Shaya Cohen -


Forfeiting Love:

Our Greatest Heroes

[This is outside my normal stomping grounds of the Torah – the Five Books. It is also quite an early piece for me – from 2007. So feel free to read with even more than the usual amount of criticism!]

Great people shape the world around them, make pivotal decisions and change the course of history forever. These are the people who, in serving G-d, take the ultimate risks and pay the highest price of all. And contrary to conventional custom, the ultimate price is not one’s own life; after all, as Nathan Hale put it, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Giving one’s life is rather like a crash diet – most anyone can manage to starve themselves for a number of days. The real challenge is to live the rest of one’s life in constant hunger.

And so we can expect to discover that the greatest of our heroes were not necessarily those that gave up their lives for the sake of heaven. Instead, they were those that chose to spend the rest of their days with a constant unending and unfulfilled desire. I am speaking, of course, of making the decision to live the rest of one’s life without the one person we love more than anything.

The first and most obvious example was Avraham – in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac in service to Hashem, he was prepared to live out his days without his only son, and knowing that Isaac’s life was taken by his own hand. But Avraham in the end did not have to pay the price. Other Jewish heroes were not as fortunate.

Who are these heroes? Let’s compare Purim, and the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai. Chazal tell us that Purim was like a recreation of the giving of the Law! This is a very bold statement, and one that should give us pause. Can we really understand how this is so, and why Purim is often referred to as the second holiest day of the year, on par with Yom Kippur itself? It has everything to do with two great individuals, and the pivotal decisions and sacrifices they made.

If Sinai and Purim are, as Chazal tell us, intimately related, then we should find parallels between the leader of the Jewish people in the desert, and the leader of the Jewish people in Persia. And indeed we do.

Let’s take Megillas Esther from the top. The Gemara tells us that any reading of the Megillah is valid if it starts from one of three points: the introduction of Ahasuerus, Mordechai, or Haman.[2] These three are the foundation of the story, the players upon which everything rests. But in a sense, these players are constants, two-dimensional personalities: Haman begins and ends as a villain, Mordechai as a tzadik, and Ahasuerus as a powerful if suggestible monarch. None of these three undergo any kind of real growth; they form the unchanging bedrock, the platform on which the real intrigue occurs.

There are two other characters who make the play complete, whose commitment and conscious decisions save the Jewish people. They are Esther and Hashem. Esther we can understand, but where is G-d in the Megilla? The Gemara gives it to us time and again. While Ahasuerus is the Persian monarch who is so easily manipulated by those around him, many of the psukim referring to Ahasuerus are meant to be understood as referring to the King of Kings Himself. Is Ahasuerus angry, or is Hashem angry? Those who read the Gemara looking for specific answers to specific questions are led in circles, bewildered by all the secondary references and entendres.  But this confusion is deliberate, and meant to help us discover the allegory in the text. For there is considerable allegory and metaphor in Esther.   And Chazal set the example in the aggadeta, showing us how to employ allegory in order to make sense of the Megilla.

Let’s look at Megillas Esther as being allegorically linked to the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai.

Esther is an orphan. She is raised by a relative, and then, the Gemara tells us, is married to that relative. Esther is then taken away with threat of force to appear before the King. She is committed to living her life in the royal house from that time forward. When Esther appears before the King, he is delighted by her, and he chooses her from among all the maidens in the land. She then spends her formative years in the King’s house.

Moshe Rabbeinu had a very similar story to tell. He is separated from his parents, functionally orphaned to be raised in a royal house.[3] Then, out of all the Jews in Egypt, G-d chooses Moshe at the burning bush.

Esther has no real choice in the matter of serving Ahasuerus – she has been picked and that is that.  The Gemara does not speculate on whether or not Esther is actually coerced during relations with the King. Indeed, while the initial marriage was coerced, it seems that Esther does not have to have a sword hanging over her neck for the coercion to be real. So she pleases the King, and serves him well. And the King is infatuated with her. But in her heart, she does not have free choice in the matter. Either she cooperates, or her life is forfeit. And because Esther does not have free choice, she is not halachically denied to Mordechai; she can and does cohabit with both men.[4]  The Gemara tells us that she would go to the mikvah and return to Mordechai, living a double life. This was halachically acceptable because Esther was compelled to serve Ahasuerus on pain of death.

The time comes, however, when Esther is called upon by Mordechai to appeal to the king to save the Jewish people – much as Hashem tells Moshe to go to Pharoah to plead to let the Jews leave Egypt. They are both Called to Serve.  But why should they answer the call? Both Esther and Moshe have reason to think that they are safe and insulated from any destruction of the Jews. Moshe is in Midyan at the time; he is no slave in Egypt, under oppression and in fear of his life. He does not have to answer G-d’s call. And neither does Esther. She is not known to be Jewish, and she is safely ensconced within the palace, well above the Haman-Mordechai fray. The urge to play it safe, to leave the risk to someone else who actually had something to lose, is irresistible. And that is precisely their first reaction. Both Esther and Moshe suggest that there must be a better way, that they are not really the right people at the right time. In other words: pick someone else.

Wrong answer. Both Esther and Moshe are punished for this decision, and in similar ways. Moshe’s sons lose the kehuna, the inherited right to serve Hashem in the Mishkan and Mikdash. Not only that, but Moshe does not directly raise his sons (he left that to his wife), and he dies knowing that his offspring were not to become the future of the Jewish people. Moshe loses a share in eternity.

Esther has a very similar punishment. She has a son by Ahasuerus, and he becomes the great king Darius. Great though he may be, he is no longer a part of the Jewish people. Esther, too, loses her share in the eternity of klal yisroel.[5]

And then Esther finds herself. She realizes that the fate of her people hangs by a thread, and she is the only person who can make a difference. She has to make not just the most important decision of her life, but one of the most important decisions anyone has ever had to make. She has to decide to commit to the King.

This is not just any kind of commitment. It is the kind of commitment that changes everything, both for the nation as a whole, but also at the most personal and intimate level.  The moment of commitment for Moshe Rabbeinu is when he ascends Har Sinai; he is going as an emissary of his people, but he is also going to get closer to Hashem than anyone ever did before, or ever would again.  Esther’s moment comes when she decides that she is going to see the King. And she issues instructions to Mordechai; she will prepare, and she wants the people to prepare with her.

Maamud Har Sinai is the moment at which the future of the entire people depends on the interaction between the national leader and the King. Such an event must not happen without preparation.  The Jewish people elevate themselves for three days, abstaining from the physical world, for their own sakes and for the sake of Moshe. Esther, certainly aware of the similarities, requires that the Jewish people do the same thing – unite as one people for perhaps the first time since the exile to Babylon, and fast for three days on her behalf. The people elevate themselves toward the spiritual plane to show their solidarity before the King, that their emissary should be successful.

For ordinary people, there is no conflict between our commitment to Hashem and our commitment to our spouses. We have long learned that our relationship with G-d is meant to be the archetype of our relationships with each other, and especially with our spouses.  And in this relationship, multiple partners is a fact of life; we are married to G-d as surely and in as real a sense as we are married to our spouses. There should be no conflict between the two.

But these two of our leaders in history had to go to an entirely different level of commitment to Hashem. Esther’s decision to go to the King for the sake of her people, has a very profound halachic consequence.  Esther has to go from being passive to being active. She has to choose to see the king, to serve him with love. Esther had received nothing from the King while she is coerced except her own creature comforts. Once Esther needs a favor from the King, she has to remove that last mental shield. She has to voluntarily go to Him, with all her heart. In so doing, she will be lost to Mordechai forever, since the Halacha is that a woman who willingly sleeps with two men is denied to her halachic husband.   

Moshe’s decision holds precisely the same risk. If Moshe commits fully to Hashem, by ascending Har Sinai, then his spiritual level will be such that he can no longer be married to his wife. Getting that close to G-d means Moshe severs his relationship with his wife, Tzipporah.

Esther is in the same position as Moshe Rabbeinu, and she makes precisely the same irrevocable decision. Both decide to commit themselves fully to G-d, forever denying themselves to their earthbound spouses. This act is what makes Purim, and kabbolos HaTorah what it is; it takes this kind of personal sacrifice to achieve an everlasting gift from the King.

As soon as Esther decides to go to the King, she has made the move voluntarily. At that very instant, the moment she took the first step to see Ahasuerus, she is no longer permitted to Mordechai as his wife. This is commitment indeed.

Marriage requires the consent of the woman; she must want marriage, and not be coerced. Esther takes the step of Kiddushin, even though she has done nothing more than take the first step outside her rooms. Eem Avad’ti, Avad’ti. If I perish, I perish. Esther knows full well that the decision to go to the King guarantees that at least on one level – that of Mordechai’s wife – Esther will certainly perish.

This step is analogous to the step Moshe took from his tent to ascend Sinai. From that moment on, Moshe ceases to have a relationship with his wife. His terrestrial marriage is over. His sacrifice and commitment to Hashem is at every level, and it is not something that anyone has matched – save for Esther. [6]

Both Esther and Moshe take this step in such a way that they know their lives were forfeit. Moshe did not ascend Sinai with cans of tuna and a full canteen; a midrash tells us that it took a miracle for Moshe to stay alive for 40 days without food. It could easily have been a one way trip.  Only the grace of the King saves Moshe. And Esther tells Mordechai that her life, too, is being put in the hands of the King. If Ahasuerus is not pleased, her life is forfeit. But risking their own lives is not the main sacrifice; losing their beloved spouses is.

Complete with witnesses Moshe ascends the mountain, and Esther enters the throne room. Both are going to the King to consummate the relationship. Meeting the foreknowledge, witnesses and privacy conditions of yichud, the marriage is completed. Esther has crossed the threshold of the throne room, and Moshe has climbed Har Sinai to join Hashem under a cloud-covered chupah. Once Moshe Rabbeinu enters G-d’s tent, his commitment is complete. Both Moshe and Esther are alone with their Beloved – having forsaken their natural spouses.

Then, and only then, does King Ahasuerus speak. The actions of Esther and Moshe are both only physical, not the verbal refusals they had uttered before. Neither Moshe nor Esther speak first to the King when they encounter Him; the King makes the first move. At this point, we have Nisuin. Both receive tokens of value: Esther touches the golden scepter, and Moshe is given the Torah in the corporal form of the luchos.

And what is gained by the steps Esther and Moshe take, their utter commitment to the King? The end result of Moshe’s commitment is that Moshe descends from the mountain the second time on Yom Kippur, bearing the second set of luchos. The tablets with Hashem’s edicts are made with Moshe’s own hand, with Hashem’s express permission. These luchos provide the cornerstone of our relationship with Hashem from that fateful Yom Kippur forward.  They are everlasting.

Purim k’Purim. Esther emerges from her fateful meetings with the King with edicts expressing the King’s will, in the King’s name, on the royal signet. Laws are being handed down from the King, an event that requires Jewish unity as at Sinai; indeed, the Gemara in Shabbos (88a) says that the Jews accept the Torah again during Purim.

Like the tablets that Moshe wrought, the edicts that Esther writes and seals are irrevocable – the Gemara says that Purim and Yom Kippur are the only days of the year that will remain unchanged after Moshiach has come, because the laws handed down by Esther and Moshe are promised to remain standing.  Esther and Moshe both make the ultimate commitment to Hashem. They paid the price of losing their piece of eternity through their children, and losing their love. But the laws they promulgated are the laws of the Jewish people for eternity.[7],[8]

[2] Rabbi Meir says: One is required to read the entire Megillah. Rabbi Yehudah says: From the verse [2:5]: A Jewish man. Rabbi Yosi says: From the verse [3:1]: After these things. (19a).

[3] It is hardly accidental that Moshe’s training in the house of Pharoah prepared him to eventually become a leader in his own right, just as Esther was perfecting the Jewish routine of starting out life as the court Jew and end up running the place.

[4] We are to understand that anything that happened in the bedroom was coercive by definition as long as the King made the first move. If the King called on Esther, she was to serve him and was not held responsible for anything that subsequently occurred.

[5] We ask that Hashem should answer us on the day that we call. On the day that Hashem calls, do we answer?

[6] This is a profound distinction of Judaism. The ultimate sacrifice in the Torah is not giving of one’s own life, but giving up our hopes and dreams in those we love. The most powerful story of all is that of the Akeidah; the greatest test of Avraham is not one of martyrdom but of giving up his own son. Moshe and Esther’s sacrifices are similarly to give up the relationship with the one they love.

[7] It is not accidental that the day after Yom Kippur the Jews are commanded to build the Mishkan, G-d’s place within the Jewish camp. Likewise,  as Menachem Leibtag points out, the active rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash followed as a direct result of the events described in Megillas Esther.

[8] Conventionally,  Mordechai is seen as the great leader, and Esther is little more than a puppet. The Megillah makes it clear that while Mordechai and Haman fulfill their roles of embodying good and evil throughout the story,  once she decides to assert herself, it is Esther who actually calls the shots. Esther has the power and the freedom to make her own choices. It is Esther who dictates that the Jews should fast for three days. Esther designs and executes the plan of how to influence Ahasuerus. It is Esther who wins the King’s favor and who writes the critical edicts in the King’s name and with the King’s seal. Mordechai gains Haman’s wealth – but only because Esther, having received it from the King, passes it onto Mordechai. And it is Esther’s order that establishes the festival of Purim for all time.

This understanding also explains a famous Rashi. Rashi tells us that Mordechai, when he became the administrator, actually went down in his spiritual level.  But he does not explain why. The Taz says that Mordechai, by becoming involved in the “real world” was leaving Torah Study, and so his madrega dropped. But how can this be? How can saving lives be less important than studying Torah? The answer is that Mordechai is not the one who saved lives; Esther made the decision and saved the Jews. Mordechai’s decision to become an administrator was not pivotal to saving lives, so it was a less holy activity than had he remained primarily engaged in Torah.

Comments are welcome!

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