Mordecai, Esther and the Lottery

March 21, 2024
(Left) Vintage colour lithograph from 1882 of Mordecai’s honour and the Jews’ joy, duncan1890/Getty Images; (Right) Queen Esther accuses Haman before King Ahasuerus. Chromolithograph, published in 1886, ZU_09/Getty Images

Against Ahasuerus, Mordecai

discovered that two men had started plotting;

he learned about this as a private spy,

from paper that they both had used for blotting,

which Mordecai was able to decipher—

a gifted linguist working as detective:

he knew all tongues from Harrisburg to Haifa,

in not a single one was he defective.

Both traitors he would very closely follow,

by clues they gave a Clouseau-like masseur,

who orbited Shushan’s walls like Apollo.


At birth named Ishtar, Esther was Hadassah,

a name that labeled her as Jew.

she never told her royal rich harasser

before he, sexually, her knew,

by him not queried or identified

as Jewish.  Cosmopolitan she thought

was safer, and thus always tried

to seem as Persian as a Persian ought.

Role models whom she emulated

were harem heroines, not wives of priests,

but though she thought she was assimilated

she didn’t think in fact all men were beasts,

as many liberated women thought

within the walls where people shopped in Shushan,

for she respected what she had been taught,

though her identity caused some confusion.


Contrast this with her cousin Mordecai,

who was her guardian husband: it would seem

he changed his name from Marduk to deny

allegiance to the Persians, whose regime

he always with derision would regard:

“Please call me Mordecai the Jew,” he’d say.

To say this word for Esther was most hard.

That’s why she would prefer the sobriquet

that she chose for herself, I mean Hadassah,

regarding Esther as the name of slave,

so only her rude royal rich harasser

would call her by the name her parents gave.


The king, of course, was sleeping while men plotted,

by strong wine that he loved intoxicated,

and by his many lovely wives besotted.

The complex where he lived was always gated

though open to his eunuchs and his wives,

a different woman in his bed each night:

he’d choose them for his harem from the dives

where he’d go incognito, out of sight.


When M learned of the plot, without delay

he went to the Intelligence of Persians,

notoriously known as PIA,

to which all dissidents had great aversions

for fear of torture used on men suspected

of antifundamentalistic treason.

Some captivated Jews we know defected,

of course heroic, but a rational reason

for torture—if you know that there’s a bomb

that may blow up and kill you in the palace,

it isn’t right to wait with great aplomb

till terrorists explode the bomb with malice.


The king declined to give the just reward

he’d promised for revealing both the plotters:

his courtiers said the king could not afford

to pay it to a Jew: “They are all rotters!”

But when one night he tossed and turned in bed,

in Shushan sleepless, maybe God behind him,

he asked to hear what Mordecai had said,

and so the minister chose to remind him

that Mordecai had managed once to foil

a dangerous plot that would have killed the king,

and sharply brought down price of all the oil

which helped to keep the kingdom in the swing.

When he was told the name of the detective

who’d learned about the terror from his spying,

he asked why the reward had been defective,

and realized that his courtiers were lying

when they all claimed the man was quite unworthy

of honors that the king was now proposing;

the king though was in fact quite down-to-earthy,

and even falling drunk he was imposing.


So Mordecai received the honors due him,

and rode the king’s horse wearing the king’s cloak.

Though many anti-Semites tried to boo him

he nobly took their protests as a joke.

Hadassah, too, regarded each protester

as ludicrous and very soon reverted

to that name with which she was born, Queen Esther

her title…and she never was converted,

unlike some other leaders who were Jewish,

(examples are too common to be cited)

she always waved the flag that’s white and bluish,

supported Arsenal, not M. United—-

for even in those days it was the Gunners

whom Jews supported all the world around;

the Persians sent throughout the land their runners

to give results of matches on each ground.

She led a life that made her uncle proud,

for she was more than Queen, she was a writer,

more popular with all the liberal crowd

than Mordecai, conservative and fighter,

who therefore disapproved of them in journals

where left-wing types give their opinion,

for Mordecai preferred to sit with colonels

and with the Orthodox prayed in a minyan.


You’ll notice there’s one name I did not mention,

that of the Agagite, the biggest foe

of all the Jews.  I’ve chosen by abstention

all reference to him hereby to forgo.
I could have mentioned him a lot of times,

but have restrained myself: it rhymes with layman,

but though I’m often driven by such rhymes,

I have restrained myself with my no-namin’.


You find too often, reading the Megillah,

his name, but since I greatly hate the beggar

who wished to be of all the Jews the killer

let my omission here growl like the gregger

that drowns out every reference to the rascal

whose name the Torah tells us to blot out,

thus making Adar’s Purim a pre-Pascal

celebration. It seems quite without

God’s name, Queen Esther’s Book that is twice read

on Purim, just as, next month, on Passover

we don’t eat the least crumbs of leavened bread,

not even cakes we saved as a leftover,

commanded by an unseen God whose “Name”

we never utter, loathing to reveal it.

I’ve tried here in these in fact the same:

God’s name unwritten in this profane writ.


It is a name that any faithful Jews,

who think they know it, quietly conceal,

a name that none of them will ever use,

how to pronounce it always most unsure,

except the High Priest on Yom Kippur who

expresses it when very clean and pure,

but other Jews should never ever do.

On 3/17/24 Rabbi David Silber suggested in a Torah in Motion lecture that the absence of God in the Purim megillah reflects that He is ironically—–perhaps as a warning—–replaced by a mortal ruler, Ahasuerus, who is overcome by two mortals, Mordecai and Esther, whose names are, etymologically, transformations of names of local alien gods, Marduk and Ishtar, transformed into Mordecai and Esther. As a result, the megillah echoes the way that at the Reed Sea God defeated not only Pharaoh, like Ahasuerus a ruler of exiled Jews, but, as God tells Moses before the Tenth Plague, intends to execute judgments  וּבְכׇל־אֱלֹהֵ֥י מִצְרַ֛יִםon all the gods of Egypt (Exod. 12:2). This victory is recalled in Hallel in Ps. 118:14 when it states עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ. God is My strength and song, a phrase that echoes words of the Song of the Sea, Exod. 15:2, sung after God defeated not only the Egyptians but their gods, whom the Reed Sea drowned together with them.

God’s defeat of Pharaoh and his gods at the Reed Sea is echoed by the defeat of Ahasuerus. The decree against the Jews is defeated by Judeans who are led by two Jews whose names echo names of Ahasuerus’ gods. Ahasuerus’ disorderly government of misrule is led by a quasi-magician called Haman, a Persian magus who echoes the magicians on whom Pharaoh relied—the link explains why Haman relied on lots, which denote the black magic that provides Purim with its name!

Purim culminates with its celebration in the Passover seder, a word that means “order.” The climax of the seder is when Hallel is recited, with Ps. 118:14 recalling Exod. 15:2.

Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored “Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel.” He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.

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