(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 3Oh hey, there's a familiar word! Contemptible. And yes, it's the same Hebrew word.
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.
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.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.
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.'
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 7One 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?)
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.'
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.