Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Aveirah Song T-Shirt

My husband showed me "The Aveirah Song" by Lev Aryeh guys and I've been cracking up ever since. There's only one error in the song (that I could catch)- they pronounce the name Shmuel 'Shmuel' when they should pronounce it 'Shmiel.'

Anyway, click here for the amazing song. It's a Purim parody, and it's brilliant in the way Weird Al Yankovic and Lonely Island parodies are brilliant.

I made a shirt on CustomInk.com based on the song. I know that a snake is not a sheretz, but this was the closest I could find, so consider it a lizard.

Here's a picture.

And here's where you can see the full shirt (click for the link).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

More Thoughts On The Megillah

My student and I were learning today and we came across several interesting things that I am going to share below.

1) All of us have heard the interpretation that Memuchan is Haman, and they are the same character. My student and I were learning the peshat of the Megillah, not the derash, but she herself came up with the connection. Here's why:

Memuchan's reasoning is that if Vashti is permitted to get away with not listening to the king's command, all the other women will decide to flout their husbands' authority. This will be terrible, so the king needs to make an example out of Vashti by either banishing or beheading her (the plain text makes it seem like he banishes her; the derash says he beheads her).

Haman's reasoning is exactly the same when he sees Mordechai. He sees Mordechai does not follow the king's command and refuses to bow. The servants inform him the reason behind Mordechai not bowing is that he is a Jew. When Haman talks to the king and persuades him to authorize the killing of the Jews, he notes, " וְאֶת-דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים" which at first, seems odd. Just because Mordechai isn't keeping the king's law doesn't mean all the Jews aren't keeping the king's law. But if you look deeper, the reason Mordechai gave for why he is refusing to bow is because he is a Jew. Therefore, it follows that all the Jews would refuse to bow, and thus all the Jews would be guilty of not keeping the king's law. An example needs to be made out of this nation so that no other nation will think they can get away with not keeping the king's law.

This way of thinking is so unique that our sages conclude (or at least, my student did) that Memuchan and Haman are the same people.

2) I really like seeing where Chazal come up with their readings of the Tanakh, and today we saw a great example of this. Mordechai refuses to bow, which means that he is flouting the king's command. The king's servants inquire, " מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה עוֹבֵר, אֵת מִצְוַת הַמֶּלֶךְ?" Mordechai does not listen to them. At first we might think this means that he does not listen to their question, but it soon becomes apparent that what it really means is that he does not listen to them in terms of bowing; he refuses to listen to their advice to bow. The king's servants tell Haman that Mordechai is a Jew because "כִּי-הִגִּיד לָהֶם, אֲשֶׁר-הוּא יְהוּדִי." The question is, why would Mordechai have told the servants that he was a Jew? The answer is that somehow, that answers their question! So the conversation looks like:

Mordechai: *Is not bowing*
King's Servanats: Why are you transgressing the commandment of the king?
Mordechai: I am a Jew.
King's Servants: You should still bow!
Mordechai: *does not heed them*

The question then becomes, how does Mordechai's nationality answer the question? How does answering "I am a Jew" explain why Mordechai is not bowing? This is where the famous answer that Haman was wearing an idol on his clothing/ person comes in. Haman is wearing an idol on his person and Mordechai is a Jew and therefore cannot bow down, which would be worshipping idols. 

(Incidentally, I have the niggling idea in my mind that this scene is meant to connect with the scene in Jonah- there, he declares himself a Hebrew and we also have the casting of lots- but I need to think more about what exactly the connection is.)

3) I've been watching a lot of "Game of Thrones" on HBO, and I've also read the series. It occurs to me that Mordechai is a kind of Viserys the Spymaster. Here's why: First, we see him overhear the plot to assassinate the king that occurs with Bigsan and Seresh. But then, he's privy to a different piece of information that he has no reason to know:

 וַיַּגֶּד-לוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר קָרָהוּ; וְאֵת פָּרָשַׁת הַכֶּסֶף, אֲשֶׁר אָמַר הָמָן לִשְׁקוֹל עַל-גִּנְזֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ ביהודיים (בַּיְּהוּדִים)--לְאַבְּדָם.

How does Mordechai know the sum of money that Haman promised to give the king? On the one hand, it's possible that Haman was walking around bragging, saying "I offered the king 10,000 pieces of silver to kill the Jews, and he said kill them, and gave the money back to me!" But let's assume Haman wasn't bragging. How then does Mordechai know a private conversation that took place solely between the King and Haman?

Well, either he's a prophet and so God told him, or he's a spymaster who makes it his business to know what is going on in the court. The second interpretation fits the peshat better. 

4) As an aside, I would just like to say that to me, the coolest part of this story in terms of Esther's heroism and women's agency in general is that she has to use her mind. The Queen in an Oriental country has absolutely no power. She cannot go to the King uninvited. He must summon her or extend the golden scepter. She is not even informed of the important court decisions that he is making. She has no idea her people are in danger; it is Mordechai, who is outside of the palace, who must come to her to tell her of the proclamation and show her a copy of the decree. She is literally a prisoner inside of her beautiful palace. Therefore, the only weapon that Esther has is her mind. Using her cunning and her wisdom, she must come up with the exact way to persuade the king to save her people's life. She must figure out what will stimulate the king to reconsider, and must use those weapons.

5) This leads us to Esther's plan. Esther invites the king to a feast, a mishteh. Now, there are a lot of parties that are happening in this book. The first party is for 180 days and it is to celebrate the king's coronation. Then there is another party for 7 days, where the king and the queen are celebrating separately. Note that the king's party takes place in the  גִּנַּת בִּיתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ while Vashti's party takes place in the בֵּית, הַמַּלְכוּת. There is something rather troubling about the power balance here. Vashti is inside of the royal house, possibly in the position of more power, while the king is outside of it, in the garden. 

The king makes one more party. This happens when he crowns Esther. 

  וַיַּעַשׂ הַמֶּלֶךְ מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל, לְכָל-שָׂרָיו וַעֲבָדָיו--אֵת, מִשְׁתֵּה אֶסְתֵּר; וַהֲנָחָה לַמְּדִינוֹת עָשָׂה, וַיִּתֵּן מַשְׂאֵת כְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ.

So why then does Esther invite the king to parties? 

She is doing it deliberately. She wants to jog his memory. It was at a party that your former wife- Vashti- humiliated you. But it was also at a party that you celebrating choosing me, appointing me in her stead. Here we are at yet another party. Remember my loyalty to you? Remember her disloyalty? 

At the second party, Esther reveals that Haman has tried to kill her and her people. The king, filled with rage, goes outside to the גִּנַּת, הַבִּיתָן. This implies that Esther has deliberately held her party in a location that is adjacent to the palace garden. Why? Because she wants to set off the king's wrath. The last time I was in this palace garden, he is thinking, my trusted wife Vashti refused to obey my command. When the king goes for a walk in the garden, this memory comes back to him (consciously or subconsciously) full force. So when he enters the room to see Haman fallen upon the queen, the rage of that betrayal feeds into his anger at Haman, and leads him to feel betrayed by a close person yet again- and he orders him hanged. 

6) If we go according to the Rav's interpretation, where the king suffers from insecurity in his realm and fears revolt, his reasons for killing Haman become even more clear (I'm reading the ending a little differently from the Rav). When the king is sleeping fitfully one night, he awakes and reads of the service Mordechai has done for him. Then comes a non sequitur. 

 וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ, מִי בֶחָצֵר

Why does the king suddenly ask "Who is in the court?" It seems like he heard a noise, or something else disturbed him about the presence of someone in the court, because otherwise Haman would have been announced and would have entered. Instead, the king is disturbed by someone's presence in the dead of night in the courtyard, and learns that it is Haman's. Later on, he discovers Haman has hatched a plot to kill the queen and her people. Finally, he enters the room and sees Haman fallen upon the queen- in his mind, possibly to kill her! Charvonah then speaks up and says "Haman erected a gallows to kill Mordechai- the one who saved your life!" The king's suspicious mind is turning. He thinks, "Haman wants to kill Mordechai- the man who saved me. Perhaps, then, Haman is really against me! Perhaps he was even part of that plot with Bigsan and Seresh! If he wants to kill Mordechai, who saved me, then perhaps that means he wants to kill me! After all, why was he in my courtyard in the dead of night? Let's get rid of this treasonous man- let's kill him!" 

7) If we go with the idea that the king is paranoid, it also explains why he would be willing to allow Haman's sons to be hanged upon the gallows. Esther requests that, and the king permits it. Here's why it could work- in the scene where Haman gets advice as to what to do to Mordechai, he has summoned " זֶרֶשׁ אִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֹהֲבָיו". The JPS translation translates "ohavav" as "his friends," but what if it was literally all that he loved, meaning his sons? If his sons and his wife are the ones who advised him to hang Mordechai on the gallows, Mordechai the man who had saved the king's life, then it makes sense that Esther wants to kill those treasonous sons. By trying to hang the man who had saved the king's life, they put themselves under suspicion of not wanting the king to be saved in the first place! The only difficulty with this approach is, if so, why is Zeresh not punished at all? In fact, what happens to Zeresh? We aren't told.

Now we come to some questions I have. 

8) Mordechai gives Esther advice not to reveal her identity. And  yet, he told the servants, when they questioned him as to why he wasn't bowing down, that he was a Jew. This information gets back to Haman, who uses it to decide to kill all the Jews. The question I have is: Why didn't Mordechai take his own advice? Why did he not divulge his identity? Moreover, later on he says "Who is to say that this is not the reason that you arose to royalty?" to Esther re: her role in saving the Jews. But the fact is, there would have been no need to save the Jews if Mordechai had a) bowed or b) not divulged that he was a Jew, because then Haman could just have killed him, not his whole nation.

9) Mordechai refuses to don the clothing Esther sends him in order to enter the inner courtyard of the king and speak with her directly. Rather, he communicates with her via Hasach. I imagine that we can take some sort of meaning from this, such as that one is not allowed to put off mourning for even one moment when a terrible decree is clustered overhead, but it does seem odd. Why does Mordechai prefer to talk to Esther via a third party rather than just changing into the nice clothing for a few moments in order to chat with her, and then change back into the sackcloth? 

10) It says at the end of Chapter 3 that Shushan was bewildered. What were they bewildered by? Haman and Achashveirosh sitting down to drink? The decree against the Jews? What bewildered them and why? 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Paranoid King: Insights Into Achashveirosh

Over Shabbat, my husband pointed me to Shiurei Ha-Rav, specifically the section on Purim. There, I read a fascinating write-up of a lecture on Purim delivered by the Rav in 1973. Tonight, I found Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's 'Insights into M'gillat Esther' reprinted in this Tebah.org Purim Reader, and figured I would reprint the excerpt focusing on Achashveirosh that helps shed some light on this king's character.


The king had a paranoid fear of an insurrection against the throne. The Talmud relates that he was not the legitimate heir to the kingdom, rather the son of the steward of the royal stables. His only connection with royalty was through his wife Vashti, daughter of Belshazzar. She obviously despised him as a social climber who lacked any royal grace and dignity. There was an underground movement to overthrow the government and restore the old order, as evidenced by the assassination attempt by Bigtan and Teresh. Ahashverosh tried to “buy” the country’s loyalty by making those lavish parties and inviting everyone to eat and drink and view his wealth and women. But this is all clearly the workings of a mind that feels very insecure and fears revolt. The absurd law (4:11) proclaiming death to anyone who entered the throne room without an appointment seems also to be an outgrowth of his paranoid fear of revolt or assassination. When Vashti publicly insults him, he was worried that if he should kill her, this would inspire a revolution. M’mukhan (1:16-20) gave him the following brilliant analysis: “True, if you kill Vashti you may trigger off a revolt, but if you allow her to survive after publicly insulting the king, then she will serve as a model for all the women of royal blood to insult their husbands.” It was the custom in antiquity for the victor to marry the widow or daughter of the vanquished power. Thus, many of Ahashverosh’s officers had married women of the old order. “If they saw that the queen was not punished for her insolence, they too would start fighting their husbands and join the underground movement to restore the old order. The way to nip that in the bud is to execute Vashti.” Thus M’mukhan, whom the Talmud tells us was Haman, gained the confidence of the paranoiac king, appearing as one who loyally defended the throne. Immediately following the assassination attempt by Bigtan and Teresh, we find that Haman was appointed Prime Minister. The king was really frightened, and in his paranoia he turned to the person who had proven his loyalty M’mukhan (Haman)—and placed his faith in him.

Feeling slighted by Mordekhai, Haman decides to destroy the Jews. He plays on the king’s paranoia by casting suspicion on the loyalty of the Jews. He tells the king (3:8) that the Jews are a unified nation, widely dispersed in the kingdom, with queer laws and customs. Being a strange nation, no one can guess whether they are planning a revolt. Should they decide to join the underground, their unity as well as their dispersion geographically could make the insurrection very successful.

The king fell for this ploy and agreed to kill the Jews. When a paranoid lives in fear of an imaginary monster, all moral controls are abandoned. He has only one irresistible urge—to destroy. Esther understood all this very well and therefore could not agree to Mordekhai’s plan of immediate action. Once Haman had succeeded in arousing in the king fear of Jewish revolt, no human power or pleading could dissuade him from destroying his imaginary enemies. In grappling with the realities of the situation it was a woman’s mind, not a man’s ideas, that was needed. Esther decided that the only way out would be to turn the tables on Haman and accuse him of plotting against the king. She procrastinated day after day, waiting to find a possible opening, a possible way to shatter the king’s faith in his trusted Prime Minister. It seemed that only a miracle could weaken his trust and indeed a miracle happened: Balaila ha-hu nad’da sh’nat ha-melekh (6:1). This is the turning point in the whole story, the prime miracle. The most significant aspect of that night was not so much the king’s new respect for Mordekhai, but his loss of confidence in Haman. You feel the king’s malicious joy in taunting Haman while ordering him to honor “Mordekhai the Jew” (6:10). Whether it was Haman’s mention of the royal crown (6:8) that made the king suspect his loyalty, or his failure to reward the king’s benefactor Mordekhai, or the shifting perception of the universe in the mind of this paranoiac king, it was time for Esther to plant the seeds of distrust in his mind. This is the kind of subtle hester panim miracle, a change of mood in the mind of a deranged king, for which we give thanks to God on Purim. The next day, when Esther charges Haman with treason, the king willingly accepts the accusation. She explains to the king that had Haman really felt concern for the better interest of the king, he would have placed the Jews in forced labor camps, thereby keeping them under surveillance in a profitable set up. “But the villain is not concerned about the threat to the king” (7:4). By proposing to arm the countryside with weapons to kill the Jews, he was really making it much easier for the revolutionary elements of the population to organize their revolution. Esther made the king believe that Haman was plotting against the throne. The king’s paranoia took over where Esther’s words ceased. Upon returning from the garden to find Haman on the couch where Esther was lying he screams, “Do you even plan to seduce the queen while I am in the house?” (7:8). He was so convinced of Haman’s treachery that everything he did was viewed through the lenses of his paranoia. He “saw” Haman not only planning the revolt but even trying to steal the queen! This was the ultimate sign of revolt. Haman’s fate was sealed. The very strategy and the fate planned for the Jews now backfired on Haman and his associates.