08/29/11

Understanding Esther

Chronicles of a Bible class

 

1.

And it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, this is Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Africa, over one hundred and twenty seven provinces;

(Esther 1:1, Soncino Bible)

 

Now it came to pass in the days of Ahashverosh, (this is Ahashverosh whoreigned, from Hoddu as far as Kush, a hundred and twenty seven provinces)

 (Esther 1:1, Jerusalem Bible)

 

NOW or AND?  Someone hammers one nail in the river of time and says: Here begins a story. There once was a king…Different people brought different copies of the Book of Esther as we met for the first study session, entering together the gates of Shusan. Because of that variety we could compare translations and interpretations of the ‘original’ Hebrew, with its residues of Persian, and its echoes of Babylonian myth. The names of the main characters, Esther and Mordechai, hearken back to their divine mythical prototypes. Would Marduk’s conquest of chaos, celebrated at the Babylonian New Year in the spring month of Nissan have anything to do with the exploits of our scroll’s human Mordekhai? Does Esther’s precarious brush with death in the month of Adar correspond to the Babylonia story of Ishtar’s descent to the Netherworld in late winter? We began by wondering. The first word: Va-yehi, an invocation for the creation of the tale. Also, the first word uttered in the Bible: And God said Let there be light –Yehi Or – and there was light. Va-yehi Or. That moment of becoming, that word, is the birth of order over chaos, a beginning of a tale, an invitation. Does this story stand by its own (Now) or is it part of a greater puzzle(And)?

Although each and every story, like each and every human being is his or her ‘own story’, can we be ‘told’ separately from those who preceded us and can we be thus understood? For the Book of Esther to begin with

 

 

Now would indicate the storyteller’s wish for exclusivity, for a separate segment and a new page. How much more intriguing, even confusing, is the beginning of a tale with And – leaving traces of hidden origins, clues, fossils of ancestral mystery leading from the royal palace to dusty roads beyond. Those little “AND’s” and “NOW’s” became a focus of intrigue for us. Different gates to the same place: The King’s chamber. Both Above and Below. Both

Above and Below. The Divine Power is not mentioned by name throughout the book. Is this absent God, the King of

Kings, represented, allegorically, by King Ahasverosh, ruler of the earthly dominions, as some Jewish traditions would have it? Chaos on earth thus represents celestial chaos. A mistrusted Sovereign representing, perhaps, a sometimes-mistrusted God. A proper myth, a perfect plot, this scroll enfolded with its many hints promising a great tale, splendor, turmoil, suspense and celestial, if invisible, restoration of order. So what’s the big deal if a story, translated, starts with And as opposed to Now, someone in the study circle asked. We didn’t know exactly and by now it didn’t make a difference. We’ve managed to slide through a crack, that Vav in Va-Yehi, and through a secret door we have entered the King’s Presence .A story began, as it is written, “Draw me after you, we will run; the King has brought me into his chambers…”(Song of Songs 1:4)

 

2.

From where must one read the scroll of Esther so as to fulfill one’sobligation? Rabbi Meir says, The entire scroll; Rabbi Judah says, One must read from’THERE WAS A JEW’ (Esther 2:5); Rabbi Yose says, from ‘AFTER THESE THINGS'(Esther 3:1).

Mishna Megila, chapter 2:3

 

The rabbis, very much as we were doing now, it seems, sat in a large room, sometime in the third century, and discussed the book of Esther. They too were pondering the beginnings of this tale and the significance attributed to each distinct possibility. What is the essence of the story, they seem to be asking. For all three rabbis the story begins with a powerful male character: For Rabbi Meir it is the King, for Rabbi Judah it is Mordechai the Judean, and it is Haman the Evil One for Rabbi Yose. Each alternative beginning redefines the story as it redefines its opening lines. Had Rabbi Judah won the debate – we would have lost the banquets and the disappearance of the first Queen – Vashti. Had Rabbi Yose proven his case more convincing – we would have also lost the coronation of the second Queen – Esther. Rabbi Meir prevails. We read and start with the ominous opulence; The King below represents the King above, and two Queens – not merely one – are thus presented. In an attempt to focus on the tale’s essence, two of the rabbis are willing to omit, even censor, a part of the Bible. The Tale, however, seems to demand more than its obvious political and historical significance. By trying to erase Queen Vashti from the story, the rabbis were trying to do the same as the King himself: to eradicate some feminine presence that does not yield to the prevailing norms. The King in our story could not last long without a Queen, and neither could the story itself. The Queens, we gather, open another gate, to an older mystery, where, like the morning and evening star, with whom Esther – Ishtar is associated, they constantly, eternally, disappear and return.

 

3

.…The sofas were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of alabaster, marble, mother of pearl, and precious stones…(Esther 1:6)

 

In the room where we were sitting was a large yellow sofa. People, crowded in the room, were asking, where do you begin your story as a Jewish Learner? The first three to answer, were sitting on the sofa, and said their fathers had been or are Reform rabbis, and so the sofa was instantly dubbed, in a private joke newly formed forms require, “the Reform sofa”. Others said, My son’s Bar Mitzvah and his untimely death made me want to explore the texts, Friday night conversation around the dinner table, summer camp, a library, “this is my first experience” was said, and also, “Hebrew had mystery, the learning became sensory deep intense experience. Our own chronicler took notes as words were spoken that night. Shorthand attempting to record memories, sighs, facial expressions, cryptic half sentences. These became our common vocabulary and archives Our personal tales and those from the King’s chamber were intertwined. In conjuring that first study night in my memory a flood of images appear. Where do I begin? When starting a story, look around and describe the surroundings, I was told once. The sofa was there, an arbitrary, random starting point. An image that transported us then and possibly now to that place where tales live, and myths are re-created. Beyond the And’s or Now’s. That night we read: “As wine must sit in a jar, so Torah must sit in this garment. Look at what is under the garment. So all those words and all those stories – they are garments.”(Zohar 3:35)

 

July 1999