obvious).

Anonymous said...

I am the person who used to ask all the kids to put the toys IN the box after recess, not on the box, near the box, beside the box, etc. Also, I hope your brother's shoelaces have been shortened by this point.
Now that you all know who I am, I'd like to add the possibility that Mordechai was there to escort the young women home safely, as Shushan at that time was not a safe place for attractive maidens to walk alone. They were gathered waiting for a protector through the streets.

Leora said...

Thanks for the support on "Vashti did not die." My kids learn midrash as though it's fact, but I kept looking in the megillah to see where it says she died, couldn't find it.

Also, I once heard that Vashti was the first feminist. Because she stood up to the king. My daughter (who is five) says she was evil. I like the "stood up to the king" interpretation better.

dd said...

the pshat u said in regard to the virgins being collected a second time is simple and explains most things but i think fails to explain y the megillah mentioned that mordiachai was in the shaar hair y not just say they left the shaar hair y would the megillah need to include moriachai

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

About Vashti dying; wikipedia says that generally Christians understand that she was sent away, and Jews have a tradition she died.

"One night with the Queen" film has "sending away" a nice way of saying "kill" (like the Jewish interpretation)...