A Biblical Treasure Hunt – Megillat Esther By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Echoes of a Great and Bitter Cry

Esther 4:1

Upon hearing the about Hamans plan and the kings order:

אסתר פרק ד א

(א) וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָדַע אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה וַיִּקְרַע מָרְדֳּכַי אֶת בְּגָדָיו וַיִּלְבַּשׁ שַׂק וָאֵפֶר וַיֵּצֵא בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדֹלָה וּמָרָה:

Esther 4:1

Now Mordecai knew all that had been done. So Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried a great and bitter cry.

A similar verse appears elsewhere in Tanakh, do you know where, who is crying out, and why?

Check Bereshit (Genesis) 27:34. What was the event that led him to cry?

How is this connected to the story of Esther?

We are off to another biblical treasure hunt. Let us start with what we know about Haman.

Haman is known as Haman the Agagite המן האגגי (see Esther 3:1).

What do we know about Agag?

We find Agag in I Samuel 15:

שמואל א פרק טו I Sam 15

(ז) וַיַּךְ שָׁאוּל אֶת עֲמָלֵק מֵחֲוִילָה בּוֹאֲךָ שׁוּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מִצְרָיִם:

(ח) וַיִּתְפֹּשׂ אֶת אֲגַג מֶלֶךְ עֲמָלֵק חָי וְאֶת כָּל הָעָם הֶחֱרִים לְפִי חָרֶב:

7 And Saul smote Amalek from Havilah as towards Shur, that is in front of Egypt. 8And he took Agag the king of Amalek alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.

We know that Mordochai is a relative of Saul, the first king of Israel. So the confrontation between Mordochai and Haman is not new. They simply revived an old battle between the 2 families.

It is, of course, this historic confrontation that is at the root of the special Torah reading added on the Shabbat before Purim Shabbat Zachor. We read the commandment to remember what Amalek did to us on our way out of Egypt (Exodus 17:8-16) and to wipe out their memory. The Haftorah for that Shabbat is I Samuel 15; Sauls attempt to wipe out Amalek. Saul failed and it cost him dearly. He was informed that the kingdom will be taken from him and given to his fellow person who is better than him. (It is worth reading the chapter.)

So where does Esaus cry come in?

Apparently, we are not done with our treasure hunt.

בראשית פרק לו

(י) אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי עֵשָׂו אֱלִיפַז בֶּן עָדָה אֵשֶׁת עֵשָׂו רְעוּאֵל בֶּן בָּשְׂמַת אֵשֶׁת עֵשָׂו:

(יא) וַיִּהְיוּ בְּנֵי אֱלִיפָז תֵּימָן אוֹמָר צְפוֹ וְגַעְתָּם וּקְנַז:

(יב) וְתִמְנַע הָיְתָה פִילֶגֶשׁ לֶאֱלִיפַז בֶּן עֵשָׂו וַתֵּלֶד לֶאֱלִיפַז אֶת עֲמָלֵק אֵלֶּה בְּנֵי עָדָה אֵשֶׁת עֵשָׂו:

10 These are the names of Esau’s sons: Eliphaz the son of Adah the wife of Esau, Reuel the son of Basemath the wife of Esau. 11 And the sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, and Gatam, and Kenaz. 12 And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek. These are the sons of Adah Esau’s wife.

What is Amaleks relationship to Esav?

Let us not underestimate the importance of these seemingly irrelevant family trees. The place of Amalek in Esavs family is crucial. Note that the Israelites were forbidden to fight or conquer any of Esavs territory Edom as they made their journey to Canaan. But Amalek is the ultimate target of hate. He is not part of the legitimate family, his family connection is irrelevant.

What does the Megilla tell us by echoing Esau’s pained cry?

Why was Esav crying? Because Jacob had taken his blessing. Bereshit 27 is one of the most difficult stories in Tanakh. How can we excuse Jacobs behavior? Should it be excused? Any of us who have learned that Midrashs approach to Esau knows that he usually ends up being a villain. Some go so far as to say that he murdered, raped and worshiped idols. (Paralleled to the 3 transgressions that a person should rather die than commit.) But it is hard to see Esav as a villain in Bereshit 27.

In the story of Esther is embedded early Midrash. Who was wrong? Who was right? Most midrash that has reached us is tainted by the deep mistrust and dislike that the rabbis had towards the Romans. Rome is often referred to in rabbinic literature as Edom Esavs nickname. How many of the nasty Midrashim on Esau are intended as an encrypted criticism of Rome?

The story of Esther comes before all this. It reflects a different reading of Bereshit. Perhaps one that we feel more comfortable embracing.

So have we discovered something new?!

Not completely. Now that we have done all the detective work, we can app
reciate what the Midrash in Bereshit Rabba sums up in a line:

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה סז ד”ה (לד) כשמע עשו

(לד) כשמע עשו [את דברי אביו ויצעק צעקה גדולה ומרה] וגו’ …זעקה אחת הזעיק יעקב לעשו, ואיכן נפרע לו? בשושן הבירה. שנאמר “ויזעק זעקה גדולה ומרה” וגו’ (אסתר ד א).

Bereshit Rabba 67

When Esau heard his fathers words he cried a great and bitter etc.One cry did Jacob cause to Esau, and where did he [He] pay him back? In the fortress Shushan. As it says he cried a great and bitter cry.

Bereshit Rabba is an early Midrashic collection from the Tanaitic period, the time of the Mishna.