One of the clearest proofs of the infinitude of the Torah is the ability of each successive generation to mine the text for startling new discoveries, even after millennia of exegesis by some of the greatest minds in history. Rabbi David Fohrman's new work on Megillas Esther, The Queen You Thought You Knew, which just hit the bookstores, is a wonderful example of how it is possible to be both rigorously faithful to the ancient texts and highly original at the same time. And he does so in a style that is accessible both to those with little familiarity with the texts and those steeped in the relevant midrashim and classical commentaries.
For most of us, one of the barriers to approaching Megillas Esther with fresh eyes is the very familiarity of the Purim story, which we have read annually since we were little children. Because we know the story so well we tend to assume that the heroes – Mordechai and Esther – acted exactly as one would have expected. Fohrman invites us to forget for a moment that everything turns out for the best and to reconsider the behavior of the characters at crucial junctures.
For instance, why does Mordechai insist the Esther approach Achashverosh immediately, at the risk of her life, when Mordechai confidently asserts that even if Esther does not act salvation will come from somewhere else? Why after being received by Achashverosh does Esther twice push off making her request and instead invite Achashverosh and Haman to first one private banquet and then another? Why does Esther fall weeping at Achashverosh's feet, for the first time, only after Haman has been hung and Mordechai elevated in his place?
And, of course, the hardy perennial: Why is the holiday named after the lots that Haman cast? In his own inimitable style, Fohrman sharpens the question. Can we imagine Israel Independence Day being named Tokarev Day, after the Soviet cannon that constituted the Arabs most formidable weapon? Rabbi Fohrman also looks at the four verses read aloud by the entire congregations, and wonders what their special import.
I will not provide Rabbi Fohrman's full answers to any of these questions. His works read like mystery novels, and few things are more irritating than someone who reveals the end of a mystery while one is only half way through.
But I can at least hint to some aspects of his approach and provide a taste of the treasures to be found. His method is based on keen attention to every detail in the text. As an example, consider Esther's invitation to the first banquet: If I have found favor in your eyes, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet I have made for him . . . (5:4). Two people have been invited to the banquet, and yet Esther describes it as having been made only for one – him. Why the ambiguity? And which of the two is intended by him. The mystery becomes only greater, when four verses later, Esther invites both Achashverosh and Haman to a second banquet "that I shall make for them." Such hints become the basis for uncovering Esther's entire strategy.
Rabbi Fohrman is also blessed with an ear preternaturally attuned to resonances in Biblical texts. He is struck by the parallel between Esther's agreement to Mordechai's request that she approach Achashverosh immediately – k'asher avaditi avaditi (if I perish, I perish) (Esther 4:16) – and Yaakov Avinu's resigned agreement to let Yehuda take Binyamin back to Egypt -- k'asher shacholti shachalti (as I have been bereaved so shall I be bereaved) (Bereishis 43:14).
Rabbi Fohrman uses the parallel between Megillas Esther and Yehudah's role as guarantor to uncover a major underlying theme in the former: the reversal of the earlier relationship between Yehudah and Binyamin and the final reconciliation of the sons of Rachel with the sons of Leah. In the context of that theme, the significance of the verses read aloud suddenly becomes clear.
Another startling parallel discovered by Rabbi Fohrman is that between the entire Megillah and the Torah portion dealing with a husband's ability to annul the vows of his wife. If a husband neither affirms nor explicitly annuls a vow, but remains silent -- im hachareish ya'charish – the vow is valid, but the husband bears the sin if his wife later violates the oath. And where else have we heard that doubling of the verb for remaining silent? In Mordechai's speech enjoining Esther to go to Achashverosh, despite the risk involved – "ki im hachareish tacharishi – If you persist in remaining silent . . ., you and your father's house will perish" (4:14).
By simply reading the verse (Bamidbar 30:13) ". . . ishah yekimenah; ishah yepheirenah -- . . . her husband can affirm [the vow] or her husband can annul it," without the mapik heh, it would be translated instead as "the woman can affirm it, or the woman can annul it." The latter reading, Rabbi Fohrman argues at length and with great subtlety, would constitute a fair description of Esther's role in the Megillah. (Interestingly, in the ninth chapter of the Megillah, the three-letter roots for affirmation and annulment appear no less than 14 times.)
Rabbi Fohrman goes so far as to suggest that the name of the holiday Purim has as much to do with annulment for which the root in lashon hakodesh is p-u-r, as with the lots (pur) cast by Haman. But doesn't the Megillah explicitly state that the lots cast by Haman give the holiday its name (9:24-26)? Hint: Look again at the three verses, and you will see that the logical order has been inverted, with verse 25 interjected between 24 and 26, creating a certain ambiguity.
In one place, Rabbi Fohrman puts forward an alternative interpretation to that of the Malbim. The latter describes Esther's origins as a secret that Achashverosh was determined to wrest from her. Rabbi Fohrman suggests instead that her apparent lack of roots and identification with any of the peoples comprising the vast Persian Empire was a major part of her attraction to the king. Thus it was precisely at the moment that her identification with her fellow Jews was most evident that her life was most endangered and she needed to beseech Achashverosh with tears.
The Queen You Thought You Knew is guaranteed to provide every reader with a sharp new lens through which to view Purim and to enliven the discussion at the Purim seudah.
You have now read the most important public service announcement ever likely to appear in Outlook. The above site provides tools for those dealing with attractions to the darker areas of the Internet – ranging from those who have slipped occasionally to those with full-blown Internet addictions.
I will not belabor the dangers of the Internet. In recent years, that subject has been widely discussed in the Orthodox media. Nevertheless, a very high percentage of Orthodox Jews who use the Internet continue to do so without proper filters, or with filters that are easily evaded, and the danger of cell phones with Internet connectivity continues to be virtually ignored in America.
My goal, however, is not to discuss prevention, but to provide hope for those who are already ensnared. At a recent meeting chaired by Agudath Israel's Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, one of America's foremost addiction experts, stated flatly that no addiction can be cured without a support group. And until now, the one support group impossible to assemble was for Orthodox Jews addicted to the Internet and Internet-related behaviors.
Religious support groups exist for overeaters, alcoholics, and gamblers. These are weaknesses, and most of us have some weakness. But Internet addiction is different. It seemingly marks one as a total hypocrite living one life in public and another subterranean life, hidden from everyone, above all the person to whom one is closest – his or her spouse. No one living such a double life, especially a respected communal figure, could ever risk being exposed at a meeting of others similar addicted.
Just listening to the testimony of such Jews is a wrenching experience. Last week I read through about fifty pages of pages of testimonials from those helped by the Guard Your Eyes organization, and listened to the personal testimony of a young husband and father describing what it is like to be in the throes of this addiction, delivered at the aforementioned meeting. (Rabbi Aharon Feldman gave an impassioned address at the same meeting about the unprecedented threat to kedushas Yisrael from the Internet.) The testimonies completely destroyed my hasty assumption that the victims are primarily drawn from the ranks of libidinal teenagers or "adults at risk." Not at all. Most of the letters expressed anguish over the author's former close relationship with Hashem, from which he or she now feels cut off. Among the writers were rabbis, marriage counselors, and distinguished teachers.
Dr. Twerski said that until very recently he had absolutely nothing to recommend to those caught in an Internet addiction or related behaviors. Now he does. The Guard Your Eyes site offers the possibility of joining a support group for Internet addicts, with complete anonymity. Participants never see one another. For those in need, the required support group is now available.