Of all the gripping tales of the Tanach (Bible), the story of Esther, intricate and elaborate, stands out as one that could have been written for the stage. The omniscient narrator describes the location, setting, wardrobe, and mood for each episode. The narrative contains all the elements of a great story: intrigues, power plays, religion, a ruthless villain, a wise man, a captured princess, and a love triangle.
But the drama of the Megillah was apparently not satisfying enough for Rabbi Elazar, who decided to elaborate on it with this perplexing commentary in the Talmud: When King Achashverosh asked Esther who was trying to annihilate her nation, said Rabbi Elazar, she pointed at the king himself! Disaster was averted only thanks to an angel who slapped her hand so she would point at Haman.
This Midrash should not be taken literally. Had we been there, we would not have seen an angel, nor Esther’s hand moving from Achashverosh to Haman. Instead, Rabbi Elazar’s statement conveys a message about Esther’s actions.
In order to understand what happened at that moment around the King’s table, we must go back to the transformative verse of the Megillah (5:1). On the third day, Esther put on her royal apparel (literally “wore royalty”) and stood in the inner courtyard before the king.
Up to this moment, Esther is a quiet, timid girl in the narrative of the Megillah. She does not ask for servants, jewelry, or cosmetics, she does not reveal anything about herself, and she obeys Mordechai. After learning of Haman’s decree, Mordechai comes to Esther with a demand — no, a command — to go to the king and plead for her nation. Esther is initially reluctant, but when she is finally convinced, she commands him to obey her and execute her plan, which he does.
When she finally approaches the king, as the verse above indicates, she “wears royalty”: She finally accepts her role as a queen and a powerful woman.
The king immediately realizes that. He looks at her, and for the first time he sees Esther the Queen. He is dumbfounded, but her radiant presence cuts through the fog of alcohol and shakes him up. He is willing to offer her half his kingdom – he wants to know what made her risk her life and come see him uninvited. Her words first soothe and flatter him, but she then mentions Haman and throws him into a whirlwind. Esther’s courageous act, which could have put her life in danger, plants seeds of suspicion in the king’s mind. Is she having an affair with Haman? Is Haman trying to use her to usurp my throne?
With distrust brewing toward his closest advisor and his beloved wife, the sleepless king searches the annals for an explanation of people’s disloyalty toward him. He asks himself how is it possible that none of his servants informed him about the possible threat, and finds out that he has a reputation of an ingrate king, as he never rewarded Mordechai for exposing the assassination plot of Bigtan and Teresh. He decides to reward Mordechai publicly to entice people with information to step forward, and G-d’s hand sends Haman to the royal chambers to confirm the king’s suspicion that Haman is eyeing the throne. The power-thirsty Haman tells the king without hesitation that the ultimate honor is to wear royal garb and ride a royal steed, and thus becomes the main suspect, alongside Esther, in a possible coup d’etat.
We can now return to the Midrash. When the king asks Esther who is the one who plotted to kill her nation, he knows very well who were the people involved and what nation she is referring to, because only one decree was signed to sanction genocide. What he wanted to know is whether she is blaming him for it. Esther cleverly manipulated Haman and the king into the arena, where they circle each other, vying for her approval. Haman believes that she brings him one step closer to the throne, while the king thinks that perhaps the whole plan to annihilate the Jews was meant to denounce him as a tyrant and depose him. It is at that moment of extreme tension, when Esther formulates her answer, that she is potentially pointing at the king, who could have very easily sentenced her and Haman to death.
It is at that moment that Esther, who is herself the malach — an angel in the sense of a messenger — channels all the king’s anger and frustration to Haman, but she is still in danger. The king is confused and angry, not sure whom he could fully trust. He goes out for fresh air, maybe a cigar, and when he comes back he finds Haman at the queen’s feet. Ironically, this is the last nail in Haman’s coffin. It is not his attempt to murder a whole nation, men, women, and children, that gained him the gallows, but rather the king’s accusation that he is trying to take Esther from him.
And that, I believe, is the reason the story is the story of Esther, and no one else!
By Haim Ovadia
Rabbi Haim Ovadia is a Jewish educator. Visit torahveahava.com for more of his writings.