Who was this perfidious Amalek, the object of today’s parshat Zachor, reminding us our duty to destroy them? How are they connected to Megillat Esther, and undercurrents are at play under the surface of the biblical melodrama in Shushan?
It turns out that Amalek is related to us. Remember Esau, Yaacov’s hairy twin brother? Well, Eliphaz, one of his 12 sons, was Amalek’s father. Second cousins twice removed?
We read that right after the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea, the fear of God was in all the neighboring nations because of what He had done to Egypt. Nevertheless, Amalek dared to nip at the Israelites, attacking the weak from behind. In the first battle against them, Joshua leads the Israelites to a great victory. In Judges, the nomadic tribes of Amalek are defeated by Gideon. Then comes King Saul. Saul is commanded to wipe them out completely. He doesn’t kill their king, Agag, and is told that he has lost the monarchy. Saul is from the tribe of Benjamin.
And now we come to the megillah. Who is Mordechai and who is Haman? Mordechai’s family traces back to Kish –Saul’s family – from the tribe of Benjamin. Haman is an Agagite, a descendant of Agag, the same king of Amalek that Saul did not kill. In other words, the descendants of two losers are here to fight it out.
Esther is a strange book to have been included in the Bible. God’s name does not appear. The heroes are Jewish by birth only – they don’t seem to keep kashrut and sleeping with non-Jews doesn’t bother them – and the story takes place outside of Israel. This last point may explain its inclusion. It tells the story of how Jews in the diaspora lived and coped with existential problems.
Did the story actually happen? Well, there was a king Achashverosh, called Xerses in Greek, in 480BCE. And the writer certainly knew what transpired in the palace and its machinations. According to Avshalom Kapach, reading the megillah not for its Jewish content teaches us about how the government of Persia was able to rule from India to Sudan.
How? For three reasons. One is LAWS. Dat, which we translate today as religion, means “law” in Persian. There was a law for everything and if there wasn’t, it was promulgated as needed. And these laws were accessible – they were translated into all 127 languages. The second secret was communications. Roads, way stations to change horses. And the third was religious tolerance. Everyone could worship his own god in peace.
As for political deals, they were made at parties. Five or more parties are mentioned in megillat Esther, starting with the 180-day bash at the beginning to Esther’s two intimate parties for the king and Haman.
One moving force in the story is the king’s indecision and his dependence on advisers for the stupidest things. In this way a spat between Achashverosh and Vashti, about coming to a party, becomes a full-blown political crisis. The instigator is Memuchan the adviser, who warns the king about not seeming strong enough. He was only doing his job. The job of an adviser is to tell the king what he wants to hear. Ask Donald Trump.
There’s more political intrigue. The king promotes Haman, who is an immigrant to Persia from the house of Agag, the Amalekite. This occurs right after Mordechai has uncovered a plot to assassinate the king. He has informed Esther who has told the king, in Mordechai’s name. But instead of promoting Mordechai, another immigrant, from Judea, he promotes Haman. Could this explain Mordechai’s contempt for Haman – a personal vendetta?
Here’s an interesting point. Haman does not see Mordechai’s silent protest. The other wannabes see it, warn Mordechai and then, when he doesn’t relent, they tell Haman. And they include that he is a Jew. Why? One theory says because he was upsetting the correct order of things (the laws) and they couldn’t stand it. Who knows.
At any rate, as with the king and queen in chapter one, personal enmity between Mordechai and Haman now becomes a political crisis.
We don’t have time to review the whole megilla, but reviewing how Haman presented his case to the king indicates how sharp Haman really was.
“There is a people,” he says, without mentioning their name and thus demeaning them. “They are spread out and not united” so they can’t really put up resistance. Their laws (dat) are different from all others, meaning they are not like us. And they do not follow the king’s laws! Now, this is insurgency and cause for action against them. Therefore, the king has no economic benefit from them, and they can be dispersed with. And finally, you will earn 10,000 pieces of silver from their disappearance. At last – money talks.
From the general to the specific, from the abstract to the personal. From uselessness to benefit. Haman could have succeeded as a political strategist today too.
And finally, one last word about Esther. From the passive young woman who is Mordechai’s ward, she becomes a heroine who – like all other Jewish heroines – does not tell the man, Mordechai in this case, what she is about to do. Let sleeping men lie. Don’t let them know that the women are on the job.
May we have many more heroes and heroines to keep us alive and strong and safe.
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach