Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Teztaveh Shabbat Zakhor 5766/ March 11, 2006
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, email@example.com
Every Man a Master in his House
Prof. Miriam Faust
Department of Psychology
The Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center
The central plot of the Scroll of Esther revolves around the plan to exterminate the Jewish people. The ensuing story shows how Haman’s plan was miraculously foiled. At the very beginning of the Megillah Ahasuerus disposes of one Queen, Vashti, and then has to take another. This event appears to have no other purpose than to advance the central plot, by placing Esther in a strategic position at the court. However, we view this “event” as a parallel incident which is integrally and essentially related to the main plot. The combination of these two stories clearly illustrates how attitudes towards a specific weak group in the population reflect the treatment of other underprivileged minorities in that society.
I would like to suggest that the significant relationship between these two is encapsulated in half a verse (1:22). Here we find the contents of the edict sent to all provinces of the king in the wake of Vashti’s removal from office: “That every man shall wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people.” This statement is the key to the corrupt moral norms of Persian society and explains the connection between the two stories.
Several commentators have dwelled on the relationship of its two parts – “that every man should wield authority in his home” and “speak the language of his own people” – which appear to be unrelated. According to one approach, the verse should be interpreted as ironic: the edict commands that which is self-evident, illustrating the stupidity that reigned in Ahasuerus’ court, which led to a lack of regard for his edicts. So in the Talmud (Megillah 12b):
Had it not been for the first edicts, there would not have remained a single survivor of Israel’s enemies [a euphemism for Israel itself]. For what message was conveyed by, “that every man should wield authority in his home”? It is obvious, for even the weaver is master and ruler in his own home!
In other words, what the edict said was common knowledge: as the proverb says, even the lowly weaver is master in his own home. Further, it was clear that every man spoke the language of his own people—what else could he speak? Therefore, the Talmud says, the residents of the kingdom did not take the first edict issued by Ahasuerus seriously, and therefore even with the subsequent edicts, they adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude. All this worked to the good of the Jews.
Rashi draws a connection between the two parts of the verse. The husbands’ authority in their homes found expression in forcing their wives to speak their language, even if a wife came from another people and spoke a different language.
In his commentary on the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:6, s.v. “am ehad,”) Ibn Ezra explains Ahasuerus’ edict in the Scroll of Esther: “A single people having a single religion; for as differences are introduced between religions, jealousy and hatred rise anew. The same applies to differences of language. Therefore the king of Persia commanded that one “speak the language of his own people.” According to this interpretation, Ahasuerus’ edict was intended to bring about absolute uniformity among the various groups in the population of the culturally diverse Persian empire of those days by forcing a single language on them. Having a single language meant having unity of religion and ideas, which the king decided to create by force.
Ibn Ezra’s interpretation illumines the close connection between “wielding authority in his home” and speaking “the language of his own people” from another vantage point. From this interpretation we learn that oppressing one weak group in the population – women – and oppressing other groups that did not obey the demand for absolute ideological, religious, and cultural uniformity are interrelated. King Ahasuerus aspired to have an “idyllic” society in which everyone would have the same world view, and in order to achieve this objective he had to oppress any minority – of religion, language, culture, or gender – that might violate the idyllic order.
This interpretation explains the relationship between the two plots in the Megillah, the minor plot concerning Vashti, which represents oppression of women in the kingdom, and the major plot – the attempt to wipe out the Jewish people. In the first story, which relates to the edict “that every man should wield authority in his home,” the central event is Queen Vashti’s defiant refusal to appear before King Ahasuerus so that he could show her off to “the peoples and the officials.” This story illustrates, right at the beginning of the Megillah, the scornful attitude of Ahasuerus and the culture he represents towards women. Queen Vashti’s refusal to act in accordance with the norms in Ahasuerus’ kingdom led to her removal from the throne and, according to an interpretation of the Sages, even to her execution.
After the departure of Queen Vashti from the throne, young maidens throughout the empire were forcefully brought to the king’s palace. However, by the end of the Megillah there is a dramatic reversal in the image of women: the Jewish people are saved by a woman, who acted with great wisdom and discretion, bravery and resourcefulness – characteristics that are the diametrical opposite of the female stereotype in Persian society (the stereotype Vashti set out to break at the beginning of the story).
The latter part of the verse, about “speaking the language of one’s own people,”relates to the central plot about the attempted destruction of the Jewish nation, because they are “a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws” (3:8). That is to say, the Jewish people are characterized as constituting a threat to Ahasuerus’ vision of a unified empire. This people does not accept the obligation to “speak the same language.” In its broader sense, the idea of a single language is the most outstanding characteristic of a culturally and nationally monolithic society, one that does not allow for any exceptions in religious law, culture, or language and does not accept being different. Such a society is characterized by xenophobia, and of course by hatred of Jews, who are the embodiment of the “other” in religion, language and culture. Little wonder, therefore, that degrading women – the weak and downtrodden group in Ahasuerus’ kingdom – is accompanied, as the story continues, with oppressing the Jews and legitimizing their annihilation.
The Jews’ deliverance, in contrast, is connected in the Megillah with women’s power, the power of Esther who belongs to a double minority – she is both a woman and a Jew. Thus the combination of plots in the Scroll of Esther, which is expressed in both halves of the verse, “that every man should wield authority in his home,” reflects the socio-historical conditions that have been the lot of the Jewish people for generations. Under such conditions, intolerance towards any minority necessarily attests the incursion of intolerance into the society as a whole. When the moral fiber of the society is ripe for this, such an attitude of intolerance may be directed towards any individual or group that is perceived as being different or “other.”