“And the edict was given in Shushan the capital”
Rabbi Dr. Udi Abramowitz, Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum – Lod
This week’s parsha, Tzav, picks up where the previous parsha left off, and lists the various types of sacrifices. This time, however, it focuses on the special role of the priests in the offering of the sacrifices and in lifting the ashes, and on how the priests were trained for the Temple service during the seven days of preparation. There is a certain tension between the role of the priests in Leviticus and in the Jewish laws proscribed in this book, and one of the Scroll of Esther’s main messages, one that is particularly obscure and profound.
We will read the Scroll of Esther this week, during the holiday of Purim. Many have already stated that the first chapter of the Scroll of Esther seems a bit extraneous, in that it isn’t particularly relevant to the plot. This chapter describes an opulent feast that Ahasuerus hosted in Shushan, how Queen Vashti refused to appear and “display her beauty,” and how she was deposed as a result. This event is what led to the search for a new queen for the king, during which Esther was selected for the role. As far as the plot is concerned, it would have been sufficient to simply state the fact that Ahasuerus had been in search of a new wife. In other words, the megillah could have begun with Chapter Two.
The first chapter painstakingly specifies the rather extensive cadres of officials, along with their names and positions (some of which were overlapping). These included “ministers,” “servants,” “nobles,” “the princes of the satrapies,” “house stewards,” “wise men who knew the times,” and “the seven princes who saw the king’s face.” The text also lists terminology related to the edicts pronounced by the king: “for so had the king ordained,” “at the king’s behest,” “the order of the king,” “the laws of Persia and Media,” and “the verdict of the king.” To publicize the king’s edicts, “letters” were written. These letters would be mentioned once more, later in the megillah, and would even serve to advance the entire plot. Other texts included a “copy of the writ,” “correspondence,” and “memoirs.”
As such, this empire appears quite impressive, wealthy, majestic, authoritative, and organized, a place where everything is documented and well-worded. It is effectively ruled by a system of clerks and legal scholars, and not through the casual whims of various individuals. Rules and the concept of the rule of law are the true kings in this kingdom. This system is even greater than the king himself, and the princes ruling over it.
Why did Vashti refuse to come to Ahasuerus’ feast? The text doesn’t tell us. There doesn’t seem to have been a specific reason. She simply wasn’t inclined to take part in such a ceremonious event. Ahasuerus, however, is unable to respond spontaneously to this act of defiance. Instead, he needed to convene a special committee. Memuchan expressed what would have been a foregone conclusion in an empire with so many general laws – that this event could not be viewed as a standalone case, but rather, as a dangerous precedent. As such, a new law needed to be passed, inspired by “anti-Vashtiism,” which obligated all women to honor their husbands.
In Chapter Two, a certain alternative to the official system of Persian laws is provided, in the form of two individuals: Mordechai and Esther. Mordechai is a Jewish man, who came from somewhere else, and had a private name and a pedigree that tied him with his ancestors. Esther found favor in the eyes of all those who gazed upon her, and this is perhaps the quality that Ahasuerus fancied the most. He was surrounded by swathes of people who “knew the law and judgment”, so he lacked the warmth and intimacy that Esther could provide. The tremendous endeavor of gathering all of the virgins continues even after Esther had been chosen. At that point, the king would have had no reason to continue looking for someone! This is typical of state mechanisms (as reflected in the text: “And when the virgins were gathered a second time”).
The Persian legal system stoops to its lowest level ever in Chapter Three. Mordechai is unwilling to subject himself to the strict Persian hierarchy, and in response, Haman decides to destroy all the Jews. Why? To Haman, merely killing Mordechai seemed too primitive and emotional. He believed in his “ideology”: that the Jews were different, and that therefore, it wasn’t worth the king’s while to let them off the hook. In exchange for the lost tax revenue the Jews would have provided to the king’s coffers, Haman would cover the deficit with tens of thousands of silver talents. It’s a rational, simple, clean and efficient solution. This is the “scientific” logic, which plays to the “inherent constraints in the system,” and thus, ostensibly, has nothing to do with cruelty.
While Mordechai suggests fighting the system (he does not bow or kneel), and approaching the king directly, Esther teaches us the secret of “royalty”– to be part of the system, and to beat it, too. She would invite Haman to a feast and cause him to incriminate himself, leading Ahasuerus to hang him on the tree Haman had intended for Mordechai. Cancelling a royal decree is no simple matter, either. Additional letters needed to be sent out which would allow the Jews to fight back, but in no way could new letters cancel the old ones.
The Scroll of Esther and the holiday of Purim are a rare protest, which we read once a year, against the rule of law and Persian formalities (and perhaps, the formalities of the entire Western world). The laws of the Torah, and Jewish law, deal with tikkun olam, repairing the world, not with organizing feasts or regulating brothels. However, could Purim involve some internal criticism of the Jewish religion, which, with all of its officials and “books” (e.g. priests and the strict laws of purity that governed those who wished to enter the Temple), had forgotten about the King Himself, and our direct connection to Him?
The solution to this question is our obligation to become inebriated. Once a year, we are required to remove our masks, which symbolize sternness and pompousness (and sometimes, falsehood and aloofness), and free ourselves of the chains of rationalism, which can discern between good and evil. However, inebriation on Purim is also halakha, and as such, Jewish law follows the path that Esther has shown us: the system itself contains the options to “let loose” and act spontaneously, and in doing so, it limits and weathers these two options.