Megillat Esther: Mysticism in the Megillah

The ten spheres in the Megillah, revealing the hidden.

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Daniel Pinner

Judaism צפונות המגילה
צפונות המגילה
INN:DP

Purim is the festival that, more than any other in our calendar, epitomises מַלְכוּת, malchut – G-d’s kingship.

The word הַמֶּלֶךְ (“the king”) appears 182 times throughout the Megillah, and indeed, there is a widespread custom for scribes to space the words of the scroll such that the first 17 columns begin with this word.

The historical narrative of the Book of Esther is the story of how G-d controls historical events without being seen, directing apparently random whims of kings, decisions of government ministers, and histories of mighty empires, all for the sake of the Jewish nation.

Hence when the Megillat Esther uses the expression הַמֶּלֶךְ, without specifying King Achashverosh, it is understood on a midrashic level to be an oblique reference to the King of the Universe (see for example Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 50; Targum Sheni on Esther 6:1; Ibn Ezra’s commentary to Esther 6:1).

In Kabbalistic terminology, מַלְכוּת is the lowest of the ten סְפִירוֹת, sefirot (the Divine “attributes”, “emanations”, “manifestations”). These sefirot are:

 

חָכְמָה, Chochmah (“wisdom”);

בִּינָה, Binah (“understanding”);

דַּעַת, Da’at (“knowledge”);

חֶסֶד, Chessed (“loving-kindness”);

גְּבוּרָה, Gevurah (“might”);

תִּפְאֶרֶת, Tiferet (“splendour”);

נֶצַח, Netzach (“eternity”, “victory”);

הוֹד, Hod (“grandeur”);

יְסוֹד, Yesod (“foundation”);

מַלְכוּת, Malchut (“kingship”).

 

These are G-d’s ten attributes, so to speak, by which He controls the world and the people in it. To express it differently, these are the manifestations of G-d’s characteristics, so to speak – the guises in which He and His decrees become apparent in directing human history.

In the Megillat Esther, seven of these ten are present, three are absent. Let us see which these are, and examine the significance of the seven present and the three absent Sefirot.

חָכְמָה, Chochmah (“wisdom”) appears twice: וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לַחֲכָמִים, And the king said to the wise men… (1:13), andוַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ חֲכָמָיו , …and his [Haman’s] wise men said to him… (6:13).

בִּינָה, Binah (“understanding”) appears nowhere at all anywhere in the Megillah.

דַּעַת, Da’at (“knowledge”) appears three times: ...מָרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ...לָדַעַת אֶת שְׁלוֹם אֶסְתֵּר, Mordechai would go…to know how Esther was doing… (2:11); מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה עוֹבֵר אֵת מִצְוַת הַמֶּלֶךְ, Why [1] do you transgress the king’s command? (3:3); and וַתִּקְרָא אֶסְתֵּר לַהֲתָךְ...וַתְּצַוֵּהוּ עַל מָרְדֳּכָי לָדַעַת מַה זֶּה וְעַל מַה זֶּה And Esther called to Hatach...and commanded him to go to Mordechai to know what this was all about (4:5).

חֶסֶד, Chessed (“loving-kindness”) appears twice: וַתִּשָּׂא חֶסֶד לְפָנָיו, and [Esther] obtained [Hegai’s] loving-kindness (2:9); and וַתִּשָּׂא חֵן וָחֶסֶד לְפָנָיו, and [Esther] obtained [Achashverosh’s] favour and loving-kindness  (2:17).

גְּבוּרָה, Gevurah (“might”) appears once: וְכָל מַעֲשֵׂה תָקְפּוֹ וּגְבוּרָתוֹ, and all [Mordechai’s] acts of power and might (10:2).

תִּפְאֶרֶת, Tiferet (“splendour”) appears once: בְּהַרְאֹתוֹ אֶת עֹשֶׁר כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ וְאֶת יְקָר תִּפְאֶרֶת גְּדוּלָּתוֹ, …showing off the wealth of his glorious kingdom and the grandeur of the splendour of his greatness…(1:4).

נֶצַח, Netzach (“eternity”, “victory”) appears nowhere at all anywhere in the Megillah.

הוֹד, Hod (“grandeur”) appears nowhere at all anywhere in the Megillah (but see below).

יְסוֹד, Yesod (“foundation”) appears once: כִּי כֵן יִסַּד הַמֶּלֶךְ, for thus the king had decreed (1:8).

מַלְכוּת, Malchut (“kingship”) appears dozens of times: the word מַלְכוּת itself occurs 26 times, and the various cognates of royalty such as הַמֶּלֶךְ, ha-melech (“the king”), וַיַּמְלִיכֶהָ, va-yamlicheha (“and he crowned her”) and so forth occur no fewer than 240 times throughout the Megillah.

The events of the Book of Esther are the story of Israel in exile. Though G-d controls all, He is hidden, and it is only by studying events with the special insight of Torah that we discover Him; hence the name מְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר, Megillat Esther, literally “the Scroll of Esther”, connotes מְגַלֶּה הַסֵּתֶר, megalleh ha-seter (“revealing the hidden”).

In exile there can be חָכְמָה, chochmah (“wisdom”). Our Sages state explicitly that “if one will tell you that there is wisdom among the nations – believe this” (Eichah Rabbah 2:13). Wisdom abounds in exile, so we can find wisdom in the Megillah. The Zohar (Ra’ayah Meheimana, Volume 3, Parashat Pinchas 235b; Tikkunei ha-Zohar #69) explains that חָכְמָה connotes כֹּחַ מָה, koach mah (literally “the power of what”, meaning potentiality). Potentiality – latent wisdom waiting to be tapped – is the story of exile.

But in exile there is no בִּינָה, binah (“understanding”): the Jew in exile is so cut off from the Torah that he gropes in darkness, never really understanding the events that transpire around him. Thus it is wholly consistent that understanding is nowhere to be found anywhere in the Megillah.

Likewise, the Jew in exile can have דַּעַת, da’at (“knowledge”). Knowledge can be totally theoretical, having no practical implications at all – and this epitomises certain segments of galut Judaism.

And the Jew in exile relies on חֶסֶד, chessed (“loving-kindness”) for his very existence. In the best case, he relies on G-d’s loving-kindness, and in the worst case, on his host country’s loving-kindness. In Kabbalistic terms, chessed applies to unlimited loving-kindness, bestowed purely for its own sake, entirely unconnected to the merits (or lack of merits) of the recipient. This is all that sustains the Jew in exile.

It might appear that the Jew in exile has no גְּבוּרָה, gevurah (“might”); but this misses the meaning of gevurah. In Kabbalah, gevurah refers to might with the connotations of the severity of strict justice, which restrains chessed.

Rabbi Chayyim Vital explains: “Gevurah does not allow the Light of Infinity to continue forever, but limits it to the amount in which it is necessary” (Etz Chayyim 18:5). Gevurah “limits” G-d’s attributes, so to speak, primarily the attribute of chessed.

Hence gevurah is the principle that maintains exile as punishment, which prevents our return to Israel based on pure chessed. Thus gevurah is most definitely appropriate in the Megillat Esther, whose narrative is the story of exile.

And תִּפְאֶרֶת, tiferet (“splendour”) can exist even in exile: tiferet is the blend of chessed and gevurah, thus it is the force that maintains the nation of Israel alive, even while keeping them in exile.

But for the Jew in exile, there is no נֶצַח, netzach in either meaning – neither eternity nor victory. Exile by its very definition is temporary – everything will pass, nothing outside of the Land of Israel will remain forever; and the very existence of exile is by its nature the defeat and weakness of the Jewish nation. So it is wholly expected that the Megillah never once mentions netzch – neither eternity nor victory.

And in exile, there is no הוֹד, hod (“grandeur”): exile by its very nature degrades and defiles the Jew, and there can be no grandeur for the Jew who depends for his very survival on the nations of the world.

But there is an oblique reference to grandeur in the very first sentence of the Megillah: Achashverosh ruled מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד כּוּשׁ, me-Hodu ve-ad Cush, which literally means “from India to Ethiopia”.

But this alludes to how Achashverosh and his empire degenerated: his reign began from Hodu, the grandeur, and finished off with Cush, the son of the accursed Ham (Genesis 9:22-24, 10:6), the father of Nimrod (Genesis 10:8) who was the first to rebel against G-d – Cush, intertwined with Mitzrayim (Egypt) and destined to fall with him (Ezekiel 30, Nahum 3:9-10, Psalms 68:32). This is the polar opposite of the Jew, who “starts with the disgrace and concludes with the glory” (Pesachim 10:4).

Netzch and hod are usually linked, ever since King David combined them in his final blessing to G-d, made famous by being included in the Morning Service:

“David blessed Hashem in the eyes of the entire congregation, saying:…Yours, Hashem, are the greatness and the might and the splendour, and the netzach and the hod” (I Chronicles 29:10-11). The Zohar refers to netzach and hod as “two halves of a single body, akin to two twins” (Volume 3, Parashat Va-etchanan 263a). Yesod is the synthesis of netzach and hod: while neither can exist separately in exile, the synthesis, which is all that sustains the world, is essential in exile.

And finally we return to malchut – the lowest of the ten sefirot, the sefirah by means of which the purpose of the Creation is actualized.

This principle is epitomized by the events of Megillat Esther: the purpose of Creation is to aggrandize the Creator and His Name. Though the events recorded in the Megillah would have appeared to have been completely natural to anyone living through them, by the end G-d’s control becomes clear.

Though there was no single unmistakable miracle (such as the Splitting of the Red Sea) in the Purim narrative, the sequence of events and their climax demonstrate how even the mightiest kings and the most powerful of empires are under the total control of G-d.

This is the very essence of malchut.

And this is the hidden Hand of G-d that the Megillat Esther comes to reveal.

Endnote

[1] Hebrew מַדּוּעַ, from the root ידע, the same as the root of דַּעַת.



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