Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Unraveling the Puzzle of Megillat Esther

Megillat Esther is a brilliant work.

On the one hand, it masterfully and suspensefully relates the Purim story - a story we all know. Yet, like all great books, each re-reading offers a new and unexpected pleasure. I still get a kick out of how the Megillah refers to "all the people who loved [Haman], and Zeresh, his wife." (5,10)

But, as we know, the Megillah is much more than that. Woven into the fabric of the work - hidden beneath the surface - like Esther's Jewish identity, is a core of religious identity and belief essential to our identity as Jews.

Therein lay the brilliance of Mordechai and Esther: On one hand, they wrote an entirely secular story which they spread across the known world. But, read with the proper perspective, that very same work represents a core religious Jewish text.

I'd like to give one, very simple example of how Chazal read the book of Esther.

A very famous gemara in Shabbat (88a) relates that the Revelation on Har Sinai was a bit more dangerous than we might have considered:

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר (שמות, י"ט, יז). אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה - מוטב, ואם לאו - שם תהא קבורתכם
אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא
אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש; דכתיב (אסתר, ט', כז) "קיימו וקבלו היהודים" - קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר
"And they stood at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 19,17) Said Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa: This [verse] teaches us that God held the mountain over them like a barrel and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah - very well; But if not - here is where you will be buried!"

Said Rav Acha bar Yaakov: From this [statement] there is a great criticism against the Torah (Rashi - because the Jewish people were forced to accept the Torah).

Said Rava: Nonetheless, they later accepted [the Torah] during the times of Achashveirosh, as it is written, "The Jews fullfilled and accepted" - [this means that] they fulfilled what they had already accepted.

This short piece of Aggadah is rich with meaning, and raises many important questions. Yet, I'd like to focus on the final statement of Rava who derives the fact that the Jews willingly accepted the Torah during the times of Mordechai and Esther from the words קימו וקבלו היהודים - "the Jews fulfilled and accepted."

How does Rava arrive at his conclusion? Where does he see this deeper meaning hidden in the text? The answer is, in fact, right before our eyes, if we know how to properly piece the puzzle together.

In the text of the Megillah, the verse cited seems to have nothing to do with the Torah at all, but instead seems to be about the acceptance of Purim.

;קִיְּמוּ וקבל (וְקִבְּלוּ) הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל-זַרְעָם וְעַל
כָּל-הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם, וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר--לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי
הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה, כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם:  בְּכָל-שָׁנָה, וְשָׁנָה.
The Jews fulfilled, and took upon them, and upon their descendants, and upon all
such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that
they would keep these two days according to the writing thereof, and
according to the appointed time thereof, every year; 

Yet, when we consider the verse (and the phrase at hand) one of the words seems unnecessary and unusual. Why does the verse say that קימו וקבלו - "they fulfilled and took upon themselves" when it could have simply said, קבלו היהודים עליהם ועל זרעם - "the Jews accepted upon themselves and upon their descendants". What is the extra word telling us? How can one fulfill something before he even accepts it?

Yet, this very paradox reminds us of another, similar phrase found in the Torah:

 וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ד' נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע
And [Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the ears of the nation, and they said, 'Everything that God said we will do and we will hear."

It's precisely the same progression:

קיימו -- קבלו
נעשה  -- נשמע

This, I believe, is exactly what the authors of the Megillah were hinting to at the conclusion of the Purim story.

The Jews living at that time didn't just commit themselves to keeping the holiday of Purim in the future. Rather, what precipitated the tragedy of Purim was the wholesale abandonment of the Torah after the exile from Jerusalem. The tragedy of Purim forced the Jews to make a choice: do we want to just die like Jews, or do we want to live like Jews as well.
קיימו וקבלו היהודים.

They rechose, yet again, after the events of Achashveirosh. If we're going to suffer the hatred against the Jews, ought we not live by the values that God gave us as well?
Yet another piece to the Purim puzzle.

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