Sunday, March 19, 2006

Ad lo yada—a non-drinker still has trouble telling the difference between the hero and the villain

Berel Dov Lerner, in his Saturday, October 08, 2005 post, No Happy Ending for Esther (On Purim's tragic heroine), stated, “In his own hour of truth, Mordecai feels free to risk all, including endangerment of the community, in order to avoid idolatrous prostration before Haman. Esther enjoys no such luxuries of conscience. She simply must sleep with the gentile Ahasuerus and drink his wine, lest the Jewish people be destroyed.”

Personally, I’d like to go farther than Prof. Lerner. You see, I’m a “p’shat” (literal interpretation) kind of person. This is partly for lack of an alternative—since I’m a bit short on a decent Jewish education, I simply don’t have sufficient knowledge of any traditional texts other than the Tanach (Bible) itself. But it’s also by temperament. By nature, I’m a point-blank, blunt-spoken, shoot-from-the-hip, pragmatic, “just the facts” type of individual. So, much as I enjoy and learn from the tapestry of tales woven by the rabbis in the midrashim (interpretative stories), when I look for the meaning of a text, I look at the text itself, rather than the “rabbinic spin” thereon.

Here’s my problem: There is absolutely no reason whatsoever given in Megillat Esther itself for Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman, as was the law of the land. So why, exactly, did he find it necessary to endanger his own life, and, if he’d been thinking about it, possibly the life of his first cousin Esther, as well?

This doesn’t get Haman off the hook, by any means. There’s simply no excuse for the kind of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, that would lead one human to target for mass murder an entire people simply because he was angry with one member thereof.

Nevertheless, the result of Mordechai’s behavior was the targeting of the entire Jewish community of Persia for slaughter. Mordechai got us into this mess, then left it to his first cousin to clean up after him and rescue us from the sword.

So here’s the final score:

Haman, no slouch in the figurative and literal overkill department—villain.

Mordechai, on the one hand honoring the king by saving him from a plot on his life, and, on the other hand dishonoring the king by refusing to show due respect to Haman in accordance with the law of the land—hero?


In Prof. Lerner’s words, “The evil Haman, we already know, is dead. Ahasuerus is busy exploiting his subjects, and Mordecai basks in the glory of his political success. One wonders: What became of Esther? Does she not live happily ever after? No; Esther’s happiness and even her personal piety are expendable. She remains trapped in the palace and bedroom of a drunken Persian king. It is her part to absorb the story’s shocks and tensions, to physically bear and be worn away by the inherent political contradictions of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. There is no happy ending for Esther.”

In the final analysis, the only one who comes out of this story smelling like a rose is Shoshanat Yaakov.


Blogger Tzipporah said...

This has always bothered me, as well. I've gotten some very equivocal answers about it here:

torah forum post on purim

The most interesting point is brought by Kira, who reminds us that Mordechai comes from the tribe of Benjamin, who was the oly one of Yaakov's children who didn't bow to Esau when the two brothers reunited. A stiffnecked family, in general?

Fri Mar 02, 07:51:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Well, Tzippora, as I said, "I’m a “p’shat” (literal interpretation) kind of person," and, from what I see *in the Torah itself,* the only reason why Benyamin did not bow to Esav was that he hadn't been born yet!

Was Haman a priest of another religion, as the text in your link suggests? We have no proof in our own text. Mordechai is problematic in that regard, since the only explanation he seems to have given for not bowing is that he's a Jew. That explanation gives Haman a perfect excuse to report to the king that there's a people living in the kingdom that doesn't obey the king's laws. Let's just say that this might not have been the best time for Mordechai to literally stand on principle.

Sat Mar 03, 09:48:00 PM 2007  

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