We all know the Purim story. Year after year, we encounter its familiar cast of characters: the foolish King Achashverosh, the wicked Queen Vashti, the villain Haman, and, of course, the heroes: the beautiful Queen Esther and Mordechai the Tzadik. But, as Rabbi Dovid Fohrman explains in his book, The Queen You Thought You Knew: Unmasking Esther’s Hidden Story, the story is not as simple as it seemed to us when we were children. In his eye-opening account, he explores many questions that are obvious once he points them out but that never occurred to us. We have heard the story so many times that we have become blind to the nuances that give depth to the story. I can’t rewrite the book in this review, but I will bring up some of the questions. If they intrigue you, you can follow up by reading from the source.
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One of the first questions that Rabbi Fohrman asks is something that strikes me every year when I listen to the Megillah. The first seven chapters are action packed and exciting, reaching the climax when Haman is executed. Then come the long and boring eighth and ninth chapters. What are these chapters about? Isn’t the story finished with Haman hanging on the gallows? Why doesn’t the Megillah just end something like this: “And after Haman was hanged, the Jews killed their enemies; Mordechai and Esther proclaimed that the victory be memorialized forevermore as Purim, and everyone lived happily ever after.”
Rabbi Fohrman gives the answer later in the book: “Because there is still one little problem. It is a small, inconvenient fact, easily overlooked in the revelry surrounding Haman’s hanging and in the pomp and circumstance of the king’s gifts to Mordechai and Esther. The problem is this: Haman might be dead, but his decree of genocide against the Jews is still alive and well!”
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Another peculiarity Rabbi Fohrman brings up is the holiday’s name. The Megillah tells us that it is called Purim because of the lots (pur) that Haman chose to use to select the day on which to kill the Jews. “Why would you name a holiday after the device your nemesis used to try and kill you?” he asks. “It seems bizarre. Perhaps the only reason we don’t immediately recognize just how bizarre it seems, is because this is the name that we ourselves have called the holiday since we were children.” Rabbi Fohrman asks an even more compelling question about the word Purim. When Haman chose this method to determine the day to destroy the Jews, he deliberately used lots, because casting lots symbolizes random chance. This was intended to scare the Jews, driving home the point that their fate was to be determined by chance, not by G-d. But the whole point of the Purim story is to prove that events that seem random are really purposeful, so why would the name of the holiday emphasize the opposite? As Rabbi Fohrman writes, “Why name the holiday after the very thing you don’t believe in – coincidence and chance?”
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Rabbi Fohrman finds the characters’ actions puzzling. He suggests that we know the story so well that it is hard to imagine that they could have acted differently. He challenges us to step out of the storyline and think whether the actions of the players make any sense.
The prime example is Esther. The Megillah tells us that Esther had kept her background a secret, and no one knew from which family she came. Now she was going to risk her life to go to the king in order to save her people. Why, after Achashverosh stretched out his scepter and offered her half his kingdom, did she not simply say, “Well, it’s really nice of you to offer half your kingdom, but I just require a small favor. It seems that genocide has been decreed against my people. I don’t know how it happened – some sort of palace mix-up probably. But luckily, it’s easy to reverse…” But Esther doesn’t do this. Instead, she invites the king and Haman to a party?! Why? She was just offered half the kingdom! Surely there was a more efficient way to take care of the imminent destruction of her people.
Then, when Esther talks to Achashverosh at the second party and tells him in a dramatic moment that a certain man wants to kill her and her people, there is an inconvenient little fact omitted: “Esther’s claim that her life is threatened isn’t exactly percent true.…Is it really accurate to say that Haman is trying to kill her? That claim might sound good, but it’s not going to win any awards for journalistic integrity. Haman did not even know she was a Jew!” If she had kept quiet and not told anyone that she was a Jew, her life would not even have been in danger!
Another thing about Esther is that we don’t see her crying – not when she originally approaches the king and not even at the climatic moment when she reveals that Haman wants to kill her people. The only time we see her crying is at the end of the Megillah, after Haman is already dead, when she begs the king to reverse Haman’s evil decree! Haman was hanged, Mordechai was appointed second to the king and had been given Haman’s wealth, so why is she crying now?
Rabbi Fohrman points out that, if we look carefully at the end of the Megillah, we see that Achashverosh is not talking very kindly to Esther anymore. He does not promise her half his kingdom or whatever she wants. Instead, he enumerates all the things he has already given to her, and emphasizes that a decree that is signed and sealed by the king can never be changed. What is going on in this part of the story?
And what about Mordechai? He asks Esther to risk her life by approaching the king to try to save the Jewish people. How does he convince her? Instead of begging her and showing her how she is vital for this mission, he tells her not to think that all this rests on her. “If you don’t go,” he says, “salvation will come from somewhere else, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed.” An observer might ask, if you don’t need Esther to do this, why are you asking her to risk her life?” Also, why would she and her father’s house be destroyed? If Esther hadn’t gone to Achasheverosh and risked her life, the worst you could say about her is that she was a coward, but would she deserve to die? Is the punishment for being a coward death?
There are mysteries regarding Haman as well. He has decided to destroy the Jews. He needs the permission of the king. He could have found many excuses to convince the king that the Jews should be destroyed. Haman was certainly not worried about the truth. He could have said that the Jews use the blood of Persian children for matzas, that they poison the wells, or other accusations that were even more terrible. All he said was that the Jews are scattered throughout the kingdom, that they keep their own laws, and that they don’t keep the kings laws. Of the three reasons, only the third sounds worthy of punishment. Why would Achashverosh care that the Jews lived all over the kingdom or that they had their own customs?
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The book continues to point out many other interesting discrepancies that shed new light on an old familiar story. Rabbi Fohrman also finds parallels among the words that are used by Esther and Mordechai and chapters in the Torah that talk about seemingly unrelated laws and stories. The fact that Mordechai and Esther are descended from Binyamin, the youngest son of Yaakov and the brother of Yosef are also connected to the Megillah.
I hope the questions I have listed have intrigued you enough to explore the story of Megillas Esther from a mature adult perspective. As Rabbi Fohrman writes in the introduction to his book, “There is another Purim story out there, a richer deeper narrative, more suited, perhaps, to the eyes of an adult than to those of a child. But in order to see that story, we need to let go mentally of everything we though we knew about the Book of Esther and read her tale anew, as if it were something completely fresh. ”