Last week, we began to present some of the insights into Sefer Daniel, which we studied in last summer’s Tanach Kollel (this coming June 16-19, the Tanach Kollel will study Chagai, Zechariah, and Malachi). This week, we will discuss the famous story of Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den. We shall focus on an aspect of the story that is easily overlooked: the character of Daryavesh HaMadi (King Darius the Mede). A simple reading of this chapter yields the impression that he was an innocent fool who was duped by his ministers into punishing Daniel. We will suggest that a careful reading of the story, based on the insights from Rav Yaakov Meidan’s new work on Sefer Daniel entitled Galut VeHitgalut, will yield the very real possibility that Daryavesh was quite shrewd and actually outsmarted the advisors who sought to fool him.
Daniel and the Lions’ Den
Let us review the well-known story of Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den. Daryavesh succeeded Belshatzar (the Babylonian) as the ruler of the Near East. (For a brief discussion of how one can reconcile the approach of secular historians to Darius the Mede and the Tanach’s account of him, see Daat Mikra to Daniel 6:1.) Dayavesh HaMadi established himself as the ruler of 120 provinces (later to be expanded to 127 provinces in the time of a later Persian ruler, Achashveirosh) and chose Daniel to serve as one of the major governors of these many lands. In an early instance of what we today would call anti-Semitism, other governors of these provinces devised a plot to remove Daniel from power. These men convinced Daryavesh to issue a decree forbidding prayer to anyone other than the emperor for a period of thirty days. Violators of this unalterable decree would be thrown into the lions’ den.
Daniel, in turn, continued to face Yerushalayim and pray openly three times a day despite the decree. The governors discovered Daniel at prayer and excitedly informed Daryavesh that Daniel had violated the law and was to be thrown into the lions’ den. Sefer Daniel records that Daryavesh was quite distressed that Daniel would have to be cast into the lions’ den, but as we know from Megillat Ester, even the Persian-Median emperor cannot reverse a decree once it has been issued. Until evening, Daryavesh sought to reverse the decree, but to no avail. He commanded that Daniel be sent into to the lions’ den, but he expressed wishes to Daniel that God save him from the lions.
Daryavesh passed the night without eating or entertainment and awoke early in the morning to see how Daniel fared. He went to the lions’ den and asked Daniel whether God had saved him, to which Daniel responded in the affirmative. The emperor thereupon commanded that Daniel be released from the lions’ den and that those who had plotted against Daniel together with their wives and children be thrown into the lions’ den in his place. These people, in turn, were killed immediately upon their encounter with the lions.
At first blush, it seems that Daryavesh was a relatively “innocent” man who was manipulated by his advisors to harm Daniel. The story clearly resembles the story of the first chapter of Megillat Ester, where Achaveirosh’s advisors appear to manipulate the rules of the Persian-Median Empire to remove Vashti from power, a move that Achashveirosh would soon regret but was powerless to change. However, just as reflection and analysis reveal that Achashveirosh was not necessarily an “innocent” fool (as we discussed in an essay that appeared in Kol Torah last year), so too we can argue that when we dig beneath the surface of this story, it is quite possible that we will find that Daryavesh was not the one being manipulated.
Two Fundamental Questions
Although the story of Daniel and the lions’ den is quite familiar to us, two basic questions gnaw at the thoughtful student of this episode. One question is what motivated Daryavesh to agree to enact the decree forbidding worshipping anyone other than himself, with a death sentence attached to violators. A second problem is why Daniel chose to risk his life by violating this decree. After all, the Torah requires that we risk our lives only to avoid violating the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality. Why did Daniel endanger himself in order to fulfill the Mitzvah of Tefillah, which most Rishonim regard as only a rabbinic obligation?
The Malbim (Daniel 6:7-8) answers the first question by suggesting that these thirty days were the first thirty days that Daryavesh reigned as the new emperor over the Near East. During the first thirty days of any new king’s reign, his subjects would petition him with their requests, as this was a period of grace in which the king would be open to all those who sought his help. Thus, the Malbim explains, anyone who prayed to another being during this period would be insulting the king and would be deserving of death. By promulgating this decree, Daryavesh hoped to solidify his rule over the new empire that he ruled.
Rav Meidan’s Innovative Approach
Rav Yaakov Meidan (Galut VeHitgalut pp. 169-170) suggests an alternative answer to our first question based on Ramban and Ran’s answer to our second answer. Ramban (commenting on Shabbat 49a) and Ran (ibid.) explain that Daniel risked his life because it was a Shaat HaShemad, a time of persecution, and in such times Halachah permits us to sacrifice our lives even in order to avoid a rabbinic violation. This approach, however, appears astonishing. How do Ramban and Ran characterize this time as a time of persecution if, as the Malbim explains, the king consented to issue his decree simply as means to secure his rule and not to persecute Am Yisrael?
Rav Meidan proposes a bold answer to this question. He suggests, as an alternative to the approach of the Malbim, that the decree’s objective was to prevent the Geulah. Recall from last week’s essay that Daryavesh succeeded Belshatzar as emperor seventy years after the ascension of Nevuchadnetzar to the throne of Babylon. Also recall from last week that Yirmiyahu prophesied that at that time, the Jews would be redeemed from their exile if they wholeheartedly sought out Hashem and prayed to him for redemption.
Rav Meidan, in turn, suggests that the purpose of the decree was to stifle Tefillah to Hashem so as to prevent the Geulah, whose time had arrived but which was contingent upon Tefillah. Indeed, Rav Meidan suggests that the beautiful Tefillah uttered by Daniel (recorded in the ninth chapter of Sefer Daniel) begging Hashem to rebuild Yerushalayim was the Tefillah for the Geulah and was the very Tefillah that Daniel refused to abstain from even at the cost of his life. Thus, this thirty day period indeed was a Shaat HaShemad, and Daniel’s Tefillah was well worth the risk of life and limb, since so much was at stake. Perhaps this is why chapter six specifically mentions that Daniel faced Yerushalayim as he prayed, as Daniel was focused specifically on Yerushalayim in the Tefillah that is recorded in chapter nine.
An Alternative Perception of Daryavesh HaMadi
Rav Meidan does not write that Daryavesh himself sought to thwart the arrival of the Geulah. I would suggest, though, that it was Daryavesh who sought to prevent the Geulah. One may ask, then, why he did not issue decree himself. Why did he wait for his governors to lobby him to issue the decree? We may answer that Daryavesh was afraid to challenge Hashem directly, especially after what had happened to Belshatzar (recorded in Sefer Daniel chapter five), as we discussed in last week’s essay.
Once the advisors presented their plan, Daryavesh would be able to execute his plan without the risk involved. In case of failure, Daryavesh could attribute the plan to his advisors, who would be the “fall guys,” while Daryavesh would come out “smelling like a rose.” This resembles Rabbi Abba’s suggestion (Megillah 14a) that Achashveirsoh wished to annihilate the Jews but was afraid to do so himself, so he waited for Haman to try to implement such an evil plan so that in case of failure, Haman would serve as the “fall guy” and Achashveirosh would emerge “clean as a whistle.” The Daat Mikra (commentary to Sefer Daniel pages 366-369 and commentary to Megillat Ester pp. 14-16) notes the many parallels between Sefer Daniel and Megillat Ester, which might substantiate this comparison. Accordingly, while the advisors sought merely to remove Daniel from power, Darvyavesh had a deeper, more sinister motive in agreeing to the decree.
Daryavesh expressed such sympathy to Daniel, according to this suggestion, not because of sincere concern for Daniel’s welfare, but rather because Daryavesh was afraid of Daniel due to the abilities he exhibited in his interactions with Belshatzar and Nevuchadnetzar. Thus, chapter six records that Daryavesh labored only until the evening in an attempt to save Daniel. Were Daryavesh earnest in his love of Daniel, he would have tried much harder and longer to discover a way to spare Daniel from his miserable fate.
One of the primary goals of Sefer Daniel is to teach how the Jewish people survive in Galut. The main lesson of the story of Daniel and the lions’ den is that Jewish survival in exile depends very much on our steadfast commitment to live a Torah life despite the sacrifice involved, even if living this way involves the supreme sacrifice of forfeiting one’s life. However, the story also teaches that some Nochrim in the Galut appear to be friends of the Jews but in reality have a hidden agenda to harm us. Daryavesh appears to be a friend but may not have been an ally of the Jews. The Jews of Europe experienced this when they discovered that some of their “friends” actively assisted the Nazis in persecuting of the Jews.
The events of chapter six seemed to impact on Koresh as well. Last week, we posed the question of why Koresh issued his famous proclamation permitting the Jews to return to Yerushalayim and rebuild the Beit HaMikdash in the very first year of his reign. We noted that Rav Meidan answers that Koresh wished to avoid Belshatzar’s fate. We might add this week that Koresh, who, according to Chazal, succeeded Daryavesh HaMadi after less than one year of the latter’s rule (perhaps so short as punishment for his scheme), learned the lesson from both Belshatzar’s and Daryavesh’s respective fates. He learned not to disrespect Hashem directly, as Belshatzar did, nor even to plot subtly against Hashem, as Daryavesh sought to do.