Friday, March 30, 2012

Tzav - The Korban Todah and Pesach: Giving Thanks to God for Salvation

In Parshas Tzav we read about the korban todah, the thanksgiving offering. The commentaries (Rashi, Rashbam) explain that this offering was brought by someone who had been saved from danger, especially referring to the four cases enumerated by the Talmud (Brachos 54b), based upon Psalms 107, in which a person "needs to give thanks." These are: one who has traveled by sea, one who traveled through a desert, one who was released from prison, and one who has recovered from illness. (Although the Talmud is speaking there of birkas hagomel, i.e. publicly reciting the blessing of thanksgiving, Rashi understands these categories to apply to the korban torah as well, citing the verse in Psalm 107, "and they shall slaughter thanksgiving offerings." Rashi presumably holds like the Tosafos HaRosh (Brachos 54b) that birkas hagomel is itself based upon the korban todah.)

Anytime we give thanks to God for saving us from a difficulty or a danger, we face an obvious question. Our thanks to God is based upon the premise that God is almighty, and that He controls all that happens in our lives and in the world as a whole. However, if God is indeed the one who controls all that happens in our lives, then it was He who put us into the bad situation in the first place! If so, why are giving thanks to God for saving us from troubles that He caused?

If any holiday embodies this paradox, it is Pesach! Pesach is a holiday devoted to giving thanks to God for freeing us from the slavery and oppression we experienced in Egypt. The theme of gratitude is basic to the entire seder night; ”לפיכך אנחנו חיבים להודות וכו” - "Therefore, [we conclude the narrative of the Exodus,] we are obligated to give thanks...”. Yet, from the very beginning of Jewish history, God told Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed in a foreign land, and God went to great efforts to force the family of Jacob to move down to Egypt. The slavery in Egypt was God’s plan from the beginning, and all the suffering that the Jewish people endured there can be placed at His feet. Why then are we giving thanks to God for saving us from Egypt, when He is the one who put us there in the first place?

This question is asked by the Dubna Maggid (Rabbi Yakov Kranz, d.1804) early on in his commentary on the Hagada. He illustrates the question with an analogy. If a person falls ill, or is injured, and a doctor treats his illness and cures him, then it is obvious that the patient must express gratitude towards the doctor. But if the doctor was the one who injured him in the first place, then there is little gratitude due to him. The patient would have been better off if the doctor had left alone to begin with!

In the end, therefore, the Dubno Maggid explains that we have to recognize that when we give thanks to God for our salvation, we are not only thanking Him for saving us from our troubles, we are also thanking Him for the troubles themselves. For we must understand that everything that God brings upon us is ultimately for our benefit, and we must give thanks to Him for the bad as well as the good, as the Talmud (Brachos 54a) states, “A person is obligated to bless God for the bad, just as he blesses God for the good.”

The suffering we endured in Egypt was necessary to prepare us to be the “kingdom of priests and holy nation” that would receive the Torah. The lessons we learned in the “iron furnace”, as the Jeremiah (11:4) called Egypt, were what made us into the Jewish people, and it would be these lessons that God would continually remind us of, in His Torah.

The Sefas Emes (R’ Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, d.1905), in his commentary on the Hagada, points out that this is the lesson of the korech that we eat at the Seder, in which eat the matzoh and maror together. The primary symbolism of the matzah is redemption and freedom, the symbolism of maror is suffering. By eating them together, we indicate that, at the most basic level, they are not separable. The achievement of true redemption and freedom can only come about through the spiritual crucible of suffering. As the Dubno Maggid quotes from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Brachos 5a):
שלש מתנות טובות נתן הקב”ה לישראל, וכולן לא נתנן אלא על ידי יסורין. אלו הן: תורה וארץ ישראל והעולם הבא
God gave three good gifts to the Jewish people, and all of them were only given through suffering. These are: The Torah, the land of Israel, and the World-to-Come.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Go and Learn" - The Hidden Miracles

צא ולמד מה בקש לבן הארמי לעשות ליעקב אבינו. שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים, ולבן בקש לעקור את הכל
"Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father, Jacob. For Pharaoh only decreed [the annihilation] of the males, but Laban sought to uproot everything."

The Hagada tells us that Lavan wanted to totally destroy Jacob and his family. Yet, a simple reading of the text in Genesis gives no real indication of this. Laban did not appear to want to harm Jacob and, if the Sages had not told us so, we would never have known on our own.

The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, d.1797) explains that this teaches us that God is always acting to save us from dangers, even though, most of the time we are completely unaware of these miracles. As the Talmud states (נדה לא.), אפילו בעל הנס אינו מכיר בנסו – “even the one who experiences the miracle does not perceive the miracle.” Hashem does constant miracles for us in a hidden manner. This is the meaning of the verse in Psalms (72:18), “עושה נפלאות לבדו” – “He does wonders alone.” “Alone” meaning, He alone knows about the miracle, but those who benefit from the miracle don’t even know that a miracle has occurred. Therefore, even when life seems to be going along in a perfectly normal and natural manner, we must give thanks to God for the many hidden miracles He is performing for us.
(פירוש הגר"א)

The Parameters of Sippur Yetzias Mitzraim

There is a daily mitzvah of זכירת יציאת מצרים – “mentioning the exodus from Egypt” – which requires us to remember, orally, the exodus from Egypt. (We fulfill this mitzvah through the recitation of the third paragraph of the Shema.) Rav Chaim Soloveitchik asks, what is the difference between the daily mitzvah of זכירה – “remembering” – and the special mitzvah of סיפור – “recounting” – that we have on Pesach night?

He explains that there are three distinctions between the mitzvot of זכירה and סיפור:
  1. To fulfill the mitzvah of זכירה one only needs to mention יציאת מצרים to himself. The mitzvah of סיפור יציאת מצרים requires that you tell the story over to another person in the form of a question and answer discussion.
  2. The narrative of the סיפור must follow the pattern of מתחיל בגנות ומסים בשבח – “begin with shame and conclude with praise” – whereas זכירה does not require any narrative at all.
  3. The mitzvah of סיפור יציאת מצרים also includes discussing the טעמי המצוות (“reasons for the mitzvot”) that we perform at the Seder, as we read in the Hagada from Rabban Gamliel.
The Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, points out that we can see this last point in the question and answer of the “Wise Son”, which makes no mention of the story of the Exodus, but only about the laws of the Pesach offering.

The Brisker Rav expands further on this idea, noting that at the beginning of Maggid (which is basically an introduction to the mitzvah of sippur, in which we describe how important the mitzvah is and recount how even the greatest sages invested great effort into it) we include a passage about a debate between Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and the Sages regarding the daily mitzvah of זכירת יציאת מצרים.

The Brisker Rav explains that, as we see from the Rambam, this debate was part of the discussion that took place at the seder in Bnei Brak described in the previous paragraph, and the fact that the Sages discussed this topic at their seder demonstrates that any discussion of any mitzvah or halacha connected to Pesach or the Exodus from Egypt, is included in the mitzvah of סיפור יציאת מצרים. It was precisely to teach us this rule that this paragraph was included in the Hagada.
(הגדה מבית לוי)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

VaYikra - The Function of the Korbanos

The main topic of the book of VaYikra (Leviticus) is the korbanos (sacrificial service). This is a topic that is generally poorly understood and one that is often surrounded by misconceptions. There are several reasons why misconceptions are so common in this area. Perhaps the most basic difficulty is that the Jewish people have not been able to perform the sacrificial service for close to two thousand years. As such, we have no real way of relating to what that service was actually like. This problem, which is a big enough problem in its own right, is exacerbated by another problem, which is all too common even in areas of Jewish life that are still part of daily practice. This is the tendency to interpret Jewish practices and concepts in non-Jewish terms. Living as we do, and in varying degrees have been since the destruction of the First Temple, in an environment dominated by non-Jewish cultures, it is difficult, even when aware of the problem, to avoid this tendency. And if it is difficult for us to avoid interpreting basic, commonplace Jewish concepts (such as prayer, spirituality, faith, or even the basic concept of religion) in purely Jewish terms, then it certainly is not surprising that we have difficulty with concepts that have not seen concrete expression for thousands of years. Often, even the very terminology is a problem, in that there are no English (more specifically, non-Hebrew) words that properly convey the intent of these concepts in Judaism.

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch addresses this issue in connection to the korbanos early on in his commentary on VaYikra (1:2):
It is most regrettable that we have no word that really expresses the idea that lies in the word קרבן. The unfortunate use of the term “sacrifice” implies the idea of giving up something that is of value to oneself for the benefit of another, or of having to do without something of value, ideas which are not only entirely absent from the nature and idea of a קרבן but are diametrically opposed to it.
Also the underlying idea of “offering” makes it by no means an adequate expression for קרבן. The idea of an offering presupposes a wish, a desire, a requirement for what is brought, on the part of the one to whom it is brought, which is satisfied by the “offering.” One can not get away from the idea of a gift, a present.
But the idea of a קרבן is far away from all this. It is never used for a present or gift; it is used exclusively with reference to Man’s relation to God, and can only be understood from the meaning that lies in its root קרב. קרב means to approach, to come near, and so to get into close relationship with somebody. …The object and purpose of הקרבה (making a קרבן) [is] the attainment of a higher sphere of life. … The מקריב (the person making the קרבן) desires that something of himself should come into closer relationship to God, that it what קרבן is…. It is קרבת אלקים, nearness to God, which is striven for by a קרבן.
The function of the korbanos, then, was to bring us closer to God. This itself may seems odd to many of us. The korbanos, after all, mainly involved the highly ritualized slaughter and cooking of animals. It was, if you will, a "holy barbecue", the very phrasing of which expresses the incongruity that the korbanos present to the modern mind, for, while most of us enjoy barbecues, we tend not to associate them with holiness. This perceived incongruity really epitomizes the disconnect that we often have from a genuinely Jewish perspective. One of the most basic lessons of Judaism is that there is no fundamental divide between the physical and the spiritual. On the contrary, our task in this world is to sanctify every aspect of our "mundane", material lives; to find holiness, closeness with God, in every thing we do, even the most ordinary.

In Judaism, ordinary activities like waking up in the morning and getting dressed, eating a meal or snack, and even going to the bathroom are transformed into religious activities, each with its own associated rituals and prayers. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 34:3) tells us that Hillel the Elder saw bathing as a form of Divine service. Maimonides (Shemoneh Perakim 5) describes, at some length, how everything we do, including the acquisition of secular knowledge and the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure (such as listening to music or taking a walk in the park), can and should be directed towards the goal of coming to know and love God.

While there are certainly many deep and profound lessons in the korbanos, a topic that is discussed at great length in many of the commentaries, I believe that it is this very point that may well be the most basic lesson that the korbanos are intended to teach us. As the Talmud (Brachos 63a) states, איזוהי פרשה קטנה שכל גופי תורה תלוין בה? בכל דרכיך דעהו - "What is a small verse upon which all the basics of Torah depend? 'Know Him in all your ways'" (Proverbs 3:6). The Sages teach us that a true understanding of the entire Torah, i.e. of the purpose of our existence and of the creation of the universe, is based on the recognition that every aspect of human life can and should be used to bring us closer to God. The korbanos teach us that even the most mundane of activities - and there are few more superficially "unspiritual" places than a slaughterhouse - can be transformed into the highest form of Divine service. This apparently simple idea has the ability to entirely transform our lives, changing even the most "boring" and "ordinary" daily activities into the equivalent of the priestly service in the Holy Temple.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Structure of Shoshanas Yaakov

It is customary to sing Shoshanas Yaakov after the reading of the Megillas Esther, both at night and by day.

While we tend to think of it as a song in its own right, Shoshanas Yaakov is actually just the conclusion of the poem Asher Heini (which, in most congregations, is recited in full after the megillah reading on Purim night). Asher Heini is a very ancient poem. R' Seligmann Baer (d.1897), in his Siddur Avodas Yisrael, describes Asher Heini as "אחד מן הפיוטים קדמוני הקדמונים" - "one of the earliest of the early (liturgical) poems." The Machzor Vitry (p.214) ascribes the poem to the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah, at the beginning of the Second Temple period. The poem is written in alphabetical order; the first sentence begins with the letter “aleph”, and each following sentence begins with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first two sentences of Shoshanas Yaakov (“Shoshanas Yaakov…” and “T’shuasam hayisa…”) complete the alphabet. 

In the version of the poem found in Machzor Vitry (an important liturgical work compiled by Rabbi Simcha of Vitry, d.1105) there are two verses that follow after the completion of the alphabet. The first is a slightly different version of the familiar verse “L’hodia sh’kol…”. The second is a verse that is omitted from all modern versions (that I am aware of), "כי אתה מגן לצדיקים ומושיע לעמו ישראל בעת צרה" - "For You are the shield of the righteous and the savior of His people Israel in times of oppression."

The next section of Shoshanas Yaakov, "Arur Haman asher bikeish...", is based upon Chazal’s injunction (מס' סופרים יד:ו, ירושלמי מגילה סוף פרק ג' ועוד) that, upon concluding the reading of the megilla, we should bless the righteous and curse the wicked. This section is not included in the version of the poem found in Machzor Vitri, but is found a bit later (p.217) as part of a different liturgical poem that, to my knowledge, is no longer in use in any community.

It seems, therefore, that the version of Shoshanas Yaakov that we use today is a synthesis of the original poem of Asher Heini and another poem, otherwise almost entirely forgotten, devoted to the topic of “Arur Haman” and “Baruch Mordechai.”

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tetzaveh - The Importance and Symbolism of Clothing

In Parshas Tetzaveh we learn of the various special garments of the kohanim (priests). Rabbi Menachem Rekanti (d.1310) explains the mitzvah to make special garments for the kohanim (טעמי המצות ל"ט):
טעם מצוה זו, לפי שהעבודה צריכה כוונה והלבוש המיוחד לאותה עבודה עוררהו לחשוב בלבו ולצייר בשכלו המכוון
"The reason for this mitzvah is that the [Temple] service requires [proper] intention – kavana – and the garments that are unique to that service arouse one to think in one's heart and imagine in one's intellect the [proper] intent."
This conveys a very important message that is relevant to all of us, all the time. The way we dress has a real impact on our state of mind. The Jewish people are called a ממלכת כהנים – “a kingdom of priests” – for, relative to the world, every Jew is a kohein to Hashem. Therefore we also have unique garments that we wear, such as tzitzit and yarmulke, and we must dress in a respectable and modest manner. By doing so we constantly remind ourselves of our role as Jews.

Rav Menachem Rekanti continues:
וכמו שהלבוש הראו מכבד הגוף, כך הגוף הראו מכבד הנפש, כי הוא לבושה
"And just as the proper garments give honor to the body, so too a proper body gives honor to the soul, for [the body] is [the soul’s] garment."
Just as a person needs clothing to be able to participate in the physical activities of the world, so too the soul needs the body to be able to serve Hashem and perform His commandments. And just as we honor our bodies with proper and clean clothing, so too we should honor our souls with a healthy and clean (morally and physically) body.

The Shelah HaKadosh quotes the Rekanti and says that a person should think about this idea every morning when he gets dressed, in order to motivate himself to properly “dress” his soul as well. By doing this we bring holiness into even the most ordinary activities.

Megillas Esther - Summary and Commentaries

The following is a summary of Megillas Esther and selected commentaries. The commentaries are in italics.

Basic Historical Context
The events described in Megillas Esther took place during the first exile of the Jewish people. In the year 3338 (422 BCE), the Babylonian emperor, Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and exiled the Jews. This exile had been predicted by the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), who also prophesized that the exile would last for seventy years.
Nebuchadnezzar ruled the Babylonian empire until his death in the year 3364 (396 BCE). He was succeeded by his son Evil-Merodach, who was followed by his son, Balshazzar. Then Babylon was conquered by Darius, king of Madai. When Darius died he was succeeded by Cyrus, king of Persia. Darius and Cyrus were followed by Achashveirosh. Achashveirosh married Vashti, the daughter of Balshazzar.
This was the situation at the opening of the Megillah.

Chapter 1

In the third year of the reign of Achashveirosh, king of the Persian Empire, in the capital, Shushan, King Achashveirosh decided to make a feast. The feast was for his court and the nobility of the entire empire, and lasted for 180 days. After this feast he made a second feast for the entire population of Shushan that lasted seven days.  The queen, Vashti, also made a feast for the women.
The Feast
Why did Achashveirosh make the feast in the third year of his reign? Our Sages teach us that Achashveirosh knew of the prophecy that the Jewish exile would last only seventy years. Achashveirosh was afraid of this, because of the erosive effect it would have on his empire. According to Achashveirosh’s accounting the 70 years ended on the third year of his reign. Believing this to prove that the prophecy would never be fulfilled, he celebrated. However, Achashveirosh was in error, he had begun counting from too early a point. (:מגילה יא)
Other explanations given (אבן עזרא) for the feast are: 
  • Achashveirosh had finally succeeded in solidifying his hold on the empire.
  • It was in celebration of his marriage to Vashti.
Vashti’s Party
Vashti also made a party for the women, but, instead of having the party in her own palace, she had it in the palace of Achashveirosh, where the other party was. Why did she do this? Our Sages teach us that her intent was that the men and women would see each other and behave immorally. (.מגילה יב)
On the seventh day of the feast, when the king was drunk, he ordered his servants to bring Vashti before the people wearing (only) the royal crown so that he could display her beauty, but Vashti refused to come. Achashveirosh, enraged, consulted with his advisors as to what should be done to Vashti for her disobedience. One of his advisors, named Memuchan, declared that Vashti’s crime went far beyond simple disobedience, for if the wife of the king could disobey her husband then any wife could do the same. Memuchan advised that the king decree that Vashti be deposed (and executed), and that the king should issue a decree that women should obey their husbands. This advice found favor with the king and he followed it.
Vashti’s Refusal
Vashti, an evil woman known for her immoral behavior, refused to display her beauty to the men. Why did she refuse? Our Sages (:מגילה יב) teach us that she had an outbreak of צרעת (“leprosy”) and grew a tail and she was embarrassed. Some say that this was a hallucination and no one else could understand what she was talking about. (פירוש הרמב"ם)
Vashti’s Guilt
Vashti was an extremely wicked person. The granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and the daughter of Balshazzar, she had a fiery hatred for the Jewish people. Our Sages tell us that she would take Jewish girls and force them to perform forbidden labors on the Sabbath and to serve her naked. This is why she was punished in this manner, she was summoned to display her naked body, and when she refused she was executed on the seventh day of the party, which was Sabbath. (:מגילה יא)

Achashveirosh summoned his seven chief advisors to discuss what to do with Vashti. Memuchan was the lowest ranking of the seven. Nevertheless, he alone immediately jumped forward with the advice to kill Vashti. What happened here? Our Sages identify Memuchan as Haman. While many explanations can be given as to why Haman gave the advice he did, our Sages teach us that we see from here that those who are less thoughtful tend to speak first. The other advisors, who were wiser than Haman, were not as quick to jump to a conclusion. (:מגילה יב)

Chapter 2

Later, when Achashveirosh’s anger had subsided, he regretted what he had done to Vashti. Then Achashveirosh’s young servants advised him to gather all the beautiful young women from throughout the kingdom, and the one who pleased him most could be Vashti’s replacement. Achashveirosh was pleased with this advice and followed it.

In the city of Shushan dwelt a Jewish man named Mordechai. Mordechai had an orphaned cousin named Esther, whom he adopted as a daughter (or married). Esther was very beautiful, so when the king’s decree went into effect she was taken to the king’s palace. Esther found favor in the eyes of Hagai, the King’s chamberlain, and he placed her in the best quarters and provided her with seven special maids. Esther told nothing of her origins, for Mordechai had instructed her to not reveal that she was a Jew. Every day, Mordechai would visit the courtyard of the harem to find out about Esther’s well being.

The Megillah introduces Mordechai to us as “איש יהודי... ושמו מרדכי... איש ימיני” – “a Yehudi man… named Mordechai… a Benjaminite.” Our Sages ask, which tribe was Mordechai from, Binyamin or Yehudah? They answer that he was from Binyamin but he is also called a Yehudi because he denied foreign gods and anyone who denies foreign gods is called Yehudi. (.מגילה יג)

Esther is introduced to us as “Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter.”  Which was her real name? Some of the Sages say her real name was Esther but she was called Hadassah, which means myrtle branch, because צדיקים – the righteous – are called myrtles. (.מגילה יג)
Secret Identity
The commentaries give several explanations for why Mordechai instructed Esther to keep her origins secret:
  • Having seen how Achashveirosh treated Vashti, Mordechai feared that if Achashveirosh ever got angry with Esther, he would take out his anger upon the entire Jewish people. (תרגום)
  • Mordechai had prophetic knowledge that keeping her identity secret would enable her to save the Jewish people. (אבן עזרא, מגילת סתרים)
  • So the king would think she was from a lowly family and not marry her. (רש"י)
  • So that they would not deliberately force her to violate Jewish laws. (אבן עזרא, רבינו בחיי)
How Did They Keep The Secret?
How was it possible for Esther to keep her origin secret? Surely there were many Jews who knew who she was! From this we see how great the Jewish people of that time were, for not one Jew informed on Esther! (פירוש הרמב"ם)
In addition, our Sages (.מגילה יג) tell us that Esther was so popular that every nation claimed that she was from their people. (ראה מנות הלוי ב:יט)
Every girl followed the same procedure, for twelve months she would receive an extensive beauty treatment, then she was brought before the king. She was given whatever adornments she desired for the meeting. She would be brought in the evening, and in the morning she would be taken to the second harem, where she would remain unless the king specifically requested her.

In the seventh year of Achashveirosh’s reign, Esther’s turn to go to the king arrived. She took with her only those adornments that Hagai ordered her to take. Nevertheless, the king immediately fell in love with her and he made her his new queen. He threw a big celebration and granted tax reductions throughout the kingdom. He then began a second collection of women. Through all this, Esther continued to keep her origins secret and Mordechai sat at the king’s gate.

It was during this period, while Mordechai was sitting at the king’s gate, that two of Achashveirosh’s servants, named Bigsan and Seresh, plotted to assassinate the king. Mordechai discovered the plot and he informed Esther and she told the king of Mordechai’s discovery. The king had this investigated and found the accusation to be true. Bigsan and Seresh were executed and Mordechai’s service to the king was written in the king’s official history.
How did Mordechai Know?
Bigsan and Seresh only spoke of their plot in the language of Tarsi, which they thought would not be understood. Mordechai, however, did understand them, because he had been a member of the Sanhedrin who were all required to understand seventy languages. (:מגילה יג)
Giving Credit to Others
The Talmud drives an important lesson from the incident of Bigsan and Seresh:
כל האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם, שנאמר (אסתר ב) "ותאמר אסתר למלך בשם מרדכי:" - אבות ו:ו
“Anyone who says something in the name of the one who [first] said it brings redemption to the world, as it says, “And Esther said to the king in the name of Mordechai.”
The Maharal (דרך חיים) explains that when God sends redemption, He wants us to acknowledge that He saved us, and not take credit for our own redemption. Taking credit for another person’s work is the same bad מדה -character trait - that causes us to deny what God has done for us. In order for the redemption to come through Esther, she had to demonstrate that she would not take credit for it herself. She did this when she gave proper credit to Mordechai.

Chapter 3

Now, after these events had occurred, Achashveirosh elevated Haman the Agagite to a very high position, making him the superior over all the officers of his court. All of Achashveirosh’s servants were required to bow down to Haman according to the king’s decree. However, Mordechai refused to do so. When this was brought to Haman’s attention, he became enraged. In his anger, it was insufficient for him to simply punish Mordechai; instead, he decided to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom of Achashveirosh. He threw a lot (called a pur in Persian) to determine when to fulfill his plot and the lot fell on the twelfth month – Adar.
The Cure Before The Injury
Haman did not come into power until Esther had already become queen. Our Sages teach us that this shows how God protects the Jewish people. He puts the solution in place before He introduces the problem. (:מגילה יג)
Haman was a descendant of King Agag of the nation of Amalek. The Amalekites were ancient enemies of the Jews. King Saul, the first king of the Jews, had fought a war with the Amalekites and wiped out the entire nation. However, instead of killing King Agag as well, he took him captive. Although Agag was killed the next day by the prophet Samuel, during that one night Agag managed to father a child. Haman was descended from this child.
Mordechai’s Refusal
Why did Mordechai refuse to obey the king’s command to bow down to Haman? Our Sages explain that Haman had idols sewn into his clothing so that anyone who bowed down to him was also bowing down to his idols. (אסתר רבה ו:ב)
The Month of Adar
Our Sages teach us that when Haman’s lot fell on the month of Adar he rejoiced, because Moses had passed away in the month of Adar. He was unaware that Moses had also been born in the month of Adar. (:מגילה יג)
Haman approached Achashveirosh to get his consent to his plan. He told the king, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed amongst the peoples in all the countries of your empire. Their laws are different from every other people’s and they do not observe the king’s laws. Therefore it is not befitting for the king to allow them to remain. If it pleases the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand silver talents to the workers, for deposit in the king’s treasuries.” Achashveirosh then gave over his signet ring to Haman and told him that he could keep his money and do with the people as he wished.
Haman’s Accusations
Haman accused the Jews of not observing the king’s laws. Our Sages teach us that he was pointing out that the Jewish nation refused to assimilate with the rest of the peoples in the empire. The Jewish people refused to marry with the non-Jews, or to eat non-Jewish food. They observed their own holidays, but would not observe the king’s religious holidays. When they get up in the morning they do not first go to serve the king, but instead they go to pray to their god. One day out of every week (the Sabbath) they refuse to work altogether. He finished off by saying that they disrespect the king, for they would not drink wine that the king touched, but if a fly fell into the wine they would simply remove the fly. (מגילה יג:, אסתר רבה)
Ten Thousand Talents
This was a very large amount of money. Our Sages teach us that, here too, God had prepared the cure before the injury, for God had commanded the Jews to give their shekalim for sacrifices in the the Holy Temple so that their generosity would counterbalance Haman’s generosity for his evil plans. (:מגילה יג)
The Giving of the Ring
Our Sages teach us, “This removal of [Achashveirosh’s] ring was greater than forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to the Jewish people, for none of them were successful in returning the Jewish people to the good; but the removal of the ring did return them to the good.” The threat of destruction under Haman had such a powerful impact that the Jewish people were inspired to truly and wholly repent and return to God, something which none of the prophets had ever been fully successful at achieving. (.מגילה יג)
Our Sages also tell us that Achashveirosh’s generosity in giving over his ring and refusing Haman’s money demonstrates that he hated the Jews as much as Haman did. (אסתר רבה)
So, on the thirteenth day of the first month, Nisan, the decree was issued to all the countries in Achashveirosh’s kingdom, that on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, all of the Jews, young and old, women and children, were to be slaughtered and their property to be plundered. After the decree had been sent out, the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the (Jewish population of the) city of Shushan was bewildered.

Chapter 4

Mordechai knew of all that had happened and he put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city crying loudly and bitterly. He walked in this manner until he came to the king’s gate, for it was forbidden to enter the king’s gate dressed in sackcloth. Throughout the empire the Jews were fasting and weeping, and dressing in sackcloth and ashes as soon as they heard of the decree.
Mordechai’s Knowledge
The commentaries explain that Elijah the Prophet revealed to Mordechai the reason for this terrible decree. The decree was because of two sins that had been committed by the Jewish people. One was when they had bowed down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol; the other was when the Jews attended Achashveirosh’s party. (רש"י, אסתר רבה)
When Esther was told about Mordechai’s behavior she was very disturbed and she sent clothes out to Mordechai so that he could change, but he refused. So Esther sent out Hasach, one of the king’s servants, to speak to Mordechai and find out why he was doing this. Mordechai told Hasach about everything which had occurred and told him to tell Esther to go before the king and plead with him for the Jewish people. Hasach reported Mordechai’s information and instructions to Esther and she sent back a message that it was impossible for her to go before the king, because anyone who approaches the king’s inner courtyard without being summoned is executed, unless the king extends his scepter. And the king had not summoned her for thirty days.
Our Sages tell us that Hasach was the prophet Daniel. (.מגילה טו)
Esther’s Refusal
Esther was a very righteous woman. Why did she initially refuse to go to Achashveirosh? The commentaries explain that Esther was perfectly willing to risk her life, if necessary, to save her people. However, she believed it would be more effective, and safer, to wait until the king summoned her. This was particularly true because, if she waited, Achashveirosh would certainly summon her sometime soon. This is why she mentioned that Achashveirosh had not summoned her for thirty days. (מלבי"ם, מגילת סתרים)
In addition, for Esther – a Jewish woman married against her will to a non-Jew – to go willingly to Achashveirosh was a sin. Until this time, she had only gone when Achashveirosh summoned her and she had no choice. She therefore did not want to go voluntarily. (.מגילה טו)
When Esther’s words were reported to Mordechai he sent back the message, “Don’t think that you will survive in the palace more than the rest of the Jews. For if you keep silent at this time then relief and rescue will come to the Jews from another place; while you and your father’s household will perish. Who knows if it was for this very time that you were brought into the royalty?”
Her Father’s House
Esther was a descendant of King Saul, who had sinned by not immediately killing Agag, the ancestor of Haman. Esther now had an opportunity to atone for her ancestor’s sin by working to stop Haman. If she failed to do so then she would remove any chance that Saul had for atonement. (מגילת סתרים)
Esther then responded to Mordechai, instructing him to gather all the Jews in Shushan for a three day fast, and she and her servants would also fast. At the end of the three days she would go before Achashveirosh, and “if I am lost, I am lost”. Mordechai then went and followed Esther’s instructions.

Chapter 5

On the third day Esther dressed herself in royal garments and went to the inner courtyard of the palace where the king sat on his throne. When the king saw her, she found favor in his eyes and he stretched out his scepter to her and Esther touched the tip of the scepter. The king said to Esther, “What do you want, Esther? What is your request? Even half the kingdom and it shall be given to you.” Esther responded by inviting the king and Haman to attend a banquet she had prepared for him that day. Achashveirosh commanded that Haman be hurried to the banquet. At the banquet, Achashveirosh repeated his offer to Esther, “even half the kingdom and it shall be done.” Esther then requested that the king and Haman attend another banquet the next day and at that banquet she would do as the king requested (to reveal her nationality).
“Until Half the Kingdom”
Our Sages explain that when Achashveirosh said “until half the kingdom”, he meant that he would not give her anything that could divide and weaken his empire. His specific intent was to refuse to allow the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. (:מגילה טו)
Haman’s Invitation
Why did Esther invite Haman to the banquet? Our Sages (:מגילה טו) give several explanations. Among them:
  • She invited Haman to make the Jews think she was abandoning them so that they would pray to God instead of just waiting for Esther to save them.
  • She wanted to make the king jealous of Haman. She also wanted the other officers of the court to be jealous of Haman so that no one would protect him.
  • So that they would not suspect that she was a Jew.
  •  Perhaps an opportunity would arise to make Haman look bad in front of the king.
  • So God would see her suffering because she had to be friendly to such an evil man and He would have mercy on her.
  • Achashveirosh was a fickle man and changed his mind frequently. So she wanted Haman available so that as soon as Achashveirosh decided to kill him he would be able to do so immediately, before he changed his mind.
  • She wanted to keep Haman busy so that he wouldn’t rebel against Achashveirosh and make himself the king.
The Delay
Why did Esther push off making her request until the next day? The commentaries explain that she was waiting for a sign that God had accepted the repentance of the Jewish people. That sign came the next day with the incident of Haman leading Mordechai on the king’s horse. (אבן עזרא)
Achashveirosh’s Offer
Achashveirosh changed the language of his offer to Esther. At first he offered to give to her what she wanted, but at the feast he said he would do what she asked. The commentators explain that at first he suspected that she might be Jewish, for why else would she risk her life to approach him? He therefore told her that he would give her anything she desired for herself, but he would not help anyone else for her. However, after he saw that she had invited Haman to the party as well, he assumed that she must also hate the Jews and he therefore felt safe offering to fulfill any request. (מגילת סתרים)
Haman left the banquet in a very joyful mood, but, as he passed the king’s gate, he once again saw Mordechai and noticed that Mordechai did not bow down to him. Haman’s good mood evaporated and he was filled with rage towards Mordechai. He went home and summoned his wife, Zeresh, and his friends. Haman told them about all his accomplishments, his great wealth, his many sons, and his phenomenal political successes. He bragged that he was so important that when the queen invited her husband to a special private banquet she invited Haman too. Furthermore, he was invited to another such feast the next day. Then Haman said, “But all this is worth nothing to me whenever I see that Jew, Mordechai, sitting in the king’s gate.” So Haman’s wife, Zeresh, and his friends advised him to build a gallows (or crucifix) fifty cubits high and to get the king’s permission to hang Mordechai on it the next morning. That way he would be able to attend the banquet in a good mood. Haman was pleased with this advice and had the gallows built.
“But all this is worth nothing…”
Haman’s anger tells us a lot about his character. Haman had reached the pinnacle of prestige and power. He was so important that the queen invited him to her private parties with the king. He was phenomenally wealthy. He had many children (commentaries say from 30 to 108 sons). Yet, one man – a man who, if Haman’s plans were successful, would be dead in less than a year – refused to give him the extreme degree of honor that he desired and all of Haman’s accomplishments became worthless to him.

Chapter 6

That night the king was unable to sleep. The king ordered that the royal history book be brought and read before him. They read to him about the incident when Mordechai saved the king from the assassination plot of Bigsan and Seresh. The king asked what he had done to reward Mordechai, but his servants answered that no reward had been given. Achashveirosh then asked, “Who is in the courtyard?” and his servants told him that Haman was standing in the courtyard. (Haman had just arrived to ask the king for permission to kill Mordechai.) The king ordered that Haman be brought before him.
The King’s Sleeplessness
Our Sages explain that the king was unable to sleep because he was suspicious of Haman’s relationship with Esther. Why had she invited Haman to her banquet? Perhaps they were plotting to kill him? But, if so, why had no one informed him of such a plot? Surely there were people who knew. Perhaps sometime in the past someone had done him a similar kindness and he had not rewarded him. Once people saw that he did not reward such favors then they would no longer help him. So he called for the royal history book and discovered that he had never rewarded Mordechai. (:רש"י, מגילה טו)
When Haman came before the king, the king asked him, “What should be done for a man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman, thinking that Achashveirosh was referring to himself, said that he should be dressed in the king’s royal garments by one of the king’s highest officers, placed upon the king’s horse, and led through the streets of the city, and they shall cry out before him, “Thus shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!”

The king then ordered Haman to hurry and do all these things to Mordechai. So Haman hurried to dress Mordechai in the royal garments, and to lead him through the city on the royal horse, calling out, “Thus shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!”

Afterwards, Mordechai returned to the king’s gate, and Haman hurried home in mourning. When Haman told his wife and his friends all that happened, they told him, “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is a Jew, then you will not have victory against him, for you will surely fall before him.” As they were talking, the king’s soldiers arrived and rushed Haman off to Esther’s banquet.
Why was Haman “mourning”? Our Sages tell us that while Haman was leading Mordechai they passed by Haman’s home. When Haman’s daughter saw them coming from the rooftop, she assumed that the man on the horse was her father and that it was Mordechai who was leading. She took the chamber pot and dumped it on the man in front. When he looked up she saw that she had poured the filth onto her father. Realizing what she had done, she fell from the roof to her death. (.מגילה טז)
The Dust and the Stars
Haman’s wife and friends told him that the Jews are compared to the dust and to the stars. When they fall, they fall all the way to the dust, but when they rise, they rise all the way to the stars. Now that Mordechai had begun to rise, there was no hope that Haman would ever succeed against him. (.מגילה טז)

Chapter 7

So the king and Haman both arrived at the queen’s banquet. The king again repeated his offer to Esther, “until half the kingdom and it shall be done”. Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your eyes, O king, and if it pleases the king, give me my life as my request, and my nation as my entreaty. For I and my nation have been sold to be destroyed, killed, and wiped out. If we had only been sold as slaves and maidservants I would have kept quiet. But our oppressor does not care about the loss to the king.”
The King’s Loss
Esther pointed out that if Haman had really been interested in benefiting Achashveirosh, he would have advised him to sell the Jews as slaves and keep the money. Or simply enslave them for his own use. By advising him to exterminate the Jews, Haman showed that he was not concerned with the tremendous loss that this would cause the king, nor did he care that Achashveirosh would make himself look like a foolish and wicked king, who wiped out an entire nation because one of them did not bow down to Haman. (רש"י, רמב"ם)
Achashveirosh asked, “Who is this? Where is this one who tries to do such a thing?” Esther responded, “A man who is an oppressor and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Haman trembled in fear. The king rose up in his anger and went to walk in his gardens. Haman saw that the king was determined to do evil to him, so he begged Esther for mercy. As the king returned from the gardens Haman fell upon Esther’s couch. When the king saw this, he said, “Does he even try to assault the queen with me in the house?” When these words left the kings mouth, the servants covered Haman’s face.
The King’s Gardens
Our Sages tell us that when Achashveirosh went to walk in the gardens he encountered angels in the form of men chopping down his trees. When he demanded to know why they were doing this, they responded that they were following Haman’s orders. (.מגילה טז)
Haman’s Fall
Our Sages teach that an angel came and pushed Haman on top of Esther. (.מגילה טז)
Then Charvonah, one of the king’s chamberlains, said, “Not only that! Behold the gallows that Haman built for Mordechai, who spoke good for the king, is standing in Haman’s house. It is fifty cubits high”. So the king ordered, “Hang him upon it.” So they hanged Haman upon the gallows that he had built for Mordechai. And the king’s anger subsided.
Charvonah was a friend of Haman’s and had actually been part of Haman’s plot to kill Mordechai, but when he saw that Haman was being defeated, he immediately changed sides. (.מגילה טז)

Chapter 8

That day, the king gave the estates of Haman to Esther. The king also met with Mordechai, because Esther had informed the king that Mordechai was related to her. The king gave Mordechai his ring, the same ring that he had previously given to Haman. Esther appointed Mordechai over Haman’s estate.

Esther then approached Achashveirosh a second time, falling at his feet, crying and begging that he undo Haman’s evil plot. She asked him to call back the scrolls that had been sent out by Haman ordering the extermination of the Jews. She told him that she could not bear to see her people suffer. King Achashveirosh told Mordechai and Esther that he had already given the estates of Haman to them and had executed Haman because of his attempt to harm the Jews. Achashveirosh then gave them permission to issue a new decree regarding the Jews. So, on the twenty-third day of Sivan, they issued a new decree that the king permitted the Jews to attack and destroy all their enemies on the thirteenth day of Adar.

Mordechai then left the presence of the king dressed in royal finery, and the city of Shushan rejoiced. “ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששן ויקר” – “For the Jews there was light, happiness, rejoicing, and honor.” Throughout the kingdom, when the news arrived of the new decree the Jews rejoiced and made a feast and a holiday. Many non-Jews became Jews, for the fear of the Jewish people was upon them.
אורה ושמחה וששן ויקר – Light, Happiness, Rejoicing, and Honor
Our Sages teach us, “Light refers to Torah, Happiness refers to Yom Tov (the holidays), Rejoicing refers to circumcision, and Honor refers to tefillin.” In addition to Haman’s genocidal plans, he had also begun an intensive oppression of Judaism, forbidding all of these practices. (:מגילה טז)

Chapter 9

So it happened, that on the 13th of Adar, the day when the enemies of the Jews had planned to exterminate them, the Jews instead vanquished their enemies. In all the provinces of Achashveirosh, the Jews rallied in the cities to attack those who would have killed them, and no one stood against them, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon all the nations. And the officers and nobility of the king’s court aided the Jews for they were afraid of Mordechai.

The Jews attacked their enemies with deadly force. In the city of Shushan, the Jews killed 500 men. They also killed ten sons of Haman. Despite these victories, the Jews did not take any of the spoils.

That day, when a count of the dead was brought to the king, he said to Esther, “In Shushan, the capital, the Jews have killed 500 and the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the other provinces? What do you request? It shall be given to you. What more do you wish? It shall be done.” Esther requested that the Jews be permitted to continue the fighting for another day, and to hang the ten dead sons of Haman. Achashveirosh decreed that this should be done.

So on the 14th of Adar, the Jews of Shushan again rallied and killed 300 men, but they did not touch the spoils. The Jews in the other provinces had rallied and killed 75,000 of their enemies on the 13th, and on the 14th they rested and made a day of rejoicing. The Jews of Shushan rested on the 15th and made it a day of rejoicing. Therefore, in the open, unwalled, cities the Jews keep the 14th day as a holiday for rejoicing, feasting, and sending gifts to one’s fellow and gifts to the poor (whereas, the Jews who live in ancient walled cities celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar in memory of Shushan). Mordechai wrote scrolls describing all the events which had taken place and sent them to all the provinces of Achashveirosh’s kingdom so that the Jews would accept upon themselves the 14th and 15th of Adar in every year as days of celebration. For on these days the Jews had been relieved of their enemies and their situation had been turned around from sadness to happiness, from mourning to a holiday. The Jews accepted what Mordechai had written. These days were called Purim, for Haman had cast a pur to determine when to kill the Jews. The Jews accepted upon themselves and all their descendants and anyone who would join them in the future (meaning converts) to keep these days as a holiday through all generations.
The Jews Accepted Upon Themselves
Our Sages teach us that the Jews accepted more than just Purim at this time; they reaccepted the entire Torah. (.שבת פח)
Mordechai and Esther then wrote a second letter emphasizing the significance of this miracle. Esther’s statement established the history of Purim and it was written in a book.

Chapter 10

After this, the king set a tax on his entire kingdom. The entire incident is written in the royal history books of Madai and Paras (Persia). For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to the king and a great leader of the Jews. He was liked by most of his brothers. “He sought the good for his people and he spoke peace to all its children.”
By Most of His Brothers
Mordechai was liked by most of the Jews, but not all. Why? Some commentaries say that this is just the way the world is; it is never possible to get everyone to like you, no matter how good you are. (אבן עזרא) Others say that Mordechai fell in stature somewhat relative to his colleagues in the Sanhedrin because he was so heavily involved in governmental affairs that he was unable to fully maintain his learning. (:רש"י, מגילה טז)