Midrash Esther Chapter Three VII: A Portion in the World to Come
Another explanation: “From among those whose death is by Your hand, God (Psalms and 17:14).” How mighty are those who received their portion from Your hand, O Lord (who died for Your sake)! Who are these? These are the generation of destruction (by the Romans during the time of Hadrian) to see, the phrase being interpreted, “who were slain at Your hand.” “From the world,” those, namely, whose flesh became covered with sores for the sanctification of Your name. Who are these? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son.
These two remained in hiding in a cave for 13 years during the great persecution until their flesh was covered with sores, and they subsisted on Caribs and fix. At the end of 13 years Rabbi Shimon went out and sat at the entrance of the cave. He saw a bird catchers spread his net to catch birds. Sometimes he heard a Heavenly Voice say demus, and the bird escaped, and sometimes he heard it say spikla and it was caught. He said: even a bird does not perish except by the decree of Heaven; how much more so we human beings! Let us go down and heal ourselves in the hot springs of Tiberius.
So they went down and were healed in the hot springs of Tiberius. They said: It is incumbent on us to do some kindness and benefit to the people of this place just as Jacob our father did, as it says, “And he brought benefit to the city (Genesis 33:18),” which means that he set up a market and sold to them cheaply. We must purify Tiberias.
“Whose portion is in life,” King David said before the Holy One, Blessed is He: “Sovereign of the Universe, will You promised me a portion with them in the future world?”
The Holy One, Blessed is He, replied: “David, not so (it will not be for you to have a portion with them, as though they were the more righteous, on the contrary, you are the more worthy, and they will have a portion with you) to see, “your treasure shall fill their bellies.” It is not written here, “the art treasure will fill your belly,” but, “your treasurer shall feel their belly,” all the people will eat of the surplus of your reward.” Thus, David received the good news that he had a portion in the Future World. King David said further before God: “Sovereign of the Universe, others rely on learning, pious actions, and good deeds which they can show, but, “I shall behold Your Face through charity (I will enjoy the Future World for Your sake) for ever (Psalms 17:15).”
Although most commentaries understand this midrash as a tangential explanation of a verse previously mentioned, I believe that there is a powerful message in this midrash that reflects the view of people suffering through Hadrian’s persecutions on the story of Esther, and specifically, Vashti’s party:
It is clear that Rabbi Shimon’s statement that, ‘even a bird will only die by Heavenly Decree, how much more so we human beings!’ sends a powerful message to people suffering through these horrible persecutions. Rabbi Shimon is telling them that ultimately there was a Heavenly Decree. A frightening thought indeed, especially when we think back on recent world history and wonder, was it really Heavenly Decree that determined each victim of persecution?
We have struggled with this issue in practically every generation of Jewish history. We can imagine that the Jews in the time of Achashveirosh and Vashti, devastated by the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of the Holy Temple, now seeing that yet another generation of evil kings would rule over them, knowing they were bound to suffer more, wondered. why are we suffering? Is this all a Heavenly Decree?
Rabbi Shimon teaches us that the only response to this question is, “What shall we, those who have been saved, do to acknowledge our rescue?” We dare not say that we merited salvation while all those who died did not. We can only think of the Heavenly Decree in terms of the future: what shall we do to acknowledge our salvation?
Rabbi Shimon teaches we must acknowledge our miracle by bringing benefit to the world. Jacob brought benefit to the cities where he settled after his confrontation with Esau. Rabbi Shimon and his son brought benefit to Tiberius. Mordechai and Esther brought benefit to Shushan and the entire kingdom of Achashveirosh. If we have been rescued from danger we must bring benefit to the world.
It is of such people, the ones who acknowledge their rescue by bringing good to the world, that King David asks of God, “Please, allow me to have a portion in the Future World together with them!” King David appreciates the mighty level achieved by someone living through devastating times and acknowledging his salvation by bringing good to the world, the same world that thought against him and his people.
God responds to David, “Your portion, David, is greater than theirs. You have used your role as King only to bring benefit to the people.”
To which, David responds, “God, I want even more; I want to enjoy my portion in the Future World, for Your sake, not mine.” The one who lives was to bring benefit to others can actually live life in the Future World, to bring pleasure to God.
Contrast this with the selfishness of Achashveirosh and Vashti. They may have presented their parties as being for the benefit of the people, but we know that their intentions were entirely selfish. They lived only for themselves. They gave benefit to others only when it would benefit them. Therefore, they had no merit, and they would eventually self-destruct.