There are two main ways of reading biblical texts: pshat and drash. The former involves a close reading of the text, whereas the latter involves interpretations (and stories) that begin with the text but can move quite far from it. Since the holiday of Purim is approaching, let me take the Book of Esther to give you examples of pshat and drash.
As one example of the narrative art in the Book of Esther, we can note the unusually large number of words and phrases connoting speed: Ahasuerus’s couriers travel “posthaste” (3.15) and in “urgent haste” (8.14), Ahasuerus tells Haman “quick, then” (6.10) when he orders him to honor Mordecai, and the King’s eunuchs “hurriedly” bring Haman to Esther’s banquet (6.14). Ahasuerus is a king given over to strong fits of emotion (“when the anger of King Ahasuerus subsided,” 2.1; “the King, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden,” 7.7; “and the King’s fury abated,” 7.10). For such a person in such a position, there is no such thing as delayed gratification—King Ahasuerus’s desires must be satisfied immediately. Appropriately, then, everything having to do with this King, from his own words, to his messengers, to his horses, speaks of urgency and haste. This “appropriateness” is one aspect of the artful pshat in the narrative of the Book of Esther.
We turn to drash when we want more than the text provides. For example, the text says that Esther is able to keep her origins a secret. We might wonder: Was it emotionally difficult for her to do so? Other than saying “but Esther still did not reveal her kindred or her people” (2.19; with the word “still” perhaps implying some pressure brought to bear upon the Queen), the text is silent on this matter. We might also want to know: How was it even possible for Esther’s origins to remain a secret? After all, there are other ways for a powerful king like Ahasuerus to find out his queen’s origins than by simply asking her!
The great commentator Rashi (1040-1105) explains here that within Esther could be seen the beauty of the women of all the peoples of the world. Every people thus thought that Esther was one of theirs. This is why the text says that Esther “won the admiration of all who saw her” (2.15). Delegations from each of the peoples in the kingdom came to Ahasuerus saying “she is ours,” but the King soon realized that no one knew the truth. And when certain Jews came to the King willing to inform on Esther (perhaps for possible reward), those voices got lost amid the other delegations of peoples claiming her—and so Esther’s origins remained a secret.
Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1500-1576) disagrees with Rashi’s speaking of Jewish informers. Rabbi Alkabetz says that no Jew came forward to disclose Esther’s origins, even though some of the Queen’s actions might have seemed questionable (e.g., partying with Ahasuerus and Haman). And precisely this unity was why the Jewish people merited the miraculous turnabout in the Purim story.
The literary text itself does not seem interested in providing us with clues to the answer to the question “how was Esther’s secret kept?” Rashi and Rabbi Alkabetz each come up with an answer to the question. Perhaps you might come up with your own? Happy Purim!
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.