There is no end to commentary on the Book of Esther, and this year’s pick by me is not the last word. However, the popularity of Rabbi David Fohrman’s work in our community (he is the rabbi of the Nusach Sefard minyan at the Young Israel of Woodmere) prompts a review of his teachings on Megillat Esther, that, in my opinion, is worth your attention.
The Queen You Thought You Knew [OU Press, 2011] goes into great detail in describing the human, as well as the divine, dynamic that envelops the plot that underlines the holiday of Purim.
The mitzvah of hakarat hatov, showing gratitude to others — one of the most remarkable mitzvot that our faith mandates in terms of personal human relations — generates peace among us. This mitzvah, as it relates to the Purim theme, is given big play by Rabbi Fohrman.
One segment of Rabbi Fohrman’s book reminds us of the deeds of our ancestors— Judah, a son of Leah, and Benjamin, a son of Rachel.
In Genesis, it was Judah who stepped up to the plate, at great personal risk, to defend his half-brother Benjamin from possible captivity in Egypt.
Fast-forward to the story of Purim. The Jewish people in Persia, the vast majority of whom were Judeans (thus the title Jews), were under dire threat of being murdered by government fiat. Queen Esther, a descendent of Benjamin, was in a position to reciprocate Judah’s heroic deed of antiquity. She could have easily walked away from the situation, given her royal position.
In a segment entitled “A Debt Repaid,” Rabbi Fohrman writes:
“But Esther does not take this path. Instead, she chooses to risk her life — and to reciprocate a centuries-old act of selfless kindness.
“Judah had once promised Jacob that he would guarantee the safety of Benjamin, come what may. But never had Judah suspected how harshly destiny would call upon him to back up every inch of that promise. How tempted must Judah have been simply to give up and go home when Benjamin was found with the silver goblet in his sack. Yes, he had pledged to safeguard Benjamin, but what was he supposed to do now? No one asked Benjamin to steal the cup! Judah could have easily rationalized that it was time to cut his losses; time to give up on Rachel’s child Benjamin and save his full-blooded brothers, the other children of Leah.
“But Judah didn’t do that. He made a direct appeal to the Egyptian [Joseph] to save Benjamin — and he put his own safety in jeopardy to do it.
“Yes, there had been a time when Judah had abandoned the child of a rival mother, when he allowed a child of Rachel to languish in slavery while he and his other brothers went home to their bereaved father. But it will not happen again. This time, Judah will willingly become the slave so that a child of Rachel may go free.”
Rabbi Fohrman continues: “When did Benjamin ever repay Judah?
“It took centuries, but the answer is — right now, right here in the Megillah. Judah had been safe, but had traded his own safety for the life of Benjamin, a child from the other side of the family. And now, centuries later, Esther, a descendant of Benjamin was safe. But she would sacrifice that safety, so that the Judahites, from the other side of the family, might have a chance at survival. In so doing, Esther knows the historical significance of her actions.
“And she rightfully echoes Judah, the man whose kindness she now repays.”
Rabbi Fohrman closes with the following observation:
“Over time, that rivalry between the children of Leah and the children of Rachel would continue to express itself. Ages later, rival kings would lead the two halves of the family, and the bitter divide would reassert itself.
“But, eventually, at the close of the Bible, in the Megillah, there is a ray of hope. Judah’s healing words once again find an echo. Esther risks all for the Children of Leah, and Judah’s heroic act is knowingly reciprocated. The long arc of a circle had finally been closed.”
The actual Megillah narrative is, in some respects, a bit more severe than that interpreted above by Rabbi Fohrman. We are all cognizant of Mordechai’s admonitions to Esther that finally prompts her actions.
Those admonitions and the motivations behind the players in this drama are sharply dealt with by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein in his eloquent essay, “If You remain Silent at This Time: Esther’s Moral Development and Ours” [Yeshivat Har Etzion, 5744].
I suggest that you and your families read this essay before Purim, together with Rabbi Fohrman’s work as well as his video on this theme, to place you in a proper frame of mind as we enter, with G-d’s grace, this most joyous holiday season.
A version of this story appeared in 2014.