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(Disclaimer: This is a d'var torah for Purim, rather than a piece of Purim Torah.  Maybe next year I'll do the latter instead.)

So as most of you probably know, on Purim we read Megilat Esther, which is the holiday's origin story.  For those of you wishing to follow along in the text, here's a useful link with both the original Hebrew and a fairly good English translation.  (The Hebrew's got some badly placed extra commas; please ignore them.)

As with virtually every Bible story, there are a lot of midrashic interpolations that have become so widely accepted in mainstream Orthodox Judaism that they're routinely taught and talked about as part of the story; religious fanon, if you will.  I'm mostly inclined to take a lot of these midrashim with a grain of salt, but there's one in particular that I'd like to talk about today: the identification of Memucan, one of King Ahasuerus's advisors, with Haman, the villain of the piece.

Why does midrash declare these two apparently unrelated men to be the same person?  Is there anything in the text that might support this reading?

Well, let's take a closer look at both of them and find out.  Follow me over the orange noisemaker for more.

Let's take a look at Memucan's first (and only) appearance, shall we?  This is in the first chapter, when the King summons Queen Vashti to appear before him at the big party that opens the story, and she refuses.

13 Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times--for so was the king's manner toward all that knew law and judgment;
14 and the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king's face, and sat the first in the kingdom:
15 'What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she hath not done the bidding of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?'
16 And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: 'Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.
17 For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.
18 And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say the like unto all the king's princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.
19 If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him -- and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered -- that Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus, and that the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.
20 And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his kingdom, great though it be, all the wives will give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.'

Jasmine and Rajah are not impressed.

Yeah, that's some classy thinking there, Memucan.  But okay, let's take a look at it.

It's been suggested that what the king wanted (or what his advisors, correctly or otherwise, assumed he wanted) was a solid-sounding legal excuse to punish and/or put aside his wife; "she didn't do what I told her to" apparently wouldn't have been enough.  So Memucan talks a good game to boost Vashti's ostensible wrongdoing into something worthy of a royal decree to counter it.

How?  He generalizes and catastrophizes.  This isn't just one incident: this is a matter of potential societal collapse.  This is a threat to our empire's entire way of life!  This could lead to millions of women talking back to their husbands!


Another thing worth pointing out, I think, is that the concept of contempt comes up twice in Memucan's one short speech, when he's talking about the consequences of Vashti's act.  It's the same root word in Hebrew both times: בז.    May or may not be significant.  Let's put that one aside for later.

Now let's take a look at Haman.

The booing is traditional.

Chapter 3
1 After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him.
2 And all the king's servants, that were in the king's gate, bowed down, and prostrated themselves before Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him.
3 Then the king's servants, that were in the king's gate, said unto Mordecai: 'Why transgressest thou the king's commandment?'
4 Now it came to pass, when they spoke daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai's words would stand; for he had told them that he was a Jew.
5 And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him, then was Haman full of wrath.
6 But it seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.
Oh hey, there's a familiar word!  Contemptible.  And yes, it's the same Hebrew word.

Possibly more significantly, it's another instance of generalization.  Just as Vashti's actions weren't about one woman but all women, Mordecai's actions are suddenly not about one Jew but all Jews.  And the action, or rather inaction, is the same in both cases: refusal to show sufficient respect.

That about sums it up.

Haman also catastrophizes, as we see later in Chapter 5:

9 Then went Haman forth that day joyful and glad of heart; but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king's gate, that he stood not up, nor moved for him, Haman was filled with wrath against Mordecai.
10 Nevertheless Haman refrained himself, and went home; and he sent and fetched his friends and Zeresh his wife.
11 And Haman recounted unto them the glory of his riches, and the multitude of his children, and everything as to how the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above the princes and servants of the king.
12 Haman said moreover: 'Yea, Esther the queen did let no man come in with the king unto the banquet that she had prepared but myself; and to-morrow also am I invited by her together with the king.
13 Yet all this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate.'
Haman's already got exactly what he wanted -- the decree declaring open season on the Jews has been signed and publicized back in Chapter 3 -- and yet seeing Mordecai sitting at the gate, not bowing, and not dead yet, can literally ruin his entire day.

Yes, really.

Does this prove that Haman and Memucan were the same person?  No, I don't really think it does; sadly, those traits are in generous supply today, and have probably always been.  But it does provide a pleasing parallel, I think.  Especially when one considers that Memucan's maneuvering to get Vashti deposed was the first step to getting Esther into the perfect position -- perhaps the only possible position -- to counter Haman's attempted genocide with the polar opposite of generalizing:

Chapter 7
2 And the king said again unto Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine: 'Whatever thy petition, queen Esther, it shall be granted thee; and whatever thy request, even to the half of the kingdom, it shall be performed.'
3 Then Esther the queen answered and said: 'If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request;
4 for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish.[...]
5 Then spoke the king Ahasuerus and said unto Esther the queen: 'Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so?'
6 And Esther said: 'An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman.'
One might think the king would clue in a little faster than that, even though Esther hasn't told him that she's Jewish -- especially when she uses the words to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish, the precise legalistic language that's used in the decree itself.  Hearing that particular phrasing, how does he not immediately make the logical leap to the conclusion that Esther is talking about that decree?  (Seriously, how many genocidal decrees does this guy sign in a year?)

But no; in the king's mind, that decree was about Those People out there, as Haman described them to him back in 3:

8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.
Just some generalized mass of unidentified people.  Some them.

And while the king is perfectly capable of callously rubber-stamping an order to wipe out an entire people, Esther is able to immediately make him care by focusing the issue onto a single person he loves:  not them but me.  Not those people but my people.

We've seen this happen often enough in the present day, with politicians changing their minds about matters of social justice once they're suddenly faced with how their positions will affect a loved one.  Whether one considers that change of heart admirable or contemptible, it's undeniably a very common reaction.  Some will care about others on principle, some will never care no matter what, but many can care if someone they love just gives them a swift kick in the empathy.

Not them but me.

Something to keep in mind in general, perhaps -- and something to celebrate today.

Happy Purim, everybody.  Have a great holiday and drink responsibly.

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Comment Preferences

  •  In chapter 1, verse 22 (5+ / 0-)

    we read

    כָּל אִישׁ שֹׂרֵר בְּבֵיתוֹ
    which translates something like "all men are to be dominant in the home", was the ultimate conclusion of the Vashti incident. A royal decree.

    Achashverosh was the first TeaPublican Sexist Politician.

  •  Is there a remedy for post-Purim depression? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, mettle fatigue
  •  I never caught the thematic (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, mettle fatigue, Ahianne

    echo of the generalized response to Vashti's slight of the king in the generalized response to Mordecai's slight of Haman.  Good catch!

    I'm a Christian, therefore I'm a liberal.

    by VirginiaJeff on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 03:08:51 PM PDT

  •  This is the theme (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mettle fatigue, Ahianne, awesumtenor

    of the need for others to debase themselves. The other related theme is a focus on the surface of things. The way I learned the story, Ahashueros has been bragging about her beauty to his buddies, and therefore calls her to appear. But Vashti chooses to disobey rather than unveil in front of all the men at the feast, choosing the deeper virtue.

    This is the same thing as Haman being elevated because of his possessions, and then being furious when someone refuses to acknowledge such assumed superiority.

    "I am to be judged by externals, and any threat to this can tumble the whole of my self-concept."

    And holding a beauty contest to choose a wife - is there anything more superficial? But it feeds into the whole - mirror mirror on the wall dependence on the opinions of others.

    Wonderful drosh, Batya. Thanks.

    Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

    by ramara on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 05:36:52 PM PDT

    •  I never really thought of Vashti's refusal (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      as stemming from a "deeper virtue," unless one considers pride a virtue.  (Which is fair.)

      •  And modesty. n/t (0+ / 0-)

        Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

        by ramara on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 01:02:47 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Since the text doesn't give her motivation (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          we can only speculate.  It's also worth considering that pride and modesty may go together, in certain contexts.

          There's a strong tendency among rabbinic commentators to ascribe her refusal to her having been suddenly stricken with ugliness of some kind (ranging from a bad case of pimples to a miraculously appearing tail).  I never liked those, for two reasons: firstly their assumption that Vashti could not possibly have refused for reasons of modesty, and secondly their assumption that the only other reason a woman could possibly have to refuse to show off her body would be shame at her ugliness.

          Partly because of that, I've always been drawn to the notion that her refusal was for pride -- which is particularly compelling when one considers that Vashti was a descendant of the old regime and Ahasuerus was of the new, which means there's a distinct question as to which of their claims to royalty is stronger and which of them is giving legitimacy to the other.

          Vashti was a queen, and I tend to want her strengths and her flaws to both be related to that.

          •  How interesting (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Batya the Toon

            I never heard that before - about the marriage as a power trade. It makes sense, given the customs of the time. If so, the marriage to Esther via a beauty contest is even stranger. Because of this second marriage, I always thought of the first also as a product of the queen's beauty.

            Certain kinds of pride (including the pride that won't unveil to a group of drunken men) can indeed be virtues, though I hadn't thought of it that way.

            This is the kind of discussion I love having - thanks for your replies.

            Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

            by ramara on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 04:01:08 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I love this kind of discussion too. :) (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              The notion of Vashti being a descendant of the old regime -- specifically the granddaughter (or great-granddaughter, I forget) of Nebuchadnezzar -- is of midrashic origin, so not inextricably part of the text.

              It explains a good few things in the text, though.  Including one that someone pointed out to me a while ago:  it is apparently a matter of some significance whether the appellation of royalty, king or queen, comes before the person's name or after.

              Ahasuerus, who is king in his own right, is always "King Ahasuerus."  Esther, who is a commoner raised to royalty by marriage, is always "Esther the queen."

              When Ahasuerus summons Vashti, the text calls her "Vashti the queen."  When she refuses, the text calls her "Queen Vashti."  When Ahasuerus asks his wise men what should be done with her, it's "Queen Vashti" -- and when Memucan offers his analysis, it's "Vashti the queen" again.

              Kind of intriguing, when one looks at it from the point of view of the source of her royalty being in question.

              As far as the choosing of Esther goes ... it might make a lot of sense for Ahasuerus, disappointed in his first marriage, to swing entirely the other way when choosing his second queen -- ignore the question of royal blood and just choose the prettiest girl he can find.

  •  Not to be a party pooper, but... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mettle fatigue

    endless loop pictures drive me crazy. :(

    Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

    by ramara on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 05:39:19 PM PDT

  •  esther at the negotiating table, (4+ / 0-)

    very savvy.  

    this megila always struck me as very troubling in several ways as an exemplar of female heroism consisting of obeying and obeying and obeying, and repetitive constant self-risk at the behest of male authority, with nothing else respected except the superficiality of beauty as a manipulative tool for use by others, and even then only respected if oneself does not regard it highly (vashti's said vanity about her looks and her contradictory self-determined modesty resulting in banishment to, presumably, a miserable struggling life, seemed presented as an extremely pointed object lesson).  

    the whole thing came across to me, as a youngster, as an extremely contrived myth designed to keep girls 'in line'.  i associated it with the story of scheherazade, that made esther's risk ---damned if you don't and damned if you do at every step--- far greater than vashti's, and the whole thing riddled with contradictions.

    in your drash, this is pretty much the first time that esther's situation comes across as a real woman's constraints under the laws of her place and era, and her argument to her husband the ruler as her own rational and effective logic for changing some of that law, rather than the begging and sexual manipulation it previously seemed to present as the way a woman should conduct her life and has to.

    very appreciative of receiving this new perspective.
    ya'asher coach.

    •  Esther's obedience (0+ / 0-)

      is decidedly not as simple as it looks on the surface.

      One of the themes of this story is reversal, and the relationship between Esther and Mordecai undergoes a subtle but unmistakable reversal about midway through the book.  Fairly early on (2:20), the text tells us that the reason Esther kept her ethnicity a secret even after she was named Queen was that "she did what Mordecai told her, just as when she was brought up with him."

      When the decree against the Jews comes, and the two of them discuss what recourse they may have (chapter 4), the conversation -- carried out by messenger, as they can't converse directly -- begins with Mordecai telling Esther what to do ... but it ends with her giving orders to him, and through him to the entire community.  And that chapter ends "Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him."

      Esther doesn't exercise the power of her position until she gets the old lesson about how with great power comes great responsibility -- and then she steps up and takes charge, and Mordecai doesn't question it at all.

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