Esther, Yosef, and the First Gulf War

Rabbanit Sally Mayer

By Rabbanit Sally Mayer, Rosh Midrasha of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum


Both the language and the storyline of Megillat Esther are rich in parallels to the story of Yosef in Egypt. What are these parallels? And what is the message of these many connections?

First, Yosef and Esther are both children of Rachel Imeinu, as Mordechai, Esther’s cousin, is described as an “ish yemini” – from the shevet of Binyamin. They are both described as beautiful: “yefei/yefat to-ar.” Both are a Jew in disguise – Yosef’s brothers think he is a Egyptian ruler, and Esther hides her Jewish identity from the royal court. In both cases, we find an inconsolable mourner – Yaakov tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and refuses to be comforted by his children over the loss of Yosef; Mordechai too tears his clothing and puts on sackcloth when he hears of Haman’s evil decree, and he refuses to accept Esther’s offer of a change of clothing.

In both stories, the king makes a mishteh, a party, Par’oh for his birthday, and Achashveirosh…just about all the time. The king has a bad night’s sleep – Achashveirosh can’t sleep one night, and Par’oh has troubling dreams about cows and stalks of grain that he can’t explain.  Yosef gives advice to the king, he likes the advice, and Yosef gets great perks – the king’s ring, royal clothing, and a ride on a royal horse. Similarly, Memuchan/Haman gives advice to the king (to get rid of Vashti and choose a new wife), the king likes the advice, and Haman receives the king’s ring. Later, the king gives royal clothing and a ride on the royal horse to the one whom he wants to honor. 

Both Yosef and Esther are where they are for a reason – Yosef tells his brothers that Hashem planned his descent to Egypt so that he could save everyone from famine, and Mordechai says to Esther: who knows, perhaps this (to save the Jews) is why you have become queen? When Yaakov sends Binyamin down to Egypt to the ruler who asked to see him, he says to his sons, “ka-asher shacholti, shachalti” – and if I am bereft, so be it. Clearly parallel language describes Esther’s attitude to going to the king when she has not been called: “ve-cha-asher avadeti, avadeti” – and if I am destroyed/killed, so be it. She also uses the words, “Eichacha uchal vera-iti bera’ah asher yimtza et ami,” how can I stand by and see the evil that will befall my nation – the same words that Yehuda uses when begging the ruler to let Binyamin go home: “Eich e-eleh el avi vehana-ar einenu iti, pen er-eh bara asher yimtza et avi” – how can I go back to my father, and the boy is not with me, lest I see the evil that will befall my father? Almost all of these parallels, as well as others not mentioned here, are not only parallel in the storyline, but also use almost exactly the same language.

What is the point of all of these similarities? What message did Esther and Mordechai intend to send by using language that clearly compares their story to that of Yosef in Mitzrayim?

The story of Yosef is the story of a Jew in galut, exiled from his homeland. The Torah makes it clear that Hashem is with Yosef every step of the way – we hear that Potiphar saw that Hashem blessed his house because of Yosef, that Hashem was clearly with Yosef in jail – the name of God appears again and again throughout the story. The megillah, on the other hand, is written without even one mention of the name of God, to symbolize that Hashem is hidden from us. Mordechai and Esther intentionally evoke the Yosef story to teach us that even though we are in galut, and even when we cannot see Hashem, He is with us, and, even more importantly, Hashem will redeem us, as the Jews ultimately left Egypt to enter the Promised Land.

This idea reminds me of my experience when I was in Israel for the year during the first Gulf War, in 1991. I remember how scared everyone in Israel was, as Sadaam Hussein attacked Israel with SCUD missiles, the air raid sirens and the gas masks we wore. I remember how amazed we were that Hashem protected us from terrible casualties in those attacks. And then the war ended on Purim, and we were all saying that it was Yad Hashem, that the leader of Persia (Iraq) was once again attacking us, and Hashem saved us on Purim, just as He did in the time of the megillah. Then it occurred to me that when the history books write about the Gulf War, they will not talk about Hashem. They’ll talk about the date it began, the date it ended, the strategy Sadaam employed in trying to bring Israel into the war. The story in the history books would actually read… just like the megillah – with no mention of God.

This is the message of Megillat Esther: That it is our job to see the Hand of Hashem in history, and furthermore, to sense the presence of God in our own lives.


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