Megillat Ester, Gan Eden and Moral Equivalence by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


An obscure passage in the Gemara (Chullin 139b) can be illuminated by a careful analysis of portions of Sefer Bereishit and Megillat Ester.  The Gemara asks where Haman is alluded to in the Chumash.  The Gemara responds by citing the Passuk (Bereishit 3:11) “HaMin HaEitz Asher Tziveeticha LeVilti Achol Mimenah Achalta,” “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”  The connection between the original sin episode and Haman is tenuous at best, as it would appear that the only connection is the Hebrew word “HaMin” (have you?), which sounds like the word Haman. 

A careful analysis of both the Gan Eden and Megillat Ester stories will reveal a much more substantial connection.  Our discussion will be based on an essay written by Rav Uriel Eitam which appears in Haddassah Hee Ester, an outstanding work on Megillat Ester produced by the Herzog College (affiliated with Yeshivat Har Etzion).  It will also shed much light on evil and moral equivalency in contemporary society.  

The Sin of Eating from the Eitz HaDaat 

A fundamental question exists regarding the sin of eating from the Eitz HaDaat (tree of knowledge).  The Torah describes this tree as the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and therefore if one would eat from the fruit of this tree, he would know good and evil.  This seems to imply that before eating from the Eitz HaDaat, Adam and Chavah did not have a Yetzer Hara (evil inclination).  This appears difficult, as how they could have chosen to sin if they did not yet have a Yetzer Hara? 

Rav Chaim Volozhin (Nefesh HaChaim chapter 6) explains that before the sin, Adam and Chavah had a choice to sin.  However, they had never experienced evil and did not have a strong inclination to sin.  When they chose to sin, however, they internalized the Yetzer Hara, and it became much easier to sin in the future since they now had an internal drive to sin.  Before the first sin, the Nachash (snake) was an external form of the Yetzer Hara which led them to sin.  After the sin, there was no need for an outside force to cause them to sin, because the force had been internalized.  This can be compared to one who has never tried drugs.  For such a person, there is no internal drive to try drugs, and an outside force is necessary to push him to do so.  However, after he has experienced drugs for the first time, he has an internal drive to sin and does not need much outside motivation.

Only after eating from the Eitz HaDaat was man forbidden to eat from the Eitz HaChaim, tree of life (see Bereishit 3:22, Zohar Chadash 18b and Shaarei Orah gate five), because Hashem does not want to infinitely perpetuate mankind’s internalization of the Yetzer Hara.  Before eating from the Eitz HaDaat, Adam could eat from the Eitz HaChaim because before the internalization of the Yetzer Hara there was no reason not to perpetuate that state of mankind. 

Once man internalized the Yetzer Hara, he must always be on guard to distinguish between good and bad because the Yetzer Hara seeks to blur any distinction between good and bad (see Bereishit 3:1-6 for the description of how the Nachash convinced Chavah to sin).  An example of this phenomenon is Noach becoming drunk after exiting the Teivah (ark).  Noach, through his intoxication, sought to return to the pristine world of pre-sin Gan Eden (see Sanhedrin 70a and Zohar Chadash 22b) in which he would not have to be on guard to distinguish between good and bad (this explains why he removed his clothes).  This type of attitude is extremely dangerous in the post-sin era, as evil people prey on those who seek to maintain such naïve beliefs.  It rendered Noach vulnerable to the danger of Cham, who took advantage of his father’s state.  Only after Noach recovered from his wine and regained his full faculties did he recognize the difference between good and evil (Bereishit 9:24-26).    

The Torah is given to us to help us distinguish between good and evil, thereby remedying the (post-original sin) internalized Yetzer Hara (Shabbat 146a and Targum Yerushalmi 3:22).  The Torah is the roadmap which guides us from a world in which the distinction between good and evil is blurred into a future world in which all will be good (Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv HaTorah chapter one and Rav Kook, Orot HaKodesh 3:6).  My Talmid Avi Levinson notes that Rabbi Avraham Chaim Feuer (in the Chafetz Chaim Heritage Foundation 5766 Tisha BeAv video) points out that both Nachash, the cause of the original blurring of this distinction, and Mashiach, who will ultimately clarify this distinction, have the numerical value 358.  Rabbi Feuer suggests that perhaps this is representative of the challenge of distinguishing between the evil represented by the Nachash and the good represented by the Mashiach. 

Megillat Ester and Gan Eden 

It is fascinating that the word Ra (evil) does not appear in the first six chapters of Megillat Ester, whereas the word Tov (good) appears numerous times (see, for example, 1:10, 11, 19, and 21).  Achaveirosh (and perhaps all of Persian society) wished to escape into an imaginary world in which all is good (where nothing is real and there is nothing to get hung up about).  This seems to be the reason for Achashveirosh’s obsession with wine.  It allowed him, like Noach, to escape into a fantasy world.  In addition, Achashveirosh judged everything superficially, thereby allowing him to avoid thinking deeply and distinguishing between good and bad.  The Megillah repeatedly speaks about gathering women of “good appearance” because that is all that mattered to Achashveirosh.  The refrain “and it appeared good in his eyes” also appears many times in connection with Achashveirosh, because he judged things to the extent they appeared to his eyes.

As with Noach, this attitude exposed Achashveirosh to the danger of Haman, who manipulated a naïve Achashveirosh into the most evil of plans.  Haman even convinced Achashveirosh that it was “good” to annihilate an entire nation in one day including women and children (see Megillat Ester 3:9 and 3:11).  Indeed, Chazal (Bereishit Rabbah 16:4 and 19:2 and Bemidbar Rabbah 14:12) compare Haman with the Nachash HaKadmoni, the snake of Gan Eden (also see Megillah 13b, where the Gemara explains that no one was as skilled at Lashon Hara as Haman, reminiscent of the Nachash HaKadmoni).

Ester rescued Achashveirosh on two levels.  First, she began to train Achashveirosh to think more deeply.  Indeed, he chose her as queen because “she found favor in his eyes,” meaning that the attraction was not limited to her fine appearance (in fact, one opinion among Chazal believes Ester was not physically attractive at all, see Megillah 13a).  More important, she enabled Achashveirosh to distinguish between good and evil, thereby releasing him from the clutches of Haman. Ester labeled Haman (Ester 7:6) and his plan (Ester 8:3 and 8:6) as “evil”, dispelling the moral equivalence Achashveirosh had established between Haman and Am Yisrael.  She appealed to the fact that she had found favor in Achashveirosh’s eyes (Ester 7:3 and 8:5), pleading that just as he had looked beyond the superficial when he chose her, so too he should look beyond the surface and recognize the evil of Haman.  Moral equivalency is the result of superficial thinking.  Only when Ester restored Achashveirosh’s moral equilibrium was he able to identify who was evil and who was moral, leading to the elimination of Haman and the concomitant elevation of Mordechai.  

It is interesting that Kabbalists (such as Rav Chaim Vital, cited in Chida, Devash LePee 1000:4) regard Ester as a reincarnation of Chavah.  It could be that this is because Ester corrects (Tikkun) the sin of her ancestor Chavah (Kabbalah emphasizes that later generations can correct the sins of their predecessors).  Chavah manipulated her husband to fall into the hands of the Nachash, while Ester released her husband from the clutches of Haman (=Nachash).  Unlike Gan Eden where mankind’s fall was as a result of the actions of a woman, in Megillat Ester Achashveirosh, the Persian Empire and Bnei Yisrael were rescued by the actions of a woman. 

Purim and Wine 

According to this approach, it would appear to be antithetical to the spirit of Purim to engage in drinking wine.  After all, wine exposes us to the dangers of a Cham or Haman.  Why, then, do Chazal mandate us to drink on Purim (Megillah 7b; for a discussion of the limitations on this obligation see my Gray Matter 1:234-238)? 

We may answer that we act on Purim in a manner that is precisely the opposite of Noach.  Noach drank in order to return to the world of Gan Eden, was taken advantage of by Cham, and only then distinguished between good and evil.  The obligation to drink wine on Purim does not begin until one has heard the Megillah twice, as the Purim Seudah and the wine drunk with it (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 695 and the discussion in Gray Matter) cannot be consumed on Purim night (Megillah 7b). 

Thus, we drink only after hearing about Ester’s rehabilitation of Achashveirosh from the disease of moral equivalency.  Moreover, we drink only after we have twice proclaimed (after each Megillah reading), “Cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai” as is required by Halacha (Yerushalmi cited in Tosafot Megillah 7b s.v. DeLo and Shulchan Aruch O.C. 690:16).  We drink on Purim only after we affirm the distinction between good and evil, at which point we are not rendered vulnerable to predators such as Haman and Cham.  Moreover, after we distinguish between good and evil, we are able to return to life in pre-sin Gan Eden.  This activity is a metaphor for Torah life, because if we internalize Torah values, we are able to separate moral and immoral and restore mankind to the pristine life of pre-sin Gan Eden.   

Ramifications for Today 

We live in a world where moral equivalence, such as that of Achashveirosh, is pervasive.  It is the product of superficial thought and the desire to escape to a fantasy world (a premature Gan Eden) in which the harsh realities of life need not be confronted.  The cure for moral equivalence lies in our ability to follow the example of Ester and educate others (especially those in positions of authority) to think deeply and proclaim evil for what it is.  Homicide bombings by terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah cannot be justified by any argument.  Pro-Israel advocacy groups such as AIPAC, NORPAC and CAMERA to a great extent follow in the footsteps of Ester and help redeem mankind from the clutches of the moral equivalency which today holds far too many people in its grip.   

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