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Midrash, bible, and women's voices.

The storytelling aspect of midrash - charming or exasperating, stolidly obtuse or wonderfully insightful - is what we are concerned with here.

In the vast compilation of Bible commentary known as midrash, much of it embedded in Talmud, only one genre, aggadah, is concerned with storytelling. Another, halakhah, addresses scripture with an eye to its legal aspects. It is usual to make this distinction between the two. The Bible was concerned with setting forth an ethical basis for the life of the ancient Hebrews, backed by the force of halakhah, Jewish law. Yet it is not always possible or desirable to make a hard distinction between the halakhic aspect of midrash and aggadot, stories. Both shaped our Jewish sense of ourselves. It is important to see what moral and cultural lessons were taught by Bible stories and their commentaries. Many of the commentaries, particularly those expressing attitudes toward women, became the basis of tradition, carrying legal force. How do those meanings strike us now?

Moral truths - as embodied in the Ten Commandments, for example are eternal. But we have only to read the midrashic scholars to see (if we weren't convinced of it already) how great an effort every generation must make to give morality the necessary irresistible force of revelation, if it is to be a living source of ethical energy and not merely a curiosity of ancient times.

The midrashists - the word midrash comes from the Hebrew lidrosh, to search, to ask, to explain, to draw out, to enlarge upon - seized upon improbabilities, gaps. These spaces lying open in the text set the scholars to dreaming, to imagining answers to their own questions. Often, the ancient commentators invented whole new tales that not only explained but extended biblical narratives.

Midrash that specifically addresses the stories of the Bible - aggadot - does so in various ways. It may use analysis, logical deduction, proofs by comparison, or "prooftexts," passages culled from other texts and interwoven with the passage under study. And often it adds more story to the story. These added-on stories were sometimes invented by scholars in the heat of discussion, sometimes gleaned from legends and embellished with more comment.

Eric Auerbach's Mimesis notes that the Hebrew Bible in its terseness expresses moral teaching above all, in contrast to Homer's storytelling mode in The Odyssey, where details abound and aesthetics predominate over ethics. The Bible offers a detail-less simplicity and almost unbearable tension. This is how Auerbach describes the Akedalz, the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham: "Serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded."

For Rebekah, the well; for Isaac, the binding. She was generous and life-giving, he was nearly sacrificed. That is all the background the Bible accords this bride and groom, progenitors of biblical Jews, mother and father to our sacral selves.

It may be because Bible stories are as terse and as given to moral teaching as Auerbach describes that midrash was born. Some traditional midrashim that comment on Bible stories with these narratives, aggadot, elaborate on the stories with an interweaving of astonishing detail.

What is equally astonishing is that these midrashim do not always appear to express moral teaching. Or if they do, not in a way easily come upon. Sometimes detail reinforces the original intention of the Bible story. At other times it pulls the story in some other direction. The results can be seemingly absurd and gratuitous linkings, or marvels of insight.

The medieval Jewish poet Samuel ha-Nagid said, "Each one explained the verse according to his fancy and according to what came into his mind." All the same, says another source, "If you wish to get to know the One by whose word the world came into being - study the aggadah."

To which I add the question, if you not only study the aggadah but write some midrash yourself - what then?

What I Want Midrash To Do

What I want midrash to do is pick out the questions that have lain dormant and unnoticed in the story for 1,000 years, like rich archaeological treasure, or the bone of some paleontological missing link fossilizing under layers of shale.

I want midrash to give a voice to women in the Bible who have had nearly none. To be an advocate for biblical figures over whom the ages have kicked considerable dust, and to imagine their lives. To try to see, for example, what events might have changed Rebekah from a sheltered, passive girl to a determined, goal-oriented woman who could take covenantal succession upon herself. To raise new questions and add them to those the midrashists have already asked, and to attempt new answers.

How is it that Rebekah didn't know about the great drama of Isaac's life, the Akedah, Isaac's near-sacrifice by his father? It hardly answers to say that the story was intended to put an end to child sacrifice, and since Isaac was not killed that is all that need concern us. A narrative once set in motion is no longer entirely in the control of its author. It takes on its own life; its integrity demands that narrative lines be followed to the end. Narrative can act like the golem in the famous sixteenth-century legend, the giant manlike construction said to have been created by Rabbi Judah of Prague to protect the Jews. It was created for one purpose, but its own energies drove it to rampage wherever it could.

And so the text cries out for us to imagine what life was like for Rebekah when she found out the secret of that day on Mount Moriah when Isaac was bound to the altar and Abraham stood above him with a knife. What happened after she made the discovery?

And what of the response of Isaac's mother, Sarah, to the Akedah? We are never in Sarah's presence again after that near-fatal episode. What if Sarah knew of Abraham's intention? What might Sarah have done?

As for Rachel and Leah, what was it really like for sisters to share a husband and compete for his sexual favors so they could bear sons? Could they ever resolve their rivalry? A wonderful midrash has come down to us from Lamentations Rabba: Rachel, to spare Leah humiliation on her wedding night, when Jacob thought he was sleeping not with Leah but with his beloved Rachel, hid under the bed. When Jacob spoke to Leah, Rachel answered in her own voice from under the bed.

As sometimes happens, the answer to one question raises another question that is even harder to answer. This beautiful and sensitive midrash is at the same time incredibly insensitive, because it never wonders what on earth it could have been like for Rachel to be under that bed, or Leah to be on it.

What questions can we ask about Lot's daughters, who procured their father's seed in the good cause of procreation, thinking they were the last beings left on earth, or about Tamar, who posed as a harlot to usurp her father-in-law's seed for a similarly desperate reason?

Or about Miriam, heroine of Exodus, who was honored yet by-passed and punished beyond the bounds of anything imposed on other members of that family of prophets, who were so pleasing and at the same time so irritating to God?

We know a good deal about the private lives of Abraham, of Jacob, of Isaac, of Moses, of Joseph. But what do we know about the private life of Deborah, a woman of powerful public position, a general and a judge? What could her private life have been like in that era?

And what of Esther, whose story ends in political triumph, but who is left, at the end, still sacrificed to the swinishly swilling Ahasuerus. What happened when the trumpets of triumph fell silent?

Stories from the Hebrew Bible are the cultural heritage of western civilization. Women of the Bible, particularly in their familial and societal relationships - Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Rebekah, Ruth, Esther, Tamar, Deborah, and others, named and unnamed - hold powerful places in our imaginations.

I would like to turn things about. What if those Bible women had knowledge of us? How would they tell us their stories?

This is a book made up of such tellings about a selected group of women of the Bible, often in their own imagined voices. Above all, I want to suggest possibilities for new points of view, to create a narrative climate that will draw readers to participate creatively in the asking of new questions and the imagining of new answers, new midrashim. These new narratives should be exciting and unexpected as well - good storytelling. In this way I am trying to bring biblical narratives in which women figure closer to our contemporary interests, ironies, and needs without, I hope, losing their original power.

Implicit in these new stories is a dialogue with the ancient commentators, the midrashists. The time- and place-bound parameters of their views of women are contrasted with contemporary concerns. The questions they asked - or failed to ask - about these powerful but cryptic narratives can be offset by the questions readers now want to ask and to have answered.

The Lost Voice of Women

In numbers of individuals, families, potential genetic inheritance, in stories, sermons, and studies, the rich-threaded fabric of lived lives lost in the lost Jews of the Holocaust, one and a half million of them children, we read our bankruptcy amid new Jewish flowering. I believe we must, sadly, add to that loss the millennial prohibition against the voices of women in traditional Jewish culture and religious writing.

Where are the texts they might have left us, the variety of voices they might have lent to the sound of Jewish thought? Our ranks impoverished, we cannot ourselves go on thinning them by leaving out the female voice, by denying her turn to speak.

To give biblical women a voice is not merely to do a feminist reparational reading and writing. It is to attempt some fractional hint at those voices that might have been heard had our losses not been so great historically and culturally.

If we understand that we must as never before allow the voices of women to be heard now, in the present, we must also see the necessity of plunging into the past to release our ancient mothers from embedded silence, to retrieve them through imagination.

We Know More Midrash Than We Think

In Egypt, the enslaved male Hebrews had to work all night. Their wives came to them in secret in order to conceive. But then they were faced with Pharaoh's terrible edict of death to their infant sons. Therefore when the women gave birth, the children went into the earth where they flourished until they could burst out again in full-grown health.

Before I had any knowledge of this or any other midrash, I wrote in my novel, Touching Evil, originally published in 1969, a fantasy cherished by one of the characters in that book All the Jewish children in Europe about to be destroyed by the Nazis were magically taken up into the wombs of their mothers again and kept there safe until deliverance.

The rabbis of the early centuries invented and perfected midrash, but if they hadn't, we'd have done it ourselves. The need, the wish, the dream of altering reality is as strong in us as is hunger or thirst.

Models of the Past

For inspiration we have many classic midrashic traditions. I want to cite two here, so strong they burn themselves into the text. One is the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Midrash takes up the case of Hagar, the concubine who bore Abraham's first son Ishmael, and whom Sarah later banished with her son, causing readers to worry ever afterward about the compassion of the Matriarch and the ethics of the Bible. When Sarah dies, Abraham takes as wife a woman the Bible calls Keturah. Midrash picks up these open strands of the story, weaves them together, and tells us that Keturah turns out to be none other than Hagar! Thus midrash provides a new ending of unmistakable rightness, giving release to pent-up ethical and narrative tensions.

The other midrashic addition is found in the story of Esther, or rather of Vashti. She is summoned to the court by the King and refuses to appear. Therefore Vashti is banished, and room made for Esther to enter the story and become the favorite of Ahasuerus. From that position she derives the power to overcome Haman, the evil plotter against the Jews. A midrash in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer adds that Vashti is commanded to appear naked. And that is wonderful but puzzling. Wonderful because it deepens the character of Vashti, whose sense of personal dignity is heroic, against the odds of such times. Puzzling because it diminishes by contrast the stature of Esther, who is in fact the one who ultimately, as the favorite of the harem, will be forced to appear naked before the king and his court. (No, the Bible text doesn't say so, but that does not preclude the inevitable from occurring.) Esther has no thought for personal dignity, and though she is supremely courageous and cunningly creative on behalf of the threatened Jews, her personal story is shadowed by the story of Vashti, who forthrightly refuses to collaborate in her own degradation.

The question remains: Why did the rabbis embellish Vashti's story in this way? Maybe they wanted only to emphasize the sordid excesses of the court. Whatever their reasons, as a result something happens to the subtext of the Esther narrative that remains one of the glories of detail- and story-enhancing midrash.

Narrative Method in Classical Midrash

In the Jewish religious world, time conflates, collapses. There is no before and no after. That miraculous simultaneity stems from the rabbinic idea that all of Tanakh - the entire Hebrew Bible: five Books of Moses, Prophets, and Writings - as well as later rabbinic commentary on it, was revealed at Sinai.

Interestingly, this ancient declaration of faith meets itself again in the latest scientific theories about time: If you venture out far enough into the realm of quantum physics, there also you encounter no limitation of time, no before and no after. There you find the simultaneity of the rabbis.

A superb example of this approach, this midrashic magic realism of time conflation, can be seen in the following legend. The second-century sage, Rabbi Akiva, refers reverentially back nearly ten centuries to the wisdom of Moses who would, says Akiva, have been able to explain the meaning of the crowned letters of the Torah. At the same moment, in order to learn the meaning of those crowned letters himself, Moses listens in at the Academy where Rabbi Akiva expounds on the mystery of the crowns above the letters, ascribing their ancient secret knowledge to Moses!

On a less exalted level, but one of no less importance to the midrashic rabbis, was the troublesome matter of the long journey on which Eliezer the messenger escorted Rebekah from her home in Haran toward marriage to Isaac in Canaan. What about the sexual temptations, the rabbis wondered, of such prolonged proximity? What about protecting Rebekah's virginity? If you were heavenly ruler for a day, how would you take care of matters? Would you say that Rebekah's hymen became miraculously impenetrable? Or that Eliezer suffered from impotence for the duration of the journey? Or that a plague of sealed apertures descended on the travel party so that they were incapable of any movement except eating, evacuating, and riding their camels? The rabbis called on all these possibilities to explain other cases, but in this instance they contented themselves with saying that for safety's sake, God shortened the trip of many days to a mere few hours, and no nights at all.

This conflating of time gives wonderful license. I have availed myself of it to infuse women of the Bible with a contemporary knowledge and sensibility. We are present in their own time, and they are here in ours.

Narrative Method and the Uses of Story

Although some Bible stories may have been presented for nation-building reasons - the covenant of land (Abraham) and the redemption of the hopeless and despised (Sarah, becoming fecund in her barren old age) - the narrative nevertheless takes on a life of its own. Abraham and Sarah have become a real married couple, quarreling about other bed-mates and clashing on how to bring up the children. They have come to represent qualities other than those intended.

One thinks of Shaker furniture, carved in austere utility for the most practical use, but in the process acquiring aesthetic dimensions. So these biblical characters, placed on a page to teach religious, national, and societal traditions governing everything from covenantal succession to female subservience, take on subtexts of astonishing depths. Into these depths the midrashist plunges, drawing forth fresh treasure.

In some narratives, I take my cue from the traditional midrashists themselves (as well as from contemporary fictional techniques) to make a collage rather than a single linear narrative. More than one view of character is possible. More than one time setting for a story. More than one way for the narrative to go, and it may go in all those ways simultaneously. More than one resolution may be found.

"What doesn't happen in reality happens in dreams; if not in this life, then in some other." In his transcendent story, "Gimpel the Fool," I. B. Singer puts these words into the mouth of Gimpel, a born midrashist if ever there was one.

Kabbalah describes the various aspects of God: Human events may be governed by one of God's aspects this time, another aspect another time. Consistency, which we deem a great good in bringing up our children, is not always available to God's children. This quotidian lack brings compensation; as a source of narrative surprise, no one could ask for more. "What can possibly happen next?" is as urgent a life question as a fictional one.

Midrash and Fiction

For as long as there have been storytellers, there has been trouble with ending stories. Some tellers may be a little self-conscious about beginning, but that's as nothing compared with ending. No wonder the end of a story is daunting: It requires your own version of philosophy, psychology, cultural history, theology, and world view, all wrapped in one. The end of a story is a moment of truth, not only about the elements of the story, but about you, the storyteller - what you are and what you believe.

As a writer of fiction, I am struck by the way in which the midrashic writing of the rabbis resembles the creation of fiction, with one important exception. Midrash, unlike writers' revisions, comes after the final story version, the one already in the Bible canon.

The rabbis took narrative already set, known, and codified, and felt free to make variations. If they didn't quite change the endings, they sometimes added episodes or details that so altered the overall tonality of a story that it is felt as a new entity, as in the story of Abraham and Hagar.

Much of what the rabbis did with midrash resembles the fiction-writing impulse. Midrashists ask themselves about motivation for what the characters do. What the text omits, they try to supply, sometimes imagining themselves into the feelings of a character. Accounting for discrepancies in the story, they make events plausible.

But midrash can also sometimes seem like alternative drafts of a Bible story. It still insists on its right to imagine what might have been, as if each character continued to possess countless possibilities beyond its Bible definition. Midrash can give voice to radically skeptical views; midrash can appear to deconstruct, though by its own lights it is reconstructing. Classical midrash positions itself within the tradition of revelation, which is what makes its practice of inventing variations on biblical lives so startling - until, that is, we understand that revelation is seen by the midrashists to be ongoing, and to include what they themselves at that moment are saying: Having come to understand the process, we can still be astonished by the contents of the variations.

To take the case of Rebekah, we have already seen what the rabbis conjectured about the long trip to Canaan that Rebekah, Isaac's bride-to-be, took in the company of Eliezer the servant. It was dangerous. Isaac's past made him suspicious, midrash shrewdly goes on (that near-slaughter by his father). He would wonder if the servant behaved improperly on the way. No doubt, the midrashists said, the journey was miraculously speeded up to a matter of mere hours for safety's sake.

Yet sometimes midrash can make connections of startling insight that deepen characters and the meanings of their relationships, through the use of that same unbridled and unintimidated imagination. The midrash on the Genesis story of Abraham taking Hagar as a wife after Sarah's death is the magnificent illustration here.

The Bible text occasionally capitulates to the power of two different versions of an event, as in the double creation story. In one version God creates Adam and Eve at the same time. In the other, God first creates Adam from the earth and then Eve from Adam's rib. The Redactor, who welded together the various Bible accounts, allowed both creation stories to stand, thus making new resonances. Some midrash is of such great power that it will, in the reader's mind, be taken together with Bible story, again making it resonate anew.

Midrash and Theology

The midrashists lived in the dark era that followed the destruction of the Second Temple. We live in a time sick with Holocaust consciousness. The Book of Lamentations, read every year on Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is filled with scenes of suffering and despair. But the ancient commentators were able to say that the suffering caused by the Roman sack of Jerusalem was a result of Jewish sinning. A mind that could conceive of the Holocaust as punishment for Jewish sin would be a mind so filled with the ancient faith as to divorce it utterly from our own time.

In an earlier midrash on Jonah, included in my collected essays, Accidents of Influence: Writing as a Woman and a Jew in America, I addressed the question of the reluctant prophet. The traditional view of Jonah calls him a man obsessed with judgment who despises mercy. He won't go to the people of Nineveh to prophesy their doom because he knows God's mercy will ensure their forgiveness. Jonah, says the commentary, wants only judgment; God wants only mercy. In my midrash, Jonah in the belly of the fish encounters a kind of living theater. For three days, scenes of Holocaust destruction of the Jews pass before his eyes. By the end of three days, when the big fish ejects him, he's still no more inclined to go to Nineveh than before. Not, this time around, because he believes God will be too merciful, but rather because he cannot bear the idea of a God who is neither judgmental nor merciful but merely absent. To live a late-twentieth-century life is to live in a time of broken faith lines, of discontinuity. Midrash is a counterweighting commentary in the service of continuity, of faith in the primacy of Jewish text.

To find in oneself the capacity to be mindful of the gift of creation, to feel grateful to God for the gift of life, is already to have found a way to God. The kaddish, recited by those who mourn a death, is a prayer of praise to God. Those who in their deep grief recite the words of prayer are already taking comfort, the comfort of being able to speak the words.

This seeming paradox might be better named "A Progress toward God." If we can create the comfort of God, God will comfort us. Evil manifestly exists. And God, goodness, virtue, and mercy exist. But these we must create anew, call into being, summon by being deeply, passionately mindful of them. And sometimes, alas, we can best summon this deep and passionate mindfulness at times of deepest grief. Midrash, like prayer at its truest, is an activist response to existential despair.

SARAH

Genesis 18:11-14

And Sarah laughed to herself saying, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?" Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?' Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.

Genesis 21:9-13

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, "Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac. "The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed."

Genesis 22:1-3

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, "Abraham, "and he answered, "Here I am." And He said, "Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you."

Commentary

In Sarah's narrative, as in others, some traditional midrash seems imprinted on the Bible story: That Sarah taught Torah in her tent as Abraham did in his. That Sarah saw Ishmael in sexually indecent behavior with Isaac and therefore wanted Ishmael banished. That she died just after the Akedah, and her cries when she heard of it are the sounds of grief the shofar makes on Yom Kippur, the one high-pitched cry that goes on and on, and the broken stuttering cries.

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer tells us that the serpent who betrayed Eve in the Garden of Eden was the one who told Sarah that Abraham had sacrificed Isaac. She "cried aloud three times and gave three howlings" and died.

With so much richness already in place, why does Sarah need new midrash? For one thing, the rabbis don't ask the question that seems obvious to us: How could Sarah, who taught Torah alongside Abraham, who heard God's voice clearly the first time when God announced the birth of Isaac, not know of God's ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Knowing, how could she not act?

Sarah was 90 years old when she conceived a child. She laughed at the divine announcement and wasn't the only one who had trouble believing it could happen. People said that Isaac was Hagar's son, too. That it was Hagar who had borne this second son by Abraham, as she had Ishmael, the first one.

As if to refute this tale, another came into being to tell us that Sarah had so much milk she was able to nurse 100 babies when she gave birth. Compared to the miracle of conception at the age of 90, such abundance of milk may be a minor manifestation. Inappropriate, though, and inconvenient. God doesn't know limits; we have to. "Did you think I wanted that?" we can imagine Sarah protesting.

There is much that is inappropriate in Sarah's story. Abraham felt forced to say she was his sister so that he would not be killed when Pharaoh took Sarah into his harem (Genesis 20:2). And this, midrash tells us, was because she possessed such physical beauty that her radiance shone through whatever coverings Abraham used to conceal her when they passed through the desert.

Hagar, Pharaoh's daughter by a concubine (Genesis Rabba), was the handmaid given to Sarah by Pharaoh. Sarah then gave Hagar as concubine to Abraham, who conceived Ishmael. Midrash adds that Abraham loved Ishmael's "playing and dancing," and Sarah was jealous for Isaac's sake. Was her Isaac perhaps not a lively fellow? A little clumsy, a little slow, not agile enough to elude Abraham when he bound him to the altar? Maybe the ram gave more trouble than Isaac did!

Sarah swore she was Abraham's sister to save her husband's life. What wouldn't she have done to save her son's? Her relationship to God was as intimate as Abraham's. Though not mentioned specifically, Sarah must have been present at the setting forth of the covenants, since God's instructions about the covenant of circumcision were clearly passed down through women: witness Zipporah's ability to circumcise Moses' son (Exodus 4:25).

So zealous a mother, so careful a hearer and watcher of God - how can we not wonder why Sarah wasn't an active intervener in the Akedah? For those of us who wonder, "The Unbinding of Sarah" follows.

The Unbinding of Sarah

It is not generally talked about, but on that dark journey up to Mount Moriah where Abraham was to sacrifice his son to God, Sarah also went along.

Naturally, she would go.

In the night she heard the voice in Abraham's tent saying, "Take your son and sacrifice him." It was a voice she recognized. That voice and Sarah had laughed together!

Sarah rushed into Abraham's tent, but Abraham waved her away. No talk! No time to listen! Preparations to make!

He had been more attentive when he sent Hagar from the house with Ishmael. He had been more reluctant to expel them. He had caressed that mother, kissed that child.

Now he pointed his finger away from himself and without another word or gesture expelled Sarah from his tent.

But Sarah stayed to argue. Naturally, she would do that. Maybe Abraham didn't know, maybe he hadn't understood? No one disputed that Abraham was a good man, but it didn't do at times like these to be too quick to obey! And since Abraham could think of a hundred questions to put to God about the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah, surely he might have thought of one or two about their son?

"If you had no questions," Sarah cried, "why didn't you just laugh out loud?"

The busy Patriarch moved about the tent. His ears, having filled with God's voice, could take in nothing else. Preparing, preparing! He knew when to take God seriously. When to question, when to be silent.

And when to lie! Who knew that better than the two of them? Years ago it had been. "Save my life!" he'd begged. "Let me tell Pharaoh you are my sister, not wife. We will ask God's intervention, and you may be untouched. But even if Pharaoh should take you, it is my life, my life!"

She had not refused him. Abraham had led her as his sister into Pharaoh's palace, past the barbarous guards with flashing swords. Each antechamber was darker than the one before. In the darkening light of the torches' smoky gleam, she passed first through a chamber hung in gold and the green of the sea; next, through one of gold and the blue of heaven; the last was a chamber of gold and the red of blood.

In each room she trembled. In the room of green and gold she whispered, "Are you with me, Abraham?" And her husband answered, "Here I am." In the room of blue and gold she asked, "Are you here, Abraham?" "Yes, I am here." And in the room of red and gold she cried out, "Where are you, Abraham?" But there was no answer. Eunuchs had already seized her, pulled her through the door, and left Abraham outside. Within she was bathed, oiled, perfumed, and brought naked, with bells on her ankles and fine gauze scarves floating about her face, to Pharaoh. Later, God's plague descended and Pharaoh's women could not bear. But that was later. Always that little time lag before catching God's attention. Her husband had once more agreed to something to save his life and was telling the lie this time to her! Who could be sure when matters would come to God's attention? During the night Sarah dreams of Hagar. There is no limit to the questions Sarah asks then.

- When death stalked your son in the desert, didn't you utter some prayer, some special supplication, that brought God's mercy down? You, whose son survived, can't you teach me words that give such blessing?

Hagar, no longer handmaid, is decked in full Egyptian robes and tasselling. She stares outward sybil-like, enthroned. In the perversity of dreams, she is now possessed of Sarah's former youth and beauty.

- I offer you aid, former mistress, Hagar answers. Not as measure of my love, but of my power. Your plight's more severe than mine. You, a mortal woman, wished my son's death. God himself desires the death of yours. Here's advice, voice of experience - submit! If you're worthy, reap reward and rescue. Otherwise, your son's as good as dead.

- Is that all?

- Yes, all.

- No words? No prayer? You, the inventor of prayer?

Sarah turns to go, then turns again. She falls to her knees. Weeps. Begs for Isaac's life.

- You must remember? Act or prayer? Hagar, something else you must have done!

The shocking dream scene! Sarah's embrace of her former handmaid's knees. Hagar's repulsion, with movements of feet, of her former mistresses' arms!

- I am about to impart the secret knowledge! Hagar intones.

But then the dream dissolves.

Sarah seeks Eliezer, faithful servant, Abraham's messenger. Him, too, she plies with questions Abraham will not allow.

"How can it be the life of Isaac God wants? He is the son God gave me! Why give a son, then take away? Is there some other truth we ought to guess at? What does God expect this frightful message will make us understand? If we understand, will we fathom to benigner meaning? Speak, messenger!"

Eliezer answers with care. "Messages are often longer than we think. Some go on so long whole wells run dry."

"Didn't I laugh when God promised a child? I laughed at the knowledge that I would not be allowed to keep him. I laughed, foreseeing bitter birth pains. My laugh was a vow to not love this borrowed boy, soon to be returned. Yet I was as helpless as if I'd never vowed, ready to sacrifice a bondwoman's son to save my own. See how life reflects our deeds! If I had not sent Hagar's son to banishment, might God now choose him for sacrifice and spare mine? Is that God's message? Speak, messenger!"

Eliezer replies, "I have already dreamed a journey Abraham sends me on. There is water in it. Water often means life. I remember feasting at the end."

"Did you feast as Abraham's inheritor? Once, Eliezer, you were near inheritor of Abraham, who had no son. Then two were born. One son vanished. Is the second to follow? Will Eliezer inherit at last? Speak! Speak!"

"If so, it would be misery to Eliezer. He is no Abraham, and has no wish to hear direct from God. Let his master pass God's word along in tasks, in praise for work well done. Let Eliezer inherit a night's sleep, and let the sons of Abraham live and strengthen, endure ordeals, if they must, from God!"

"Yet were you, in your dream, the inheritor of Abraham's house? Messenger, you must speak!"

"I was myself, a servant. Trusted on great errands. When I woke, my heart filled with joy. I had done my task, traveled far and yet remained in my true place as one into whose ear Abraham, who has the ear of God, pours messages."

Still Sarah will not let Eliezer go.

"Is there some other sacrifice God would accept? For this only son of mine - 10 first-born bullocks? 20 finest kids of the herd? 30 sheep? 40 heifers? 50 fledgling birds? Or your son, Eliezer? Speak, messenger!"

But Eliezer is struck dumb.

In the morning, Sarah also took provisions, mounted a donkey, and rode to Mount Moriah. Naturally, she would do that.

No more questions. Her son had been 90 years coming, 40 years growing. Her only son, Isaac, whom she loved. She followed them.

Now and then Abraham looked back and saw her. He shouted something and the wind blew it over his shoulder. He made pushing-away movements with his arm. Sarah kept on. Naturally, she would.

Whenever she lost sight of them she called out to wayfarers, "Have you seen my beloved? I beg you to tell me which way he's gone!"

After a while she saw that Abraham and Isaac had dismounted their donkeys and were already climbing the stony mountain on foot.

"I am coming, beloved," she shouted to her son, so that he would understand nothing could harm him. But as she urged her donkey forward, the beast stumbled and stopped. She felt its trembling in her thighs. Something was in the path.

She saw nothing. No snake or scorpion. But she continued to feel between her thighs the shudders of the little donkey. Sarah and the donkey both trembled before the empty air of nothing on the path.

Then there were warm puffs of air on her cheek. The nothing on the path was drawing closer.

"Where are you, Sarah?" came a voice at her ear.

"Here I am, God, hurrying toward my husband and my only son, with whom you blessed my old age. Up there" - Sarah pointed urgently - "they're coming to the top!"

"Stop a bit. It's a long while since we've talked together. In fact, not since the day you heard prophecy that you would bear that same son. I'm afraid, Sarah, that you failed to take it seriously. You laughed."

"Did I? Such things escape my memory these days. Since you say so, of course I humbly apologize for it. But the truth, if you remember, is that I was already 90 years old. Past a woman's time for that."

"Have I shown myself partial to the young? On the contrary! In long, barren periods I age my chosen women. Then I come to them with creation. What is time to me, Sarah, woman's or man's?"

"True, but I must hurry. I am in a terrible rush to get to my son in time. . . ."

"You harp on time. If it reassures you, I will stop time while we talk."

"Please don't, or I will have to do this all over again."

"Then I will slow time. For the sake of your righteousness and also your former beauty which I still behold perfected in my timeless eye. Come, be young! I count on you for relief. Lightness, a bit of lightness! My powers, tremendous, override all. My forces, my faces, my phases, they race and rage. Male toward female, mercy toward judgment, compassion toward law, wisdom toward - I forget exactly what. In short, Sarah, having imparted my effulgence, my aspects crash about, make runs to distant corners of my radiance like children darting to a base in hope of hearing a voice cry out, 'Allee, allee, home free!' The bark is chipping off the Tree of Life from constant glancing blows of my powerful, several, separate selves which you and your kind in creative covenant were to integrate with goodly acts. How well you've done this is attested to by endless tears and supplications on your side, and utter unpredictableness on mine."

"These are heavy matters, and I am . . ."

"Can't I make you see how it is? One phase pushes to the fore and smites with misfortune some good man walking in a field! To test, of all things, steadfastness! Another issues frightful orders to test viciousness among the virtuous! These matters vex me. I'd show more benign guidance to my human flock, yet suspect those free wills that I've given them run counter to my own! Sarah, much is darkening, I rely on you for lightness!"

Still mentally harping in her narrow, limited, human fashion on how time slipped away, Sarah could see all the same that this would be the worst of all times to forfeit her usefulness to God - terrible timing! She forced herself to alter tone and manner. Though her time-filled heart was thumping out its seconds full of fear for Isaac, she dismounted her donkey and leaned in simulated ease against a rock.

"What is your pleasure, God?"

Puffs of warm wind touched all parts of her body. She felt a voluptuousness take hold of her flesh - was God turning her into a young woman again, was time really nothing? Though the rock she leaned against was hard, she felt exceedingly comfortable.

"To begin with, a chat. Tiferet - Beauty - and Binah - Intelligence - must have risen. You needn't look impatient. How well fastened to your core are your own modes? Some years or days ago when I announced that you would bear a son - let's have no discussion about this now - you laughed. Yet, if I am not mistaken, you grew to love your son, Isaac."

"With all my heart."

"Yet your son Ishmael you also loved, did you not?"

"Of course I loved Ishmael! Did I not myself send Hagar, my servant, in to Abraham to conceive? I can still see the tent with its dark flares, its animal hangings, its low wide bed. Hagar, that Egyptian, danced toward the Patriarch, lured him there. . . ."

Sarah's voice grew fainter, as if she spoke to herself, "Hagar and I held hands across the old man's back. Abraham revived in the presence of youth. Why not I? Hagar's son became my own! His strength and sleekness became my joy! Then when I no longer prayed or hoped or wished for it, God's voice told me I would bear a child. God's joke, I thought, to embarrass an old woman. Saying, 'You will bear when I say to you: "Bear!"' And did I not bear him on my knees?"

"Ishmael was the son of your knees and your bosom, Sarah, and very nearly of your loins. Yet you sent him out of your house with his mother to what might have been his death, for all you knew. Oh, I covered for you - I sent an angel with water before any real harm could be done. I promised Hagar that Ishmael would become the father of a nation of his own, and I kept my promise. But you, Sarah! How did you bring yourself to banish the first darling son of your heart?"

"Here I am," said Sarah, hotly defending herself, "an old woman now, and was old even then! An old person's love is cruel. Sees essentials, contracts to essence. Saves what must be saved. In my heart and body I was already a grandmother when I became a mother! Couldn't you see that?"

"Calm yourself, poor old mother - or grandmother, as you choose to call yourself. Did I not cause all the springs to freshen and flow once more? Did I not make you young? And can I not do it again, this very moment, should I so desire?"

"It's embarrassing," Sarah said, hiding her eyes. "If one's body is not one's own. Against my will I bore Isaac. But when he leapt from my belly to my arms, I leapt like a lioness to protect him. Danger was everywhere. In Ishmael, my darling boy no longer. I said to Abraham, 'Banish them!' I stanched his tears with my will and in place of Ishmael thrust my flesh!"

A puff of air sighed at Sarah's ear. "Beneath all that beauty, so much cruelty! Well, you are my creation, made in my image. More accurately than the male of your species, with his unreliable appendage! Had I that to do again I would build a male regenerative organ as dependable as the female's. Perhaps a retractable arrangement - you've seen the necks on my turtles?"

Sarah thought, While God rambles over Creation, what is happening to my son? Let me frame a shrewder answer and end this. "Yes, of course I know turtles. I also knew you would have plans for the slave-girl's child. Hagar was far too comfortable where she was. A slave's a slave, in the end. We gave her all the freedom there was, yet the slave within was too great. She'd lost ambition, and would have stayed in her position forever. A push through the door was what she needed. To enter her real destiny, I mean. Like your demanding that Abraham set out into the world when you told him to go. Suppose he'd been too lazy, or too satisfied where he was? He'd be nothing now. So Hagar and Ishmael went out into the world and their names grew great. And I, too, must . . ."

"An ingenious answer in its way. Yet tell me, Sarah." The puffs of wind on her cheek grew hotter. "Did you never long for your first child? Did you not miss his daring outspokenness, his surprising, flashy exploits? Is it only Isaac's meekness that speaks to your mother's heart?"

Sarah yearned to get away, up to the mountaintop, where her beloved must certainly be seeking her! Yet she could not hold back questions of her own.

"And when you formed us from the clay, could you not have shaped us misfortune-free? Where is the womb's free will? Does it choose to disobey you when it cannot send forth fruit? You, Lord, can impregnate a stone, but I was created a woman who could not conceive. Can you not give up curiosity about your own creatures, to see what we will do when we face the worst of times? No water, no child, no land, no rest, no harvest, no friend, only enemies and slaughter - what will they do now? Can you not cease these tests, these researches in wretchedness?"

In the heat of speaking, Sarah at first sat upright, then rose to her feet. "Can you not bear to grant all your children the chance to prosper in this brief life," she said, moving purposefully in the direction of her donkey, "as any mother would?"

Sarah was stopped by the sound of what she thought was laughter.

"That is amusing. Women do not want that! They connive, and scheme, and choose one child over another, whom they cruelly deprive! I have seen it, and will see it again!"

At that, Sarah burst out: "It's you who make us choose! This child over that child! Time's cut too short, you have snatched away immortal life from us. We are forced to covet inheritance, how can it be shared? Humiliated by death, how can we not be cruel? You are bountiful, Lord, but there is never enough to go around."

Ominous silence. Sarah trembled. I have failed to amuse. I have lost, both time and Isaac!

"Take care, Sarah!" the voice rumbled in her ear. "I see that like Abraham you like to argue with your God. But I am not always in the mood."

"Forgive me if I spoke hastily. Although you have slowed time for me, my heart still runs up the mountain for my son's sake."

"Have I not managed to divert your purpose yet? Perhaps you'll reveal what provisions you have in your sack. Did you mean to find a shady tree and refresh yourself?"

"Your will be done, God," said Sarah. She pulled from her sack a male sheep that bleated in the light. "But let it truly be your will, and not some misreading by my husband's tired mind."

"What is your purpose here, Sarah? Surely you did not expect to slaughter and roast a sacrifice for me?"

At first Sarah was silent in protest against such teasing. But silence used up precious minutes. She answered, "This is why I must hurry to the mountaintop! To make sure my husband hears your command as you intend.

Here is the sacrifice he must make to you. Not our son Isaac!"

"Are you so certain of my will, Sarah?"

"You who rescued a slave-girl's son will surely not demand the life of mine!"

An ominous pause, then the relief of God's words:

"Sarah, you have wit! The randiest of my creatures will butt his horn against your husband and stand in your son's stead. Well done, Sarah! This is a joke for all creation to savor. A ram from God!"

A puff of wind on Sarah's cheek, laughter in the distance, and soon, Sarah saw, the donkey had ceased its trembling. She mounted and they cantered on, Sarah spurring with her heels.

After a while she abandoned the donkey and went the rest of the way on foot, all the while reassuring herself. Isaac is young and Abraham old. If need be Isaac could topple that old man! But then she stumbled on thoughts hard as the stones of the mountain. Despair will rob Isaac of power. Make him submit to his father's force!

I raised a son to gentleness. Let it not kill him now.

She was late, too late! Isaac lay on the altar, his body bound with ropes, his face contorted in fear.

Sarah's cry of anguish so terrified the animal she carried that it smashed through the sack and charged into a thicket where it snared its horns, and was caught.

As was Abraham, mid-murder, the slaughterer's knife raised over his son.

Abraham's body was sweat-drenched, his knife-wielding fist shook with power. He could not change course. God had to send two angels to hang on his arm and drag it down.

"Abraham!" they cried, entering the episode at last. "Here is a ram for slaughter. No need to kill Isaac! Put an end to this shameful scene!"

Abraham looked wildly around for God, but saw only his wife clutching her breast. He scowled at her with all the fear and confusion in his own heart. Then with slow fingers he untied Isaac.

Sarah dragged herself from that place. Once she reached home, all the jagged stones she carried in her heart - the journey, the meeting with God, the sight of Isaac trussed on the altar like an animal for killing - crushed her with their weight. Sarah died, never to see Isaac again.

God lengthened the last of Sarah's earthly moments in hope of some final witticism to lighten his ever-darkening mood. Under the circumstances, the best Sarah could come up with was this:

"You made time slow for me, God, as I hurried toward Isaac's rescue. Now time rushes me toward rescue from all but You."

She heard laughter at her ear, felt embraced and lifted toward light. At the same moment, she knew that the God she talked and laughed with was no more than a merciful illusion God had laid across the darkness that separated them. She would reach beyond the illusion only when life had left her.

With her last breaths she uttered three piercing cries. Those who witnessed her death thought, "Sarah has flung her cries into the abyss of unknowing as Zipporah flung the foreskin of Moses' child at the pursuing God! Sarah's cries are as sharp as circumcision! They will be our inheritance, we will hear them whenever we hurl anguish or hope into the stony ear of the ram's horn."

Tekiah: "Whooooooooooooooooo-ooo!"

Shevarim: "Are-you; are-you; are-you; are-you!"

Teruah: "Are you-you-you-you-you-you-you-you!"

And what of the answers? Ah, they thought, answers come as coded as the cries! Sometimes warm and near, or from great, cold distances . . . faint . . . fainter. They thought of these things as they prepared for burial the body of the matriarch, Sarah. Who can tell, they wondered, whether silence is a degree of speech we have not yet learned to fathom?

ESTHER

Esther 7:2-8

On the second day, the king again asked Esther at the wine feast, "What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Queen Esther replied: "If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king's trouble."

Thereupon King Ahasuerus demanded of Queen Esther. "Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?" "The adversary and enemy," replied Esther, "is this evil Haman!" And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. "Does he mean," cried the king, "to ravish the queen in my own palace?"

Commentary

Esther makes us confront what we think when we think about the nature of biblical heroes. Do we prefer them to be entirely virtuous? Or do we feel more inspired by an ordinary human mixture of qualities that these heroes, wrestling and suffering, take in hand in service to a desired goal? When they achieve the goal, they do so by striving against their own lesser qualities.

Clearly the Bible prefers the second way. Of its heroes and heroines, none is without flaw. Think of preening Joseph, duplicitous Jacob, lascivious David, irascible Moses; cruel Sarah, manipulative Rebekah, thieving Rachel all of those who grow despite, or dragging, their flaws toward greatness.

Esther is of their company. She makes no protest against the lulling, dulling attentions she receives as she prepares to become winner of the harem beauty contest (for months, rubbed with lotions, soaked in perfumes). She may, in short, have in her at the beginning a good deal of empty-headed narcissist, of silly girl who thinks of nothing but her skin. Yet once chosen queen, she is able, at risk of death, to throw her whole being into combat against the forces of evil. She resembles some of our contemporaries, so disquieting to preconceptions of what thinking, valorous women ought to look like: the ones who insist on dyeing, teasing, and spray-fixing their hair, who wear sexy clothes, stiletto heels, grow inch-long fingernails lacquered red; and just when they've convinced you they haven't a bean worth saving in their brains, send themselves through law school, medical school, Ph.D. programs, and come out fighting for righteous causes, still wearing 3-inch heels.

I have never met a woman who liked the Megillah of Esther. Too many aspects of the story make us squirm.

First, what to do with Vashti? She seems a heroine of defiance, but the text doesn't recognize her. It's the genius of the midrashic rabbis that adds the essential note missing from Vashti's part of the story. When the King sent for her to appear before his carousing guests, says a midrash in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, she was to come naked.

Every Purim I have to check the text to remind myself that this searing detail is not in the Bible story. But the midrashic version, once imagined, will not go away. It has seized the text, and made itself a legitimate part of it.

The rabbis did not say that Vashti was a hero, but they heightened our sense of what was at stake for her. She was not arrogant and willful, she was self-respecting and full of courage. She upholds the sacredness of human, therefore divine, aspect in a court so debauched that any woman who enters will certainly be dehumanized.

Into this milieu Mordecai thrusts his niece, Esther. Mordecai doesn't yet have the excuse that the Jews are threatened. Haman has still not spoken. But just in case the time comes. And when it does, Esther turns herself into a great and heroic strategist - albeit of the bedroom.

With uneasiness we see that the text praises Esther but is silent on Vashti, and silent on the part Mordecai plays when he volunteers Esther for the King's harem.

Esther is a Purim-shpiel, a play, and all of our Purim celebrations are playful. Yet beneath the surface of the story are underlying layers of story to which we also respond. The thrusting of Esther into whoredom by her uncle can't be entirely dismissed as cartoon, considering the history of women in the world. And the threat of annihilation of the Jews is too present in our history, recent and ancient, for us to regard the Megillah as entirely playful.

Then there is the killing orgy at the end.

The great massacre of Haman's family and the Shushan populace (all of whom are anti-Semites) is folk hyperbole, a release of frustration and wish fulfillment at Jewish powerlessness. But the Purim massacre of Palestinian worshipers at a mosque in Hebron some years ago by a literalist of Megillat Esther conflates reality and dream, folklore and fact, harmless wish-fulfilling fantasy and hideous deed. Yet even before we ever heard of that massacre, we felt in the story of Esther a built-in unease, an instability as the reader, or hearer, registers these undercurrents.

When Vashti's incredibly risky refusal of the King makes way for Esther's obsequiousness, we understand that Vashti is haughty in the service of self-respect and the dignity of personhood, made in God's image; Esther is self-sacrificing in the most self-demeaning way in the service of the Jewish people.

Megillat Ester chooses Esther's way over Vashti's, but surely we'd like to acknowledge the importance of both.

In my own midrashic continuation of the story, "After Esther," I try to.

After Esther

Haman and his sons are dead, hurrah! The Jews are under the protection of King Ahasuerus, who encouraged them to punish the anti-Semites of Shushan. Now people respect the Jews because of their surprising blows. And all this is the work of beautiful and clever Esther, whom the King desired - thank God! - and made his wife!

Now Esther, who saved the Jewish people from annihilation, is left to live out her life with King Ahasuerus. For a while the afterglow of glory gave a lovely light, but then it faded. Esther's husband raised up the Jews, but he's the same Ahasuerus, devoted to drunken revelries, and a sloppy drunk himself much of the time. Whenever Esther sleeps she dreams escape dreams.

One night the inevitable happens. Ahasuerus throws a lavish, wine-soaked saturnalia for powerful neighboring potentates. Some rule kingdoms wealthier than his. Some boast more renowned magicians. Some brag of the extraordinary beauty of their women. In that category, King Ahasuerus feels no disadvantage. His queen, he says, can be compared to the finest woman on earth.

"Prove it," yell the swaying, sousing, lolling, vomiting potentates.

At that moment, Esther is dreaming one of her escape dreams. It is set in another time and land whose language is incomprehensible to her, as if she's being prepared for other lives.

This other Esther steps onto a brilliantly lit stage wearing red spike heels and a white bathing suit with a no-string bra and a G-string bikini bottom.

"What's holding things up?" leers a man with a tape measure.

This Esther tells him to watch where he lays his tape.

He yells out the numbers: "38-22-38! She's a perfect contender!" He gives her a friendly nudge on the thigh and asks for her hobby.

This Esther says she has no hobby.

"Sing with a guitar, dance on your toes, strum a little on a harp?" She could sing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' for God's sake, couldn't she?

Esther has never tried. She is usually quiet, by herself, an orphan, she explains. The reason she entered a beauty contest was to be of help to her people.

"That's the ticket! You tell 'em! They love to hear that stuff!"

He's right. There isn't a dry eye in the house when Esther is crowned. The tapeman himself sets the crown on her head. As his hands come down he brushes them against her, top and bottom. Then he's on to the runner-up. Esther sees her fight to keep her smile as he rummages among the trophies on a table with one hand and rummages behind the runner-up's back with the other.

This Esther removes her shoe and, with her heel, spikes his hand to the table. "I thought of a hobby," she says. "Tabletop ornaments."

By the time Esther wakes from the dream the King sends six eunuchs to tell Esther to anoint and perfume herself for three days and then appear before the visiting potentates - naked! The eunuchs laugh: "Esther's royal share/now laid bare!"

Esther fasts and prays and scours her clever brain for a plan, a strategy. She runs to the window to look into the courtyard, hoping Mordecai will be there, but he's gone. He moved with his wife and children to the suburbs now that the anti-Semites are letting in the Jews.

Toward dawn of the first night she falls asleep and dreams again. Isn't this strange, she thinks in the dream. Here I am a queen and have everything, why am I weeping?

In fact this dream is the strangest of all. She sees a crowd of people celebrating, dressed in costumes to resemble herself, Vashti, and Mordecai. From this throng of Esthers and Vashtis and Mordecais emerge three people who really are Esther and Vashti and Mordecai, and they begin to speak.

Vashti wears a shift on which is printed Jews for Vashti. She says, "There is a Vashti faction, you know. They regard me as the heroine of the story, not you."

"I always thought you were brave," answers Esther.

"I deliberately usurped myself. When I refused to submit to the King I made room for you to be chosen,'" says Vashti.

"The Kingdom was filled with beautiful virgins!" Esther says. "How did it happen that the King chose me?"

"Indeed, the Persians scorn Jewish women. Beauty spoiled by suffering, they say. I was the one who accustomed the King to such beauty. In Esther he recognized Vashti and looked for me in your arms!"

"Then you, Vashti - are you . . . ?"

"Let it be enough to say that I created the taste in Ahasuerus for the sad-eyed look of suffering Jewish beauty. He couldn't get enough of it, as good as bound feet to a Mandarin."

"But poor Vashti, you were banished!"

"I was the spy who did not come in from the cold."

"And poor Esther has come in from the cold, but to the heat of Hell." "When they rubbed your body with oils and perfumes for a year you were content! Rubbed, massaged, perfumed, painted with colors, to win the King's notice. Ah, life in the seraglio! Lying on cushions, feeding on sweets. Soft airs, warm vapors, lulling songs, sleep, dreams. Admit it - you were delighted with those comforts and attentions!"

"The mind is meant to rot there!" Esther weeps. "In the night, terror and disgust. Submitting to the wine-soaked flesh of my husband. Sinking into nothingness, a kind of madness! Then Mordecai came to me. 'Don't think, Esther, because you're a queen, that you can escape the common-fate,' he said. From that moment my brain burned in its shell. Like a general I maneuvered the two men! Lulled Haman, positioned Ahasuerus, then planted poison seeds of fear in Haman until he threw himself on my mercy while the king read in Haman's outstretched limbs not fear but lust! Action was my freedom! I never foresaw prison."

Then Mordecai, wearing the sackcloth and ashes of permanent mourning, joins in.

"Stop! It's indecent for you both to mourn your own tiny fate. If it's clearly for the good of the people, can't a Jewish girl be sacrificed without such hullabaloo? Didn't Abraham agree to sacrifice Isaac? The boy lay there, trussed, until an angel freed him. My girl wiggled free of her bonds and saved the Jewish people! Should I be blamed for that? These quibbles eat away at heroism. And then the bloodbath at the end. Yes, I'll call it by its true name. Massacre. The Jews, unarmed, were to have been slaughtered. Once armed, they did the slaughtering. Does that surprise anyone? I get bags of hate mail, imagine, over such a story! For once, Jews come out winners, and nobody can stand it."

A note flies in attached to a brick, just missing Mordecai's head. He picks it up, and reads.

"Another humanitarian who threatens to kill me because I condone killing!" He shouts, "It offends you? Believe me, it doesn't offend me. Were you upset by the Nazi hangings at Nuremberg? Not me! I regretted every one who took his own life - Hitler, Goebbels, Goering - cheating the hangman. Mussolini upside down by the feet in the public square - that was a moment!

"'But Haman's sons,' people say, 'how does it look?' Couldn't they be spared? In that case, I say, Get them to hand over The Protocols of the Elders of Zion! Their pamphlets on how Jews run the media and control banking, their Ku Klux Klan hoods, their swastika armbands, their true-eyewitness accounts of the murder of children whose blood is baked in the matzoh, their cache of arms and crosses for burning, their Wannsee agreement, their final solution - all of it! Then I'll think it over."

Dream-Esther astonishes the Esther who is dreaming by what she now cries out: "Storytellers say it never happened, that I never had sex with the King. That God in His mercy intervened, caused the necessary organ to wither at the moment of penetration, or so pickled it in brine that with it at one end, and the King's pickled brain at the other, they failed between them to capture the place of entry. Night after night. Forever, they say. Some people want to believe that. But if they thought about it, they would realize the truth. How much can we call on God to do in one miracle? And if great, widespread tragedy is averted, isn't it too petty, too ungrateful, to ask, 'And now what about my personal happiness?' That's how it is with us. We move from cataclysm to cataclysm. History rewards us with tableaux. Haman is forever plotting, Mordecai and Esther are forever racking their brains for a way out, the Jews are forever oppressed, then they are triumphant. I stand forever looking out of the palace window with longing in my heart."

As soon as she wakes on the second day, Esther knows what to do. She sends a swift message to the Jews of Shushan, who are now prosperous and safe because of her.

"Ransom me," her note says. "Offer any sum to the King for my release. He'll be glad to be rid of me - there's a limit to how much suffering Jewish beauty he can take. Let me live in quiet peace among my people. Remember that my silence and submission have been for your sake."

But the elders of the community, who now feel extremely safe, say, "How women love to catastrophize! She's the queen. Let her make use of her own wealth to ransom herself!"

Among the beggar throngs outside the palace gates are spies and augurs, all of them watchful. News of this new scandal-in-the-making at court soon spreads among the tattered multitude and reaches the ears of Vashti, who survives among them on palace scraps.

As soon as Vashti hears the whispers, she slides into the palace along secret passageways known to her. In rags, her hair a wilderness, with all the signs of decay - scabrous skin and toothless gums - upon her, she makes her way to Esther's chamber. There she finds the queen collapsed in terror, under the contemptuous eyes of the six eunuchs, whose gelded bodies are clothed with rich garments.

"Did you think," Vashti says, "because you were Queen, that you could escape the fate of women? It may even be that you were put here for this purpose - to take your stand against our destroyers!"

"But if I refuse," Esther answers, "I will be destroyed like you!"

The six eunuchs jeer together in their terrible doggerel: "Vashti, Vashti,/balked because she/had pride!/Now Death's at her side!"

And they hold their noses because Vashti's dignity led directly to her poverty and smells bad. The eunuchs throw her out.

"Help me, God," Esther prays. "Free my wits to improvise a plan, or send Mordecai to advise me, or let the King think of the Chronicles again, and for the sake of past favors, rescind his decree against me now."

But not one of these things happens. History, like literature, doesn't like to wade in the same solution twice.

That night the six grinning eunuchs carry out the command of King Ahasuerus to bring Esther forth naked. "Esther, Esther," they maliciously recite, "this'll test 'er!"

Esther removes her rich garments one by one. When she is naked, barefoot and crownless, she walks silently along the palace corridors flanked by the eunuchs.

As they approach the hall where the king carouses with his guests, she hears rough shouts, bursts of laughter, and now and then the stifled scream of a woman.

But I am Queen! Then Esther thinks of the women in her dream who put on silver paper crowns and called themselves Queen Esther. She looks down at her bare feet and knows her power is spent.

On the hip of a guard hangs a jeweled dagger. Esther snatches it and plunges it into her chest. Soon her own blood clothes her naked body in a royal garment of red, and under this covering the eunuchs carry beautiful Esther into the King's presence.

Some say he was remorseful, shoved his weeping face into an armpit while his huge belly shook with grief; some say enraged - he threw wine goblets and food at the eunuchs; some say delighted to have won his bet and rid himself of his tiresome wife at the same time. He clapped his hands, struggled to his feet and skipped elephantiacally around the room, like the hippo toe-dancing in Disney's Fantasia.

When Mordecai heard the news he put on sackcloth and ashes again. He always kept them handy - what a pessimist!

"Oh, Esther," he grieved. "Just a few more years of suffering and you might have become a tzadeket! Now that can't happen, and the Jews no longer have a friend at court. Any day the evil decree against us may be revived."

And so it came to pass. Again and again. For Queen Esther was dead. No one had thought it necessary to protect the protectress, or to grant the Jewish woman whom we call Queen her freedom.

NORMA ROSEN has written two novels, Touching Evil and At the Center, both recently reissued in paperback, as well as a book of essays Accidents of Influence: Writing as a Woman and a Jew in America (1992). This introduction and midrashim are excerpted pore Biblical Women Unbound: Counter-Tales, published by the Jewish Publication Society this Fall, copyright 1996 by Norma Rosen, and printed here by permission of the Jewish Publication Society.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Jewish Congress
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rosen, Norma
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Words:11952
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