This extended section relates that the “seventh day” of the feast was also the seventh day of the week. Jews study Torah and thank God. In contrast, the nations of the world get drunk and deal in frivolous matters. Ahashverosh wishing to show off his wife Vashti, calls her to come forth naked. This is a measure for measure punishment for how she used to treat the daughters of Israel, whom she used to force to dance naked in front of her.
Having said that both Vashti and Ahashverosh intended to commit acts of licentiousness, the rabbis are forced to explain why she refused to come when he summoned her. There are two versions as to why. The first is that she got a scale disease on her skin. The rabbis considered leprosy to be a punishment from God, which makes it appropriate for their perception of Vashti. That she was given a tail is a bit stranger. Perhaps we might surmise that being given a tail is a sign of her becoming like the serpent, wily. Tails are one of the things that distinguish humans from another mammals. In essence we are the tail-less mammal (although we do really all have tails, they’re just very small).
Why did Ahashverosh get so angry with Vashti? The Talmud ascribes a curse that Vashti made against Ahashverosh—he was the son of her father’s stable master. I have read some research noting that this was a Persian type of curse. Interestingly, the rabbis while denigrating the old Persian king, are influenced by Persian culture itself.
The king turns to the sages who are identified as rabbis for they know how to intercalate years and months. He wants them to put Vashti on trial for disobeying the king. They wisely avoid the matter, sending him to other nationalities to do the dirty work. There is even a pun here in the midrash. Moab has “settled on his lees” unlike Ahashverosh whose lees were just shook up by getting so drunk.
Levi reads the strange names of Ahashverosh’s ministers as alluding to claims that the ministering angels made before God concerning the sacrifices. Each name alludes to a sacrificial act that Israel did before God that the non-Jews did not. Rashi explains that at this point the ministering angels pleaded before God to punish Vashti, so that Esther could become queen and eventually save the Jews.
The rabbis identify Memukhan with Haman, who is destined to be hanged later in the Megillah. This identification is part of a midrashic trend to conflate characters in the Tanakh. Here it is especially curious why Haman was not listed with the ministers of the king in chapter one.
Kahana notes that Memukhan was the last of the ministers in the list but the first to talk. Often times it is the least important person, the one who has the least to say, who pushes himself to the front to speak.
Rava notes something curious about the various letters sent out by Ahashverosh to his people. The Babylonians waited before carrying out the destruction of the Jews instructed in the second letters. This is because, Rava claims, the first letter was so obvious. Obviously men command their homes, even a weaver, a rather lowly profession, reigns in his own home. Since the first letter was so obvious, the second letter was ignored. Thus Haman’s (Memukhan) own suggestion allowed the “enemies of Israel”—a euphemism for Israel themselves, to be eventually saved.
The midrash now moves to the second chapter. The verse refers to the king appointing officers to find him a new wife. Rav’s midrash compares David with Ahashverosh and is based on a pun between the word clever (arom) and naked (arom). David when he was old only asked for one girl. Therefore everyone rushed to bring him a girl. Ahashverosh, the fool, appointed officers to find all of the girls. All of the fathers knew that his intent was to try them all out and then pick one. Whoever had a daughter hid her.
The verse only lists a few generations of Mordecai—son of Yair, son of Shimei, son of Kish. And then it says he was from Benjamin. So why give some of his pedigree but not all of it?
A baraita takes each of the names and makes a pun from it. These midrashic puns are something we have seen quite a few of throughout these pages.
The first half of the verse calls Mordecai a Judean, meaning from the tribe of Judah, whereas the second half calls him a Benjamite, from the tribe of Benjamin. The rabbis give various answers as to how the Megillah can seem to say he is from different tribes.
The first answer is simply that he was given good names. He is not from both of these tribes.
The second answer is that he actually was from both tribes—one side was Benjamin, the other Judah.
The third answer is that the tribes fought over who allowed him to be born. Judah said that since David didn’t kill Shimi ben Gera (see II Samuel 19) they allowed Mordecai to be born. This assumes that the same Shimi not killed by David was actually Mordecai’s ancestor. In other words, even if he was from Benjamin, credit for his birth goes to Judah.
The tribe of Benjamin argued that that does not matter who saved Shimi’s life, for Mordecai is actually born from us.
Rava says that the verse is actually a lament from the community of Israel, blaming both Judah and Benjamin for the dangerous situation in Shushan. Haman was provoked by Mordecai, who was a descendent of Shimei, who was not slayed by David. Thus Mordecai brought on the Jews’ punishment. And Haman was allowed to live by Saul, the Benjamite who didn’t slay Agag, the Amalekite king and ancestor of Haman. Thus, ancestry can be the source of blame as well as credit.