- Rabbi Isaac Roussel
The Esther-Yeshua Connection
My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring?
My God, I cry by day—You answer not; by night, and have no respite.
But You are the Holy One, enthroned, the Praise of Israel.
In You our fathers trusted; they trusted, and You rescued them.
To You they cried out and they escaped; in You they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, less than human; scorned by men, despised by people.
All who see me mock me; they curl their lips, they shake their heads.
“Let him commit himself to the LORD; let Him rescue him, let Him save him, for He is pleased with him.”
You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother’s breast.
I became Your charge at birth; from my mother’s womb, You have been my God.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.
Many bulls surround me, mighty ones of Bashan encircle me.
They open their mouths at me like tearing, roaring lions.
My life ebbs away: all my bones are disjointed; my heart is like wax, melting within me;
my vigor dries up like a shard; my tongue cleaves to my palate; You commit me to the dust of death.
Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me, like lions [they maul] my hands and feet.
I take the count of all my bones while they look on and gloat.
They divide my clothes among themselves, casting lots for my garments.
But You, O LORD, be not far off; my strength, hasten to my aid.
These are the opening words of Psalm 22.
Christian tradition has seen this psalm as clearly messianic. It describes so intimately the duress that Yeshua experienced on the cross that they can’t help but see it this way. In fact, commentators see at least 3 references to this Psalm in our Besorah reading today of Yeshua’s execution.
But how does traditional Judaism view Psalm 22?
Interestingly enough, it connects it to the story of Queen Esther and the holiday of Purim. It is recited as the psalm of the day during morning services on Purim.
Midrash Tehillim, which is a collection of midrashim on the Book of Psalms, talks so much about Esther that you would think it was actually a midrash on the Book of Esther rather than the Psalms! The commentary on chapter 22 is in fact quite lengthy. Here’s some of what they say.
Esther fasted for three days before approaching the king. The first verse refers to this; “My God”- Day 1, “My God”-Day 2, “why have you forsaken me?”- Day 3. She was so afraid to risk her life, not knowing how her husband would react, she felt alone, forsaken.
Where the Psalm says “they divided my garments”, the Midrash claims that this was the servants, confident that the king was going to have her killed for her chutzpah, began vying for her clothes.
The midrash also interprets the bulls surrounding her as Haman’s sons; The lion ready to tear her to shreds as King Achashverosh; The wicked crowd as Haman’s cronies.
The Talmud also connects Psalm 22 to Esther in several places. In Tractate Megillah, Rabbi Levi says that as Esther was about to enter the throne room, the Shechinah left her and she cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These sources then put the words of the psalm in Queen Esther’s mouth. She refers to “my God”, she groans “I cry but get no relief”. And declares “you are my God from my mother’s womb.”
And yet there are also plural declarations in the psalm. Verse 5 says “Our fathers trusted in you…” The psalm also speaks of God being enthroned on the praises of Israel and the psalmist urges “all the children of Jacob” to glorify Him and “all the children of Israel” stand in awe of Him. So how can it be both one individual speaking and yet also a group of people?
Our Sages resolved this by declaring that Esther spoke both for herself and for all of her people. She is a representative of the Jewish people coming before the king to ask that they be spared from Haman’s hatred.
The Radak, who lived in France shortly after Rashi, turns it around and says that all of the singular declarations in the psalm are Israel speaking “as one man in exile”.
I think that we can bring together the Jewish and Christian interpretations of Psalm 22 by seeing that Esther’s life points forward to Yeshua’s. Just as she became the agent of Israel’s salvation by risking her life before the king, Yeshua gave up his life to the King. Just as Esther spoke for herself and her people, Yeshua is the One-Man-Israel who dies on behalf of his people and the world, and now continues to speak for us in the Heavenly Temple. Just as Esther faced destruction from Haman, Yeshua faced destruction from the Evil One. Indeed in Jewish tradition, Haman is symbolic of the forces of evil arrayed against Israel. Just as Yeshua is the Prophet greater than Moses, just as Yeshua is the Perfect Isaac, surrendered up by his Father, just as Yeshua is the True Passover Lamb, he is also the Perfect Esther.
We are in the midst of the Three Weeks of Admonition leading up to Tisha B’Av. It is a time of mourning and grief over the destruction of both temples and many other calamities that have befallen our people over the centuries. It is perhaps especially poignant this year as we also struggle with the calamities that are currently assailing us; the plague, political and societal unrest, financial uncertainty. Even in the midst of despair, we can cry out to Hashem as Esther and Yeshua did. For even the words “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” is still an act of faith. We cry out, but it is in the faith that He still hears us and though He may seem remote we are confident of a response.
May we have the faith of Esther, willing to face the dogs, bulls, and lions that surround us.
May we look to Yeshua Ha-Mashiach and his resurrection power to strengthen us to face our own threatening kings and Hamans.
Then we, too, can have victory over all the forces arrayed against us and be more than conquerors!