Reading the Megillah with the Perspective of the Rav by Avi Cooper


Rav Soloveitchik, in his seminal essay “Lonely Man of Faith,” presents a weltanschauung in which man is an inherently dialectical being, existing with two seemingly exclusive goals. The Rav expounds the two contradictory accounts of the creation of Adam in Chapters I and II of Bereishit as presenting the creation of two different beings, Adam I and Adam II, both of whom are contained within all humans. Adam I “acquires dignity through glory, through his majestic posture vis-à-vis his environment [and his peers]” (Lonely Man of Faith, pp. 15). “His motto is success, triumph over the cosmic forces. He engages in creative work, trying to imitate his creator” (op. cit., pp. 15). In short, Adam I is a public figure, collaborating with others of his kind in an attempt to subdue the world and push an agenda. On the other hand, Adam II “is receptive and beholds the world in its original dimensions” (op. cit., pp. 22). He senses a certain “separateness from nature,” (op. cit., pp. 23-24) and a divide between himself and the outgoing Adam I, who is tasked with subduing the world. However, as the Rav writes, “the objective and hence the motivation are identical. Both Adams want to be human. Both strive to be themselves, to be what God commanded them to be, namely man.” “Both Adams are equally provoked by the mystery of [God’s] Being.” (op. cit., pp. 23) And this commonality in ultimate goal, no matter how disparate in method of achievement, allows for, and requires a “steady oscillating between the majestic and natural community [of Adam I] and the covenantal faith community [of Adam II]” (op. cit., pp. 75-76). Within each human are both Adam I and Adam II, and each human must find ways to excel at both and to transition smoothly between them when necessary.


We can apply this philosophy to the narrative of Megillat Esther in order to explain the transition of Esther from the secluded, passive woman presented in the beginning of the Megillah to the outgoing savior of the Jews that she becomes towards the middle and  the end of the Megillah. In short, she embodies the dialectical-human reality of a Lonely Woman of Faith and a Majestic Unreserved Woman, straddling these two roles throughout the narrative of the Megillah. Additionally of note is the fact that when Esther adopts one of these two personalities, Mordechai adopts the opposite. When he adopts Adam I, she adopts the worldview of Adam II, and vice versa. Finally, we must remember when observing Esther’s and Mordechai’s actions and correlating them to the weltanschauung of either Adam I or Adam II that though Adam II’s ontological experience is both broad and refined, and is at times more meaningful than Adam I, the third person objective viewpoint of the Megillah’s narrator can only present his or her physical, exposed layer. From the outside, Adam II is seen as a flat character, quiet and secluded, even while he is fraught with inner emotional whirlwinds.


By carefully reading the text of the Megillah, we can observe these philosophical transformations in action. When we are first presented with Esther’s character, we see a passive woman, in many respects a puppet played by others. Towards the beginning of the Megillah, we read “Asher Lekachah Mordechai Lo LeVat”, “[Esther] had been taken by Mordechai as a daughter” (Esther 2:7). Mordechai takes Esther as a daughter, but from Esther’s perspective, she was taken. While it is true that this particular conjugation of the verb makes sense in this context, the adult does take initiative in adopting the orphan. Additionally, while it is true that in the other instances of Esther’s passivity one could similarly rationalize her actions, Esther’s constant submissiveness is telling of her personality:“VaTilakach Esther El Beit HaMelech”, “and Esther was taken to the king’s palace,” (2:7) and  “Lo Higgidah Esther Et Amah VeEt Moladetah...Ki Mordechai Tzivah Aleha Asher Lo Tagid,” “Esther did not reveal her nationality because Mordechai had commanded her not to do so” (2:11) are two of the more conspicuous examples of Esther’s passivity in the same chapter. In each instance, Esther is acted upon instead of being the actor, and even when given a choice, she again defers: “UVeHaggi’a Tor Esther...Lo Bikshah Davar, Ki Im Et Asher Yomar Heigai Seris HaMelech,” “When Esther’s turn arrived... she requested nothing [to take to the king], except for what Heigai, the chief of the women, suggested” (2:16). It is clear from the initial presentation of Esther’s character that she is a passive woman. But at the same time, Esther is not a simple woman. This appearance is only a function of the resolving power of the scope of a third person narrator. We see nothing of her emotions--only of her actions--and in the action that we are privy to, we see that she acts much like an Adam II.

On the other hand, Mordechai at first seems to be a diametrically opposite character. When first presented, it is he who controls the life of Esther, as explained above. But his taking initiative and nonconformism in not limited to the private sphere: “VeChol Avdei HaMelech...Kor’im UMishtachavim LeHaman... UMordechai Lo Yichra VeLo Yishtachaveh,” “And all servants of the king were bowing to Haman, but Mordechai would not” (3:2). In addition to this public display of action at the palace, in Rabbinic thought, Mordechai was a leader of the Jewish community. Whereas Esther embodies Adam II’s outlook, passivity replacing action, Mordechai does the opposite, taking on a very public role as a true Adam I.

But when events take a turn for the worse, both Mordechai and Esther are forced to swing the pendulum of their personalities in the opposite direction. When Mordechai learns of Haman’s decree to kill the Jews the Megillah writes, “VaYikra Mordechai Et Begadav, VaYilbash Sak VaEifer,” “And Mordechai ripped his clothing and donned sackcloth and ashes” (4:1). He assumes the posture of a mourner and strips himself of majestic royalty to the degree that he cannot enter the king’s palace (see 4:2). This status of a mourner is addressed by the Rav in a separate essay, “Majesty and Humility,” where he delineates the dialectic of Majestic Man and Humble Man, a dialectic that closely resembles that of Adam I and Adam II. In his description of Humble Man, correlating to Adam II, he writes “with the arrival of the dark night of the soul, in moments of agony and black despair, when living becomes ugly and absurd… God addresses him, not from infinity but from the infinitesimal” (Majesty and Humility, pp. 33). This black despair that Mordechai is forced to face humbles him, knocking him into an Adam II state of mind, and accordingly prohibits him from standing up for the Jewish people as their leader and representative. Instead, he understands that the role of leader and spokesperson has now been transferred to the demure Queen Esther, and he sets out to guide her on her own path from Adam II’s weltanschauung to Adam I’s.

When Mordechai, through a messenger, informs Esther of the dire straits within which the Jews find themselves, she resists  Mordechai’s implicit request to take action. She explains that approaching the king, stepping out of her “Daled Amot” and breaking the rules, would most likely result in her death. Even when faced with the mass genocide of her people, she cannot see past the aloneness of Adam II. She is not yet a leader. But transformed Mordechai, humble, mourning Adam II, pushes on. He admonishes her, “Ki Im Hachareish Tacharishi,” “for if you will be quiet” (4:14), if you continue to act as a passive Adam II, “At UVeit Avich Toveidu; UMi Yodei’a Im LeEit KaZot Higgat LeMalchut,” “both you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who can tell if it was for this very moment that you were granted Queenship?” At this point, Esther acquiesces. She adopts the mentality of an Adam I and issues her first command as a leader: ”Lech Kenos Et Kol HaYehudim HaNimtze’im BeShushan VeTzumu Alai,” “Go and gather all the Jews who reside in Shushan and fast on my behalf” (4:16). It is with this “oscillation” in personality that Esther rises to the occasion and assumes her role as savior of the Jews. She boldly treads into the king’s throneroom, manipulates Achashverosh and Haman into attending her banquets, and accuses the second-most powerful man in the kingdom of one hundred twenty seven provinces of genocide, effectively sentencing him to death and ensuring that the Jewish people live on.

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