The Malbim on Esther


Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, known to us by the acronym “Malbim,” from his initials, wrote a much-beloved commentary on the Book of Esther.  As with most rabbinic commentaries on the Bible, it goes line-by-line, so it falls to the reader to pull together the themes.  Fortunately, there’s a more accessible translation, Turnabout, by Mendel Weinbach, which weaves the Malbim’s commentary together into a coherent narrative, faithful to the original.

It opens like this:

The king looked down from a palace tower and sighed.  Achashveirosh was a king with a problem.  He had power and wealth, and ruled over the entire known world, all 127 nations in it.  But he did not like the limited monarchy which characterized his reign.  He hated to hear foolish talk about the king’s responsibility to his subjects.  How he longed for the absolute power of a Sancheirev or Nevuchadnetzar, who treated their subjects as slaves and had the freedom of doing whatever they desired with them.  And talk of wealth!  His finance minister was always cutting down on his personal spending with the argument that the national treasury belonged to the people and that the king was only its guardian.  How wonderful it would be to have the powers of a Pharaoh and to know that all of the nation’s riches were his own to use as he wished.  But it wasn’t the finance minister alone who annoyed this king.  Whatever he did he always had to ask some minister or other for advice or approval.  Every time he planned some drastic move he was reminded of the laws of the land.  So he dreamed of the day that he would no longer have to worry about ministers and laws, and he could exercise his royal judgment freely.

Then this, later on, as the rationale and fallout from his plan to punish Vashti:

The parliament of ministers must be stripped of its power to issue and approve legislation.  Henceforth, the king must rule by ukase.  His royal decree will automatically become the law of the land, without the approval of any ministers, and it will be recorded in the permanent statutes of the kingdom.

Of course, the Malbim lived in various parts of the Russian and Turkish empires, from 1809-1879, and Turnabout was published in 1971, making both the timelessness and the relevance of the commentary all the more remarkable, no?

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