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Seriously Laughing to Death: Couples’ Games and Masks in the Book of Esther

Dr. Michal Govrin
| 14/03/2011

One way to read the Book of Esther is as a comedy laden with twists of fate evolving in fast motion. In this genre, the putting on or taking off of masks serves to unveil the characters’ confused identities. So does the Book of Esther, as implied by the paradoxical combination of the words hester (‘hidden’) and galui(‘revealed’) in its title Megillat Esther, lead us from the hidden to the revealed. As the plot unfolds, we see exposed a series of roles, stereotyped masks, identities and conflicts, and all this within a complex structure of couples.. The threat of death hanging over the characters lends the plot a tragic dimension, while removing or donning a mask becomes a way of survival. This, at a time of the ‘hiding of God’s face’ (hester panim) and in the midst of the bloody struggle depicted in the Book of Esther’s “serious comedy”. In this article I will trace some of the unveiling processes, even if not all of the masks will be completely stripped away.

The Woman’s Mask and the Jew’s Mask
The Book of Esther is comprised of the opening story of the execution of Vashti, and the central narrative about the decreed extermination of the Jews. There are parallels found, both in content and in language, between the two stories, which build an analogy between fear of woman and fear of the Jew. As a Biblical text depicting the status of Jews in exile, the Book of Esther provides an analysis of the pathological roots of anti-Semitism, by drawing a parallel between the fear of the woman and the paranoiac dread of the Jew. In both cases the ‘other,’ the different, is perceived to be a threat and is dehumanized, stripped of his/her individuality and made a part of a nameless collective, wearing a stereotypical mask of utter menace.

Vashti is summoned to appear as a public sexual object, forced to obliterate her inner self and to don the mask of “Queen” to the glory of Ahasuerus’ reign. Memucan (said to be by commentators Haman’s “right hand man”), fans the flames of Ahasuerus’ rage. He presents Vashti’s refusal as a global war between the sexes:

“Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: ‘Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against the King but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Medea who have heard of the queen’s behavior will cite it to all the King’s ministers, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!’” (Esther 1:16-19).

Similarly, the wrathful Haman, familiar with Ahasuerus’ attacks of paranoid rage, enflames the king’s terror of the Jews. While his own hatred towards Mordechai is transformed into a racial hatred of all Jews:

“…Haman was filled with rage. But he disdained to lay hands on Mordechai alone; having been told who Mordechai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews,Mordechai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus” (Esther 3:5-6).

When Haman argues that the Jews’ mere difference constitutes an uncontrollable threat lurking behind every corner, he defines the anti-Semitic stereotyped mask of the Jew, repeating Memucan’s style of speech:

“Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is 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; and it is not in the King’s interest to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8).

The fear and hatred in the Megilla result from attacks of rage by men who are in complex couple relationships. Let us remember that in the Midrash, King Ahasuerus is identified with God, absent from the Megilla. Thus, the male attacks of rage echo the Divine ones.

The stormy relationship between God and Israel swings from loyal devotion to doubt and betrayal, loss of faith and rage. Only Moses’ exhortations and the fear of ‘what will the nations say’ assuages the deadly wrath of God: “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth;’ Turn from Your anger and relent from doing evil to Your People” (Exodus 32:12-13). See also Govrin, A Chronicle of a Couple , a personal reading of the Weekly Portion of Beshalach, in Likrat Shabbat, Personal Readings of Parshat Hashavuah, eds. Hadas Ahituv and Ariel Picar, Yaakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies, 2006, and in ‘And you shall know that I am the Lord’ – The Public Couple of God and Israel (to be published by the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem).

In the novel The Name (Riverhead Books, New York, 1998), I deal with the subject of duality between God and Israel after the Holocaust. See also Govrin, Snapshots (Riverhead Books, New York, 2007), and in Shapiro, Govrin, Derrida: Body of Prayer, The Cooper Union School of Architecture, New York, 2000.

In other contexts I expound upon ‘the Jew as Woman’ and the role of Eros in the pathology of anti-Semitism: The Lacanian Cartel dedicated to the research of Anti-Semitism, with Susannah Huler, Claudia Idan, Nehama Gesser, Garda Eilata-Alster and Michal Govrin “Eating the Harvest of Madness, a Jewish Literary Manifest in First Person Feminine,” Dimui, Vol. 25, Spring 2005./in: revivi M. nd Kopelowitz eds.: Jewish Peoplefood, Chnge and Challenge, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2008 and on[/note]

Rage is characterized by lack of reason and memory and an insistence on harsh judgment. This is seen as a conclusion at the end of the Vashti episode (2:1): “When King Ahasuerus’ rage abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.” (Parallel to the description of Divine rage in the Book of Lamentations, where the use of the root gzr (decree) is salient; Vashti’s fate is decreed, as was the fate of Jerusalem: “Water flowed over my head; I said, I am lost!” (Lamentations 3:54)). Only sobriety (as a result of the removal of the mask of rage) restores the king’s memory and his compassion. Esther, through her actions, will manage to ease the king’s rage, restore his memory and temper his judgment.

Esther’s Masks
At the beginning of the Megilla, Hadassah-Esther wears a mask, and her character is defined from others’ points of view. She finds favor in the eyes of all who behold her, and her beauty is her power. The first is Hegai, keeper of the harem, who helps her ascend the hierarchical ladder “and he preferred her and her maids” [2:9]. But in the next verse we are told that behind the mask of beauty lies a secret: “Esther did not reveal her people…”(2:10) This duality poses a question: is the mystery that envelops Esther the key to her attractiveness? And what is the connection between Esther’s secret and the Jewish Mystery (with its erotic dimension)? (

The mystery of Esther’s identity echoes the mystery of Jewish other-ness. Brief examples: “Israel was redeemed from Egypt on the merit of four things: they did not change their names, or their language, they did not reveal the source of their mystery, and they did not engage in illicit sexual relations” (Midrash Bemidbar Raba 20:22: mystery= secrets and hidden things). “God is a secret to those who fear Him, what is the secret of God? It is the word that God did not reveal from the time of Adam and twenty generations hence, until Abraham, to whom He gave it. God said to him, If you are circumcised you will carry the secret of God” (Yalkut Psalms 702).

In another context: “The cherubs were intertwined with one another…  Resh Lakish said: when the Gentiles invaded and entered the Holy of Holies, they saw the Cherubim embracing like man and wife and they brought them out to the street and mocked. “These Jews whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse, look at what they occupy themselves with in their Holy of Holies.” They debased Klal Yisrael and ridiculed them for this perceived impropriety. As it is written (Lamentations 1:8), “All who once respected her, disparage her, for they have seen her disgrace (ervasah, literally ‘her nakedness’)” (Tractate Yoma 54a)).

In the heart of the harem, despite the baring of bodies for twelve months in oils and perfumes, Esther keeps her identity a secret. She does not reveal it even when as the object of the king’s desire she is granted a name: “…when the King wanted her, she would be summoned by name”(2:14).

In the delusion of the hidden and the revealed, Esther’s identity remains unknown even when she finds favor in the eyes of all who behold her – like a Cover Girl model or a Mona Lisa whispering with a secretive smile, “I’m only yours” to every single one. All project their fantasies on her, diametrically opposed to the Jewish threat lurking around every corner described by Haman. It is precisely the blur between intimate and public that leads R. Nachman of Bratzlav to compare Esther to the prayer leader who reaches the highest level of prayer. “Tractate Megilla 13a states that ‘each person took her for a member of his own people’…this is the prayer leader….finding favor in the eyes of all…for each one sees him as their personal link to heaven…” (‘Likutei Moharan,’ Collected Teachings of Our Teacher, (part 2, 1:13).

Double Relationships
When chosen to become queen, Esther finds herself at the center of two relationships. In one, she is subject to the authority and rule of King Ahasuerus, her husband. Yet at the same time, outside the palace wall, sits another man, Mordechai, who claims another loyalty from her.

“..Mordechai sat in the palace gate. Esther did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordechai instructed her, for Esther obeyed Mordechai’s bidding, as she had done when she was in his care” (2:19-20).

According to the R. Nachman, when Mordechai paced in front of the harem, it is “in order to know how Esther is faring. Esther is the Shechinah, God’s Presence, and Mordechai learned of the state of the Shechinah in the courtyard of the women’s palace.” (Rabbi Nachman, Collected Teachings of Our Teacher, 203).

Esther’s double relationship duality is one of several in the complex comedy of the Megilla. She wears two masks: that of queen and that of Jewess, representing the archetype of the dual loyalty of the Diaspora Jew. Moreover, the two relationships she is in reflect the mutual “brides” shared between God and Israel: (I expounded on this in “A Chronicle of Duality,” a personal reading of the Weekly Portion of Beshalach, in Likrat Shabbat,Personal Readings of Parshat Hashavuah, eds. Hadas Ahituv and Ariel Picar, Yaakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies, 2006.  AlsoJerusalem, Place of Desire, in Mashiv Haruach Vol. 34, Winter 2010). The Torah, The Schechina, The Sabbath, Zion… – a “triangle” that demands farther analysis.

Responsibility to Otherness
Against the male threat on the woman and Jew-as-woman, the Megilla presents a woman with exclusive power to cope. Mordechai, in his different-ness, provokes Haman’s hatred, and is left helpless against its catastrophic consequences. True to the archetypal Diaspora Jew, dependent on the kindness of others, he can only grieve:

“Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly..” (4:1). But his prayer, unlike the prayer of Hannah, Moses or Elijah, does not manage to pierce through the Hiding of the Face and alter the decree. He and his prayer are left outside “the King’s gate” (4:2).

Esther, however, as her name implies, remains hidden. Even when Mordechai addresses her, she dares not act. Mordechai urges her, by tearing away her defensive royal mask: “Do not imagine that you of all the Jews will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace” (4:13). He then boosts her courage with a prophetic vision:

“If you keep silent in this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere, while you and your father’s house will perish…And who knows, perhaps you have gained royal position just for this time” (4:14).

Here the Megilla reveals a profound mutuality between two complementary forces. Mordechai cannot on his own deal with the king’s anger, but the man is the one who stirs the woman’s latency, making her aware of her own strength and enabling her to make the transition from concealment to revelation. Esther indeed undergoes a transformation as she confronts Mordechai. She dares to take responsibility for her otherness as a Jewess and a woman. She is aware of the double threat against her: as Queen, having replaced another whose deviation brought about her death; as a Jew, whose people by their different-ness brought upon them a decree of annihilation. Esther’s strength and sense of responsibility to her uniqueness offers a model for redemption. She grapples with the mask as seen by others, which is racist and stereotyped. She strives to remove the threat of otherness, to present a human face and allow Ahasuerus to accept the other – the woman and the Jew – without fear.

Yet, Esther also knows that her femininity and her Jewishness are her only weapons. Thus she first emerges from a latent state to declare her bond to her people and her God:

“And Esther sent back a reply to Mordechai: Go and assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast” (4:15).

And then, relying on her feminine power, trusting in fate and risking death, she will “go to the King, though it be contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish” (4:16).

After three days of fasting and prayer (reminiscent of the three days preparing at Sinai to receive the Torah), “Esther donned royal apparel and stood in the King’s inner courtyard…” (5:1). Esther stands face to face with the King “sitting on his throne….facing the entrance of the palace.” (Here, too, are parallels with the entrance to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, lending an air of a direct meeting with holiness).

It all hangs on the split second glimpse of the woman standing in the doorway at her own peril. At that instant, her fate is sealed. As Ruth determined events by walking (with Naomi), Esther does so by standing. She is in royal attire, interpreted by Rashi as being draped in Divine inspiration, and this instant of a woman standing is described in the Talmud (Tractate Megilla 14b) as a moment of prophecy.

Yet how does she transform the revealed female body from an object of desire to a human visage? In three days of fasting and prayer, Esther connected with her community, who fasted on her behalf in a mutual pledge, and with her spirituality. Now as she is revealed, her physical beauty is no longer a mask that tempts and intimidates; it rather reveals her inner self. Now, when she ‘finds favor,’ she awakens an emotional upheaval in those who behold her. Her physical body, after three days of fasting and prayer, radiates spirituality. Her inner self is bared at this climactic moment of danger. Esther has gone from ‘cover girl’ to a revelation of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.

In the Megilla, Esther at this point causes an upheaval in Ahasuerus. He, the one who in rage had his wife executed, lets Esther’s trespass go unnoticed. He is no longer threatened by her female other-ness. He extends the royal scepter, out of passion tempered with compassion. Rather than ‘take her,’ he greets her with, “What troubles you, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be granted you” (5:3) (I thank Rachel Shlomit Brezis, my daughter and Shmulik Inbar and his family for their illuminations, on this and on other points, in the course of our study together).

It remains for Esther to assuage Ahasuerus’ remaining fear, of the Jew. Just as Ruth knew to proceed slowly with Boaz, Esther, having gained her audience, tarries before taking any direct action. She understands that it is not enough to momentarily allay the rage; that she needs to initiate a lengthy process that will bring about the sea change in Ahasuerus’ consciousness. And so, as an experienced psychoanalyst, she proceeds with her “treatment”.

Esther is familiar with her husband’s rage and possessive jealousy that cost Vashti her life. She harnesses these characteristics just as Memucan and Haman did before her, to save the situation. She invites the king and Haman to a feast, and the intimacy of an invitation of two men together, arouses Ahasuerus’ jealousy and suspicions about Haman’s aspirations for power and  especially concerning his wife. At the end of the evening, in all its erotic tension, Esther extends a repeat invitation, again for both men, to a second party.

All these – Esther’s unusual appearance in the doorway, the revelation of her beauty, the double invitation that included another man – upset Ahasuerus, tearing away his mask and leaving him in distress: “That night sleep deserted the King…” When he awakens from his ‘sleep’ his memory returns: “…he ordered the book of records to be brought..” (6:1).

The Couple of Hatred
Before we continue with the comedy, we must introduce another “couple” relationship presented in the Megilla, central to its plot: the obsessive hatred between the “couple” Mordechai and Haman and between the “couple of hatred”, Israel and Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) rooted in the mythic struggle between the archangel of evil and God.

Mordechai appears at the beginning of the Megilla as an archetypical “Jew in the capital Shushan” (2:5), and Haman as the king’s servant promoted by Ahasuerus and “seated higher than any of his fellow officials” (3:1). Immediately after, the Megilla gives us this description: “All the king’s courtiers in the palace knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order, but Mordechai would not kneel or bow low” (3:2). All his power is tarried as “daily” (3:4) Haman and his servants are stinged by Mordechi’s irreverence. And when Mordechi’s identity as  Jew is revelaed “then we see Him full of wrath” (3:5). As if Haman’s identity is defined by the obsessive conflict with the Jew. But Mordechai’s identity is no less a function of the stubborn conflict with Haman. As in the opposition between good and evil, each side is defined by the struggle with the other.

Haman’s reaction is a condensed picture of paranoid anti-Semitism that grows to endless proportions. Defending against the metaphysical threat that the Jew presents (3:8), Haman declares war, calling upon the supernatural, upon fate – he draws lots. The result of this action is irreversible and total. A “Final Solution”. The Megilla tells us of the fatal date slated for the Jews’ destruction, before the plan is presented to Ahasuerus. “In the first month, the month of Nisan, …the lot was cast before Haman concerning each day and each month, falling on the twelfth month, which is Adar” (3:7). Only after establishing the fact does Haman approach Ahasuerus for execution of the plan. Haman disguises his decision as if it rests upon a convincing case: “Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples…’” (3:8).

However, due to Esther’s intervention on the night between the two feasts, when the king was sleepless, the story takes a complete opposite turn (with mechanical speed befitting a comedy).  The masks, identities and fates are switched, with a mechanical symmetry that makes us laugh.

Thus, the scheming Haman, who in the middle of the night plots construction of the scaffold for Mordechai (the noise, no doubt, is what kept the king from sleeping), is called to the king and thrown into the play where the roles are reversed. Mordechai, in royal garb, is paraded around on horseback by none other than Haman. And in this carnival-like and grotesque atmosphere, we can even imagine Mordechai riding on Haman himself, in the perennial struggle of the homo-erotic ‘who rides whom’ (See Rashi on “who happened upon you on the march” (Deut. 25:17) – “‘happened’ can be understood as the impurity of illicit sexual relations.” For various aspects of ‘The Odd Couple,’ of Mordechai and haman  I expounded at Dov Elboim’s TV program, Purim 2001.  The psychoanalytic cartel (see Note 1) discussed this aspect of the perverted character of the Nazi Final Solution). that characterizes all the manifestations of hatred between Amalek and Israel.

The Power of Concealment
Step by step, from feast to feast, Esther moves the plot along in complete control of the court’s intrigues, profoundly aware of her feminine power. At the height of her beauty and mystery, she points to Haman: “The adversary and enemy is this evil Haman!” (7:6). The king’s rage is kindled and fanned by jealousy as the terrified Haman falls grotesquely upon the Queen’s couch, at which point the king screams in a jealous fit of rage: “Does he mean to ravish the queen in my own palace?” (7:8).  Esther has revealed Haman’s passionate hate and brings about a reversal: “…the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power” (9:1).

But after removing her mask of mystery, and revealing herself as a Jew, the game is over and Esther’s power is diminished. She is no longer without identity and able to be anyone’s fantasy. Having a defined identity deters desire. If we compare the two scenes in which Esther pleads before the king, we see how much more powerful she is when behind the queenly mask, and how little manipulative power she has when exposed as a Jew. When she returns to plead for her people (8:3-6), all her tears do not help her. On the contrary. Without a mask there is nothing to unveil. What had been written can no longer be erased: “…for an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (8:8). The ‘hiding of God’s face’ (hester panim) fundamentally remains, and the fate of doom hanging over the Jewish People is not completely rescinded (See the poignant sermons given by Rabbi Kalonimus Kalmish Shapiro in the Warsaw Ghetto, especially for Shabbat Zachor1942,in Esh Kodesh, (Holy Fire)Tel Aviv, 1960, pp. 164-170)

At the conclusion of the Megilla, the Jews are permitted, for the duration of the holiday, to defend and avenge themselves upon their enemies, without changing the bloody plot of the comedy. They are momentarily saved by the power of revenge, self-defense, and the fear they instill in those who hate them ( So has the rise of the State of Israel, and the exposure of Jewish identity, have not brought about the hoped for eradication of the stereotyped mask. A separate discussion is needed on the topic of revenge).Mordechai can, at most, wear royal attire of “robes of blue and white with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool,” and rank second to the king in the familiar couple relationship between the Jew and the ruling hegemony. He does not, however, become loved and popular with all, not even all his own people, but only by “most of his brethren.”

The unravelling of the riddle of the Megilla is put off until the redemption to come in the end of days. As the Megilla ends, as the masks are removed and blood is spilled, on rages the conflict in which the face of the other is effaced and replaced by a stereotyped, racist mask. The comedy and carnival-like aspect of the Megilla are ‘a kind of foretaste of the world to come’, the drunken state in which we cannot distinguish between ‘blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘cursed is Haman,’ in which we can already taste the end of days, in which good and evil, men and women, Jews and non-Jews, will live together, as different people who are not a threat to each other, but as complementary opposites.

In the meantime – even if only for the short duration of the holiday –  the anarchical power of laughter prevails, breaking through the boundaries toward redemption.

I wish to thank Dov Elboim and my students from Rutgers University in New Jersey for their input.

Dr. Michal Govrin is an award winning novelist, poet and theater director who has published nine books of poetry and fiction that have been translated into numerous languages. She is a lecturer in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program at the Schechter Institute, teaching “The Jewish Sacred Theater” this semester.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

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