Blessed Be Haman?

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26 Feb 2018

The Zionist plan appeared to have failed. God had kept His word; He had fulfilled his part of the covenant forged with the patriarchs. Their descendants had inherited the Land of Israel, as He had promised, but the Children of Israel had failed to honor their side of agreement, and the default clauses were set in motion: Destruction and death took the place of the vibrant society and thriving economy of Zion. The Jews were cast into exile, into hopelessness. It appeared that the Jewish Commonwealth was destined to be one more chapter in the annals of failed civilizations, a nation-state whose golden age dissipated as prosperity evaporated, political and religious freedom were lost, and self-determination was erased, the once-glorious Temple reduced to ruins. The Jews of Shushan no longer dared to dream of a national future. Their glory days, they believed, were no more than a fading memory, part of a history that was eclipsed by a frightening present.

It was clear to them that God had rejected them: Prophecy had gone dry, leaving a hollow but resounding silence in its place. They lacked the resources they would need to rebuild the Temple, which was the most important tool for repairing the rift they had created with God. The new rulers who controlled their once-independent homeland would not allow them to return to or rebuild their ruined country.

The exile was more than a geographical challenge; it tore apart the very fabric of their peoplehood. Scattered across vast expanses of the ancient world, they became a people divided. The forces of entropy began to break the bonds between communities and individuals. In the end, they believed, it was every man (or woman) for him- or herself. The Nation of Israel would cease to exist. They had lost their monarchy, they had lost their Temple, they lost their land, and now they would move forward and abandon their national identity.

The supreme ruler of the conquering empire invited everyone to a feast, and these assimilating Jews saw it as the perfect opportunity to fit in – despite the fact that this gluttonous debauch would be a veritable smorgasbord of values and behaviors antithetical to Jewish law and morals. Non-kosher food and wine (and far too much of it), immodest revelry – and to make matters worse, rumors that the utensils of their Holy Temple would be used to serve up their national humiliation – none of this was enough to keep the Jews of Shushan from participating. They were a people who had lost their dreams, lost their identity, and lost their pride.

But then, something happened. The Kingdom of Persian had intrigue of its own. There were plots and insurrection, and a sudden opening for the position of queen. As luck would have it, a Jewish girl was selected. Almost no one knew Esther’s identity, but even if they had known, that might well have considered this the most successful step toward full integration into Persian society.

Unbeknownst to them all, the wheels had been set in motion, but the shift was so subtle it was all but imperceptible. The first stage was the creation of Jewish unity, without which no salvation would be possible, and began at a most unlikely source. Haman, a misanthrope with seething hatred for Jews, accused them of being a fifth column, a subversive force spread through the kingdom. He harped on their disunity (Esther 3:8), but brought them together by sentencing them all to the same fate: death. The second stage in the rebirth of Jewish unity was Esther. Hearing Haman’s decree, she instructed Mordechai to gather the Jews, to bring them together for communal prayer and fasting. (Esther 4:15)

The tide had turned. The people were reminded of their common history, and the dispersed Jews who had imagined their future as stateless individuals, who thought that the Jewish People had ceased to exist as a national entity, now realized that they shared a common destiny. They were one People. They prayed as a People, and God heard their prayers.

The wealthy, powerful Haman soon became a victim of his own scheming. The vast fortune he had amassed is transferred by royal decree to his most bitter enemy, Mordechai. (Esther 8:2) Haman inherits the fate he had planned for the Jews – death – and the plot to eradicate the Jewish People is foiled as Esther’s identify is revealed. (Esther 8:1) The book of Esther ends, but the story of the Jewish People is far from over; in fact, it is a new beginning. The Jews find their way; they remember they are a people. They remember God. They remember their destiny; many (but not enough) return to Israel. Jerusalem is re-populated; somehow, they find the funds to rebuild the Temple.

Perhaps it’s a good thing God doesn’t speak in the book of Esther; had a prophet been instructed to convey God’s plan of how things would work out, who would have believed it? The story seems too fantastic – but it is actually even more “far-fetched” than we might think. The post-script to the Book of Esther found in rabbinic tradition[1]  completes the picture:

The king who eventually allowed the Jewish exiles to return to the Land of Israel was Darius, the son of Ahashverosh and Esther. According to one source, Darius was only seven years old when he granted the Jews the right of repatriation. Apparently, a certain queen, known for her beauty and regal comportment, was a major influence on this boy-king. Esther, who always knew precisely what to say and when to say it, pulled the appropriate strings behind the scenes and engineered the Jews’ return to their homeland.

One additional point should give us food for thought:[2] The wealth amassed by Haman was transferred to Mordechai, and eventually made its way to Jerusalem, where it was used to rebuild the Temple. Perhaps there should have been a plaque affixed to the Temple’s vestibule, to be read aloud every year on Purim: “This building was paid for by the notorious Haman, who united the Jewish People. May his memory be blessed.” Such a “blessing” would most certainly have brought a smile to the lips of the triumphant celebrants as they raised their glasses – and thumbed their noses – in Haman’s memory, and shouted, “L’chaim – Happy Purim!”

In memory of Rabbi Eric Most

[1] See Maharal, Or Chadash Chapter 2, based on Midrash Tanchumah B’shalach 28. Also see Rabbi Moshe Turiel, Nes Purim V’Eretz Yisrael, in Ki Sarita: Essays on Purim in Memory of Menachem Yisrael Ganz, 1988, pp. 233-238, Rabbi Turiel’s essay influenced this essay.

אור חדש למהר”ל על פרק ב

…אבל דוד נרמז וחש, גם את הארי גם הדוב וכו’ (שמואל א, יז, לו) אמר דוד וכי מה אני ספין שהכתי חיות רעות אלו אלא אמר שמא דבר עתיד ליארע את ישראל והן עתידים לינצל ע”י מרדכי, ובכל יום ויום מתהלך (אסתר ב, יא) אמר אפשר שצדקת זו תנשא לערל הזה אלא לדבר גדול הוא שע”י ינצלו את ישראל ע”כ,

מדרש תנחומה בשלח כח

…אֲבָל דָּוִד וּמָרְדְּכַי נִתַּן לָהֶם רֶמֶז וְחָשׁוּ. דָּוִד אָמַר: גַּם אֶת הָאֲרִי גַּם הַדּוֹב הִכָּה עַבְדֶּךָ וְגוֹ’. (ש״‎א יז, לו). מָרְדְּכַי, וּבְכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם מָרְדְּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי חֲצַר בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים וְגוֹ’ (אסתר ב, יא). אָמַר, אֶפְשָׁר לַצַּדֶּקֶת זוֹ שֶׁתִּנָּשֵׂא לְעָרֵל. אֶלָּא שֶׁעָתִיד דָּבָר גָּדוֹל לִהְיוֹת עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁעֲתִידִין לְהִנָּצֵל עַל יָדֶיהָ.

[2] This “thought” is attributed to God: See Sefer D’Aggadata on Esther- Midrash Abba Gurion Parasha 3, also found in the Yalkut Shimoni – Esther remez 1058 and Maharal, Or Chadash Chapter 3.

ספרי דאגדתא על אסתר – מדרש אבא גוריון (בובר) פרשה ג

[ג א] ד”א אחר הדברים האלה. הרהורי דברים היה שם, מי הרהר, ר’ יהודה אומר המן הרהר, אמר הדא אסתר אין יהודאה היא, קרובתי היא מן אבי עשו דכתיב הלא אח עשו ליעקב (מלאכי א ב), ואין משאר עממין היא כל העממין קרובין אלו לאלו ראוי אני לטול פרוקופי מתחת ידה, ור’ נחמיה אמר אחשורוש הרהר, אמר מרדכי זה אני חושב לו טובה והוא ישב כאן ומבקש לבנות בית המקדש, לבנותו אי אפשר, להחזירו אי אפשר, אלא הריני מגרה בו [את] המן ויהיה זה בונה וזה סותר, וחכמים אומרים הקדוש ברוך הוא הרהר, אמר מרדכי זה צדיק גמור הוא אם נוטל פרוקופי יבא המן ויסגל ממון ויבא מרדכי ליטול ממנו ויבנה בית המקדש.