Megillat Esther: The moment of decision

The path to genocide.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The allure of the story of Megillat Esther is quite obvious. Drama and intrigue abound. There are political machinations, genocidal plans, and an intricate plot involving the potential destruction and subsequent salvation of the Jewish people. Megillat Esther, though, is also a study in character. Guided by the Sages, we enter the minds of the protagonists and antagonists, understanding their outlooks and learning much about the attributes of the tzadik and rasha. A perfect example can be found in Haman’s fateful decision to destroy the Jewish people.

Haman’s recent promotion brought with it a newfound level of prestige and respect among the people. Malbim (3:1,2) points out that we should not view Haman’s elevation as coming out of nowhere. Haman worked his way up the ladder, culminating in his new position as viceroy. Haman was someone who had wealth and power, now only one rung below the king himself. Malbim explains that when people achieved such success, they acquired a status of being a demi-god. How else could one explain such success? Thus, the decree for all of the subjects to the king to bow and prostrate before Haman was a natural result of his newfound status. They all bowed before Haman; all, of course, except for Mordechai (Megillat Esther 3:2-4)

“And all the king's servants who were in the king's gate would kneel and prostrate themselves before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him, but Mordecai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself. Then the king's servants who were in the king's gate, said to Mordecai, "Why do you disobey the king's orders?" Now it came to pass when they said [this] to him daily, and he did not heed them, that they told [this] to Haman, to see whether Mordecai's words would stand up, for he had told them that he was a Jew.”

While Haman is portrayed as the paradigm of anti-Semitism, it is interesting to note that he did not initially try and destroy the Jewish people. In fact, it would appear Haman did not even notice that Mordechai was resistant to the decree. One can picture the mass of people bowing to Haman, hard to even spot the one individual (maybe in the back area) not conforming. Clearly, Haman was not aware of it at first, as he was informed of the transgression and now chose to investigate the situation (3:5-6):

“And when Haman saw that Mordecai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself before him, Haman became full of wrath. But it seemed contemptible (vayivez) to him to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had told him Mordecai's nationality (am Mordechai), and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout Ahasuerus's entire kingdom, Mordecai's people (am Mordechai).”

The descriptions offered in the verses are inviting us to understand the mind of the rasha. We are witnessing the moment to moment decision making process, culminating with the plan to annihilate the Jews. First, Haman “looks”. Looking leads to being “filled” with rage. The rage leads to an extrapolation from the individual to the nation, driven by “vayivez”.

In this instance, Haman was not merely using his eyes. There is a Midrash that cites a verse from Tehillim (69:24), referring to how “their” eyes should become dark. The term “their”, in this context, refers to the rasha, the evil person. Why should their eyes become dark? What they see with their eyes brings them to Gehenom, the place of punishment for the rasha.

This first insight directs us to understanding the initial mindset of Haman. Haman had heard reports of the individual holdout and decided to pursue the matter. He also understood Mordechai’s ideological background. The Midrash, though, is demonstrating how he normally approached “seeing” the world around him. A wise person is drawn to the surrounding world, wanting to uncover and discover, explore and acquire. He sees the world as a vehicle to a greater plane of knowledge, and his “seeing” directs him to a transcendence beyond his empirical perceptions. He searches for God, abandoning his own sense of importance to achieve the greater understanding. The rasha cannot see the world in such a manner. The world serves his needs, his wants, his desires. The world is there to elevate his status, to reinforce his distorted sense of self-importance. The idea of his “seeing” leading to Gehenom refers to how investigating the world around him is always self-serving. This worldview is destructive and can only lead to the downfall of the rasha. When Haman came to investigate what occurred with Mordechai, the Sages are telling us he only perceived a potential threat to his stature. He saw a challenge to his worldview, and his sense of self-importance was now in question.

The reaction Haman has is more than simply an emotional one. We see he was “filled” with this anger, pointing out how he developed his plot to kill the Jews. Haman saw the menace, and he became consumed with rage. When someone becomes consumed with rage, it becomes impossible to act in a rational manner. On a deeper level, the individual seeks to flee the state of rage. The feeling of frustration and anger is one that is painful, and Haman searched for an avenue of escape. Yet there was something even more troubling. A person who is elevated to an important status in society usually is the recipient of a high level of respect from the masses. The adoration projected surely brings a sense of satisfaction to the powerful. In the case of Haman, everyone expressed this clear recognition of power through bowing down, save for one individual. Any rational person would reflect on how successful he was in having so many people bow down to him; who cares about one naysayer? For the megalomaniac, the lack of unity is a serious problem. Rather than focus on the great success, he only sees the holdout. Haman is infuriated by Mordechai’s unwillingness to bow down to him. But he might also have been frustrated by the very fact he was so infuriated by this one individual’s recalcitrance. Yes, he was an officer of the court, but he is but one. It could be the idea of being “filled” with anger truly referred to a complete consumption. He could not control his rage, and he was even more bothered by the very fact he was so incensed by “just” Mordechai.

Now comes the pivotal moment. The Megillah records Haman’s shift from anger to finding it “contemptible” to just killing Mordechai. What exactly was contemptible about only killing Mordechai? Rashi points to the same language of vayivez used by Eisav. When Eisav was faced with selling the birthright, he related to it as being “contemptible”. Rashi somehow connects the two uses of vayivez. While the word may be the same, the context seems completely different. Eisav was expressing some type of disdain concerning the privilege of being the first born. Haman was seeking to extrapolate from the individual Mordechai to the entire nation of Jews. What is the connection?

There is a Sifri that explains that after he became consumed with anger, Haman turns his focus onto the Jewish nation. The Jews had always attempted to annihilate Haman’s forefathers; as such, now was the time to convince the king to destroy the Jews. Why is Haman referencing his lineage at this moment?

The answers to the above may lie in understanding the critical moments at this junction of the story. When Haman was first confronted with Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to him, he initially saw it as a solitary act. As noted, part of his rage lay in the fact that this one person could bother him so much. What does Haman do? He shifts the focus from Mordechai the individual to Mordechai as a representative of a philosophy. He reframed the entire issue as one of ideological war. When Eisav found the birthright to be contemptible to him, what he was revealing was a complete disdain for the ideology of Judaism; he wanted no part of it. So too, Haman was expressing his own contempt for that which Mordechai represented. He turns to the history of his people, seeing Mordechai as part of the conspiracy to destroy his entire line. He views the Jews not as Jews, but as the nation of Mordechai. Each Jew is now an extension of Mordechai. Haman took the perceived insult of one individual and recast the episode as the clash of ideological outlooks. It was the only way, in his thinking, to reconcile the inner conflict.

Haman is considered one of the worst enemies of the Jewish people. He was prepared to commit genocide, to wipe the Jews from the face of the planet. But the Megilla does not want us to just see him as a rabid anti-Semite. As with any one of these events recorded and canonized, we must look beyond the storylines. Each individual should be studied, as we learn both about what helps perfect us, as well as what can bring about our demise.

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