Tuesday, March 09, 2004

A response to Naomi Chana's Purim Post

You can read the post in full here. I'm just going to respond to select portions of it:

The most obvious is the not-even-remotely Hebrew name of its heroine: "Esther," the rabbinic tradition claims, comes from a Hebrew word meaning "hiddenness" or "concealment." (And if you buy that, I have a nice ziggurat for sale in Shushan -- but I'm getting to that in a minute.)
Perhaps I might be interested in a timeshare in that ziggurat. While Esther and Mordechai are indeed the names Ishtar and Marduk, that does not (nor should not) preclude the name Esther having Hebrew connotations. It is only if you think that pshat means that a word can have one and only one meaning that you would think it could not have another connotation.

Let me give an example. Say I were writing a story about a creative type and called him Art. It is a perfectly normal American name, but that should not stop someone from analyzing my story and (correctly) concluding that I intended a pun. Similarly, imagine I wrote a story about someone counting ballots in Florida and named him Chad.

There is some compelling evidence that this happens in Tanach. Consider that out of 6 sets of brothers who die prematurely in Tanach, all of 4, Er, Onan, Machlon and Kilyan all have names with connotations of being cut off and killed. (Nadav and Avihu do not.) {Update Feb 2005: While Nadav and Avihu do not, Nadav means "voluntary offering" and Avihu means "I will bring (as an offering) him." These two, besides being Kohanim, died when bringing incense on the altar which was not commanded to be brought.} This is how Chazal see it. Modern scholars will try to give alternate etymologies for the names, but come on! The names might have a true etymologies, but the punning in the name is clearly an intended level inherent in the text.

Let us turn to Esther. The text of Megillat Esther itself informs us that this was not her true, Hebrew name. Her Hebrew name was Hadassah. What role did the name "Esther" play in the sefer? It is Clark Kent for Superman. Esther has an assumed identity. She is told by Mordechai to conceal her Jewish identity, and she does so:

Esther 2:10: Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred; for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.

A Jewish name like Hadassah would have let everyone know she was a Jewess. Thus, the name that *conceals* her identity is Esther, which in Hebrew would connote hiddenness. And we know from elsewhere that this type of punning, dual etymologies, and multivalence exist, and so I would not dismiss this etymology of Chazal out of hand.

{Update March 2005: Nor is it really clear that Chazal really offer this etymology. Rather, in context, Chazal are seeking hints to Moshe, Haman, Mordechai and Esther in the text of the Chumash - Moshe in Bereishit before Moshe is actually mentioned, or else it would be trivial. The gemara in Bavli Chullin 139b:
משה מן התורה מנין (בראשית ו)
בשגם הוא בשר
המן מן התורה מנין
(בראשית ג) המן העץ
אסתר מן התורה מנין
(דברים לא) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר
מרדכי מן התורה מנין
דכתיב (שמות ל) מר דרור
ומתרגמינן מירא דכיא
Moshe from the Torah, where?
Bereishit 6:3:
ג וַיֹּאמֶר ה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה. 3 And the LORD said: 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.'
{and as Rashi there explains, בְּשַׁגַּם is the gematria [obtained by adding up the value of the letters] of Moshe, since you already have the shin and mem in both, and bet + gimmel = 2 + 3 = heh = 5. Further, Rashi points out that, as the pasuk continues, Moshe lived to 120 years, as we see in Devarim 34:7:

ז וּמֹשֶׁה, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה--בְּמֹתוֹ; לֹא-כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ, וְלֹא-נָס לֵחֹה. 7 And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.
Haman from the Torah, where?
Bereishit 3:11:

יא וַיֹּאמֶר--מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ, כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה; הֲמִן-הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לְבִלְתִּי אֲכָל-מִמֶּנּוּ--אָכָלְתָּ. 11 And He said: 'Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?'

{so we can revowelize hamin to be Haman. Further, as Rashi points out there, Haman was hung from the etz from which he intended to hang Mordechai.}

Esther from the Torah, where? Devarim 31:18:

יח וְאָנֹכִי, הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, עַל כָּל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה: כִּי פָנָה, אֶל-אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים. 18 And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.
{and as Rashi points out there, in the days described in the Megilla, Hashem hid his face.}

Modechai from the Torah, where? {Rashi adds, Mordechai's greatness, from where?}
For it says (in Shemot 30:23)

כג וְאַתָּה קַח-לְךָ, בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ, מָר-דְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת, וְקִנְּמָן-בֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם; וּקְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם, חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם. 23 'Take thou also unto thee the chief spices, of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty,
and the Targum for it says Mara Dachya. {=approximately Mordechai, and as Rashi says, this shows Mordechai's greatness, that he was "chief of the spices"}
Now, no one would look at this Gemara and think that it is trying to say that the reason Moshe was called that was because it is a reference to BeSheGam, and since he would live to 120 years. After all, we have an explicit pasuk in parshat Shemot giving the etymology of Moshe's name. Nor would anyone think that Haman was named so because it mean "Did you from?" and the reference to a tree. Rather, the midrash in the gemara is showing how these characters, and something about their natures, are being hinted at in the Torah. It is not trying to pull the wool over our eyes that this was the etymology of Moshe, or Haman, or Mordechai, or Esther. The only way you can think this is if you did not see the gemara inside, but rather heard tell of it from someone else. That is, Chazal do not really have a ziggurat to sell you.
// end update

Then, Naomi Chana writes:
The rabbinic tradition, never at a loss for words, instead opted to make a silk purse out of a (you should excuse the expression) sow's ear. Purim was a hidden miracle, they proclaimed, and that was the whole point. The missing $DEITY was a feature, not a bug. Purim formed a matched set with the "open" miracle of Hanukkah; in the Purim story, God was working from below rather than from above. Esther and Mordechai, of course, knew that God was present all along, but Ahasuerus and Haman and most of the Persian Empire did just fine with the exterior account, the one where the king's gorgeous new wife manipulated him into terminating a trusted advisor and hiring her cousin in his place.
But, it is not the Rabbis who introduce the concept of the hidden role of God. It is present in the megillah itself!
Mordechai says in Esther 4:13-14:
וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-אֶסְתֵּר: אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים.
כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת--רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ--אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.
"Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: 'Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews.
For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father's house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?'"

Why does Mordechai think that salvation will come for the Jews from another place, but she and her father's house will perish? He clearly believes that God is behind the scenes pulling the strings. Esther is one way God can effect salvation, but not necessarily the only one. Further if she does not cooperate, she and her father's house shall perish, in punishment from God for not acting.

Also, he says "and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?" That is, the *reason* she arose to this position of power may well have been to save the Jews now. That is, God was working behind the scenes to make all this happen, working His mechinations to get Vashti dethroned and Esther in power.

Esther also believes God is running the show, which there is an element of natural law. She is afraid if she comes before the king unannounced she will be executed, but hopes that Hashem will make her find favor in Achashverosh's eyes. Thus, in the next verses, 16-17:
וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-מָרְדֳּכָי.
לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן, וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל-תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל-תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם--גַּם-אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי, אָצוּם כֵּן; וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-כַדָּת, וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי.

"Then Esther bade them return answer unto Mordecai.
'Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish."

Thus, she fears for her life, and her solution is that the Jews should fast. How in natural law is this to help? The answer, on a pshat level, is that God might appreciate the Jew's fasting and intervene to make sure that Achashverosh does not kill her.

Now, this is a very narrow section of the megillah, but the entire megillah was written by one hand. This hand sees the hidden miracle in God's controlling of Fate to bring Esther to power, and the effect of the Jews' fasting. When that hand writes the rest of the megillah, with Vashti thrown out of power, and the parties and what have you, the same intent is present.

Chazal just make it explicit, but the hidden miracle is the pashut pshat of the megillah.

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