Some Serious Aspects of Hag Purim 
by Rabbi Ezra Labaton ZS”L
Adar is a month of joy and frivolity. We drink, we laugh, we celebrate the holiday of Purim. Yet, one who avoids the serious implications of the holiday flirts with danger and may pay a heavy price for his avoidance. Nowadays, as then, evil is no playful thing, and is very much an item on the world agenda. People in positions of power who call for the destruction of Israel must be taken seriously as perpetrators of evil, as was Haman in Persia. Indeed, Megillat Esther is a profound reminder of the radical evil that lurks in the hearts of men and the extent of one man’s perfidious intentions. The Megillah must be studied, absorbed and digested to understand this evil, and more significantly, to learn how to react.
Evil has many faces. There is, for example, the historical aspect of evil, which deals with the most evil men and events in history. There is, as well, a theological dimension to evil, which raises the question: how could Bore Olam allow such evil in the world that He benevolently created and supervises. In addition, there is a psychological side to evil, where the student of evil attempts to understand the inner workings of the satanic mind.
Our concern here is not with the history of evil, nor with its theological implications. Rather, we would like to approach the Megillah psychologically – trying to penetrate the emotional depths and states of mind of the main characters- emphasizing the evil of Haman, though not limiting our analysis to his twisted, perverse perspective. First, we will concentrate on the psychological traits of those who brought about this near tragedy, and then focus on those who accomplished the last minute heroics that pulled the iron out of the fire. We start with the King of Persia.
What sort of person was Ahashverosh? Was he strong and powerful or silly and weak? Did he feel as secure as the Rock of Gibraltar or as insecure as a young teenager on his first date – not really sure what to say or what to do? Rabbi Soloveitchik has suggested that King Ahashverosh was the latter: fearful, insecure, and even paranoid. The Rav brings a whole host of textual evidence to support this psychological claim. For example, the Rav asks, what King establishes a policy of immediate death to all those who enter the King’s chambers, unless the King happens to point his royal scepter in their direction (see 4:11)? Paranoia at its best. Indeed, Haman knew how to portray the Jews, as a scattered enemy, disloyal to the pronouncements of the throne- yet united (Am Ehad), and thus more threatening- to convince the King that for self-protection, he best do away with them (3:8). The fearful king readily agrees.
And what about Haman? How are we to explain this crazed, irrational hatred that possessed him? What sort of man seeks to obliterate every vestige of a people who did him no harm? To kill every man, woman and child is to strike at the core of human decency. It is satanic- anti-Selem Elokim- behavior at its worst. Truth to tell, Haman was not the first to engage in such demonic, humanly perverse, behavior; witness his ancestor Amalek. Nor was he the last: Hitler must have been a close relative! We need to probe and ask, what are the underlying psychological causes that motivate such hatred? From what deep recesses does the he who hates draw his energy to hate? We submit that “ego” is not sufficient to explain the behavior of one who reaches to the depths of hell to find models for his actions. Certainly, there were no economic or religious reasons for this hatred, as has been the case throughout history; nor were the Jews a political or military threat. Why did Haman hate the Jews so intensely? Why are we the victims of the world’s longest and most intense hatred? It boggles the mind. Satre’s masterful essay, “Anti Semite and Jew,” is a penetrating exploration of the psychological underpinnings of such hatred and such behavior. To understand Haman psychologically- the depths of evil- Satre would be a good first step.
Now, however, we must turn our attention to Esther – the central personality of the Megillah. We may begin by asking: Why is she so important? Wherein do we find her greatness? Why do we celebrate this holiday, with her as the pivotal character? Or to pinpoint the issue: Why is the Megillah known as Megillat Esther, and not Megillat Mordekhai? Only a close analysis of the text will reveal what kind of person she was and what kind of person she has to become. In this, we will discover the essence of her greatness.
As is clear from the early chapters of the Megillah, Esther plays no role whatsoever in the opening narrative. She is introduced to us, almost parenthetically- though anticipatorily- as the niece of Mordekhai, the more prominent personality. The text first reveals her as Hadasa, but quickly records a name change. What is the significance of this change from the Hebrew Hadasa to the Babylonian/pagan name Esther (2:7)? Could this change in name reflect a change in her destiny or a change in her own self- perception? Perhaps this change indicates a change in the role she will play in the narrative. As the events unfold, these questions will be answered.
Further, note the word “vatilaqah” in 2:8. The word tells us much about Esther’s character. At this point, she is a young, naïve woman and is thus “passively” taken to the King’s palace – involuntarily. Yet, the impression she makes is profound. All are appreciative of her gentle demeanor; she finds favor in their eyes (2:9,15,17). Hesed, the quintessential Jewish characteristic, is her defining feature. Verse 12, in addition, tells the reader something striking about Esther: although absolute authority was given to all of the women to request and receive whatever they desire – she chooses nothing. Esther follows instructions – whatever Hegai says, she does: passive and obedient. And, of course, she follows the clear cut instructions of Mordekhai – unquestioningly (2:10). A certain naiveté, modesty and innocence characterize her every step. These character traits deeply impress the King as well. How could they not? Her lack of assertiveness makes the insecure King feel secure; her non-concern with power makes Ahashverosh feel more powerful. He is carried away by her Hen and Hesed, and responds with a Hanaha – an act of kindness to his subjects. She turns him, at least for the moment, into a better person. The King loves her, trusts her and needs her.
Years pass and all is well, or so we think. Mordekhai feels secure enough to challenge the power of Haman and the power of his office. Yet, events take a turn for the worst. Mordekhai does not really understand the corridors of power, nor really understand Haman’s ego needs or the King’s insecurity. Haman does, and therefore plays upon this insecurity to secure the King’s consent for his evil intention. The evil decree is agreed upon and proclaimed. Chapter 4 verse 1 records Mordekhai’s intense involvement in all these happenings and surprisingly notes Esther’s complete absence from all these events. His reaction: panic and mourning. He screams the bitter cry of defeat. Further in his depressed state he commands Esther to beg and plead for her nation. But now he is told that her distance is self-protective (4:11). After her initial response, however, there is a perceptible change in personality. No longer do we see the innocent, naïve, withdrawn demeanor of Hadasa – she becomes Queen Esther.
Mordekhai speaks in desperate tones. He sees only darkness ahead for his people. Esther perceives more profoundly, at this point, the needs of the hour. Wild desperate pleas of mercy would fail to turn the cold, cruel heart of Haman and the same for the insecure, paranoid king. Esther, however, understands her husband well. Because she has not been summoned to the King for thirty days, her wild entry into the King’s presence could only mean death, nothing positive could result. Thus, Esther thinks craftily and pragmatically. A plan must be formulated, rooted in the King’s insecurity and need for attention, taking into account Haman’s arrogance and need for power.
Queen Esther understands her responsibility; the historical role given to her has now become clear. All past events are fully understood in light of the present crisis. But given her understanding of the events as they have unfolded and her uncanny insight into human nature, she knows that Mordekhai’s impetuous plan of action is off the mark; her more deliberate formulation begins to take shape. The Queen’s command of the situation is total. Now she takes charge and instructs Mordekhai what he must do, while she is galvanized into action. A transition indeed!! The follower becomes the leader, while the leader becomes the follower.
Hadasa has changed. The woman who requested nothing in her first visit to the King, now dresses regally. Her physical appearance will play a role in turning the tide against Haman, as does her “Hen” – graciousness. Ahashverosh, upon seeing his Queen is transfixed and is willing to give her half of his Kingdom. No, all she requests is for the King and Haman to attend the next day’s party- thereby empowering Haman. Note how he reflects upon this attention. “Esther, the Queen, brought no one else to the party with the King but me. And tomorrow I am invited with the King” (5:10). But this invitation with Haman must have deepened the King’s insecurity. He must have thought, “Why is she inviting Haman to this private party? Is a coup in the making?” The plot thickens. The pieces are all in place – even Harbona is properly instructed to play his role.
At the precise moment, once the King has had his fill and is feeling particularly happy with his Queen – offering her once again half the throne – Esther begs for her life, pointing her accusing finger at Haman. Ahashverosh is enraged, while Haman, half drunk and not totally aware of what’s happening, falls on the Queen’s couch. Harbona, perfectly placed, feeds the King the right line. Haman and his sons are hung. But the now, very aggressive Queen, is not yet finished. Haman’s sons must be publicly displayed, while another day is given to the Jews – Lehinakem Meoyvehem – to seek revenge from their enemies.
At this point, Mordekhai plays no role at all. Esther has become a powerful person, craftily using her position and womanly charm to save her people. Note how impressed the King is with her “Hen and Hesed” – not only at the beginning of their relationship, but years later. (As Esther expresses in 8:5 and the King must have agreed – she puts the right words in his mouth, mind and heart). Esther uses this to turn the King against Haman, thereby saving her people. That which was at one point innocent and natural was turned into a political tool to influence events.
Esther has become another person. From the shy, quiet, innocent, and naïve woman we met at the beginning of the Megillah, she has become – had to become – a player in the game of political intrigue. Queen Esther has become a powerful, charismatic personality. She takes all the ecessary steps of dealing with Haman’s family, and all others who rise up against the Jews. Further, the Megillah in 9:29 emphasizes that Esther the Queen (mentioned first) writes the narrative of events. She maintains power, not Mordekhai. She is Esther the Queen, while he is characterized as “Mordekhai the Jew.”
This dramatic change in personality was not simple, nor easy. It would have been much simpler and easier to remain under the wings of a protective uncle, passively accepting the events as they unfolded. She chose a different path. When destiny called, she answered – no matter what the price – to act on behalf of her people. Esther is praised by our tradition, not only for the role she played in saving the Jewish people, but for the self change she engineered and endured for the sake of Am Yisrael. Evil, once again, is temporarily defeated. We thank Bore Olam for such self- sacrificing people.
 This article was reprinted from Tebah’s Purim Reader (New York: 2010), pp. 25-31.