Purim

Megillat Esther – Part I

June 30, 2006

The Beginning of the Megilah – Another Feast!

The Megilah begins by informing us that its historical context is the Persia-Media of King Achashverosh, who then ruled over the Empire. That MegillahEmpire encompassed one hundred twenty seven states and provinces (definitely not to be confused with the one hundred twenty seven righteous years of our Mother, Sarah); in effect, the entire (more-or-less) civilized world at that time.

Achashverosh is making a feast for all of his Kingdom, and for the same reason that the unfortunate Belshazzar made one! Again, Achashverosh has done his homework, and is convinced that Yirmiyahu’s seventy years are by now certainly over (wrong again!).

Actually, there are two reasons for Achashverosh’s feast. The most important one is to celebrate the supposed abandonment of the Jewish People by their G-d.

The second reason for the feast has to do with the fact that he wants to keep his population, especially the most powerful members of it, including the army, its officers and all the princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, etc., happy. For, the Midrash tells us, Achashverosh is not of “royal blood.” Rather, he has come to power through a revolution. Therefore, he is never totally sure of himself in his role as King. His wife, Vashti, the Queen, is however a genuine “blue-blood,” being from the House of Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylon, and World Conqueror, as she does not hesitate to remind her husband, as we shall see.

Also on the guest list are the Jewish People. Achashverosh goes all out to make them comfortable; he has “glatt kosher” meat, under impeccable “hashgachah,” perhaps under the “OU” of the time. The Jews, on the other hand, have weighed their options. A beautiful catering hall, great food, terrific smorgasbord, and the King’s probably correct in his calculations. They feel a little queasy about celebrating with vessels from the Temple not only on display, but in use. But the majority of them have come.

And it is their presence at a feast celebrating their abandonment and mocking their Temple that, according to the Midrash, has made them guilty of treason against G-d, and therefore candidates for destruction!

“Also Queen Vashti Made a Feast for the Women”

The Tale (Tail(?)) Continues

Not to be outdone, Queen Vashti made a feast for the women of the Kingdom. Her purpose was to show off her great beauty, since she had been one of the most beautiful women in the world. But HaShem spoiled her party. She developed a full-blown case of leprosy. Others say she actually grew a tail!

These blemishes were appropriate punishments for Vashti, for her abuse of her captive Jewish girls. She had made them work for her on Shabbat completely naked, thus greatly offending them from the point of view that they would have to violate the Shabbat, and also by preventing them from practicing the characteristic of “tzniut,” modesty, which was a major part of their life-style. So HaShem punished her “Midah K’neged Midah,” “Measure for Measure,” by not allowing her to make a display of her “pritzut,” her total immodesty.

“Bring Vashti the Queen with (only) the Royal Crown”

Her predicament became worse. On the “seventh day,” the Shabbat, Achashverosh, now totally drunk, demanded that Vashti appear before him and his guests. Of course, in her present state, Vashti refused, not out of a sense of modesty, but out of a sense of embarrassment over her appearance. Not only did Vashti not come – she also sent the King an insult – “Who was he, just a commoner, to tell her royal self what to do?”

This had never happened before! No one, certainly not the queen, had ever been summoned to come before the King, and refused. What a humiliation! One of the King’s advisors, named “Memuchan” in the Megilah, but identified in the Midrash as none other than Haman, suggests that Vashti should be severely punished. Not only has she made a fool of the King before all his royal guests, but soon the story will spread across the Kingdom, that wives don’t have to obey their husbands any longer!

To prevent this scandal from becoming public knowledge, Vashti should be given a taste of the King’s “justice.” Never more should she be allowed to come before the King! And, in those days, that usually meant that poor Vashti would lose her head.

(We see that Haman already has his eye on the throne and is out to remove all obstacles, such as the queen, from his path.)

The King issued a royal proclamation to the effect that there would be no change in the relationship between husbands and wives as a result of the unfortunate and misguided behavior of Queen Vashti. Husbands would continue to “rule in their castles,” be they shoemakers or Kings, and wives would remain in their obedient status, OR ELSE!

The Contest for a New Queen

Enter Esther

It was not long after the unfortunate demise of Queen Vashti that Achashverosh felt lonely for a new queen. Of course his advisors were ready with a solution – to stage a contest – a combination of a “Miss Persia”-style beauty pageant, combined with a search for a girl with true royal qualities.

At this point, the Megilah introduces us to Mordechai, a descendant of Shaul, the first King of Israel, a member of the “Sanhedrin,” the Jewish Supreme Court, and a recent exile from Yerushalayim. He raised the young Esther, who had lost both her parents. Taking note of Esther’s great beauty and fearing that she would be snatched up in the contest of what was originally supposed only to include unmarried women, Mordechai married his young niece.

There was a frantic search throughout the Empire, from India to Ethiopia, for this gem of a girl who possessed both great beauty and royal qualities. Many candidates were quite interested and were brought to Shushan for their one-night tryout with the King. Each was given their choice of clothing, cosmetics, music, entertainment, you-name-it, but the King was still unsatisfied. When the search was enlarged to include married women, they came to Mordechai’s home, and were immediately struck by Esther’s beauty and character.

Mordechai realized that this strange occurrence must be an act of HaShem, to place a Jewess inside the palace, close to the King. He didn’t know yet from what direction the danger would be coming, but he felt confident that HaShem was creating the “refuah,” the healing, before administering the harmful blow. He spoke at great length with Esther about this thought, and she finally consented to go with the King’s men, although her first reaction was to refuse, and be killed.

Esther asked only for the minimum requirements, which were readily supplied her because everyone who saw her was taken by her charm. Achashverosh was delighted with her, and Esther was crowned the new Queen of Persia and Media, and a Feast was proclaimed in her honor.

Bigsan and Seresh, Some Bodyguards!

Life had returned to normal in the palace, but Mordechai was getting more and more anxious about Esther. It happened one day, when Mordechai was in the royal courtyard, which he had access to as one of the heads of the Jewish community, that he heard two voices. The voices were soft, but not soft enough, considering what they were talking about! These were two men of the King’s security staff, in highly trusted positions, plotting the assassination of the King!

They were a province at the far end of the Empire, Tarsis, where they spoke in a language which most people had never heard of, much less understood. That was why they were not nervous about being overheard. But Mordechai was a member of the “Sanhedrin,” each member of which was required to speak seventy languages, including the language of Tarsis. He heard the details of the plot, which involved poisoning the King in just a few days. He quickly requested a private audience with the Queen, Esther, and told her of the plot. The Queen told the King about the plot that night, in the name of Mordechai. The plotters were apprehended, hung from the gallows (trials were considered wasteful of tax-payers’ money in ancient Persia), and the details of the plot and its aftermath were recorded in the Chronicles of the King.

The Rise of Haman

Due to Haman’s usefulness in the matter of Vashti, and his general aggressive and persistent requests for promotion (and generally, making a nuisance of himself), Haman was given the promotion that he had been seeking. Thus, in the short-term, Haman could be considered fortunate; although, in the long-term, his head would be raised in the manner of the Chief Baker of the Pharaoh in Egypt as part of the celebration of the Birthday of the Pharaoh.

He was appointed to the second-most-powerful office in the land, assistant King, which he interpreted as equivalent to god, and everybody was ordered to bow down to him as he rode by in the streets of Shushan, or wherever Haman traveled in the great empire. But there was one dissident, who refused to bow down to Haman. That was Mordechai, who bowed to no one but HaShem.

“Guide for the Perplexed”

Perplexed by the behavior of this one bearded individual, who was steadfast in refusing to bow before him, Haman demanded that palace officials investigate the matter. These officials determined the family background of Mordechai and spoke at length with him, endeavoring to find out why he was disobeying this simple command of the King. But for Mordechai, it wasn’t even a question – in his Religion, Judaism, there was no provision for bowing before anyone or anything but HaShem, the true G-d.

When he received this information, Haman went from “perplexed” to “apoplectic;” for in his family tradition, there was little love for Jews. King Shaul had wiped out almost his entire nation at the command of HaShem, sparing only the King of Amalek, Agag, from whom Haman was a direct descendant. Of course, there had been good reason for that; namely, that his people represented, and taught, the ideal of “absolute evil,” and the possibility of frustrating G-d’s purpose in creating the human race, but Haman was proud of that! Who else could say that they represented absolute “anything,” except perhaps the Jews, whose ideal was absolute holiness and obedience to HaShem and His Torah.

Haman determined that he was going to return the “favor” to the Jews, and exterminate the entire nation, not just Mordechai, down to the last woman and child!

Chorus: (from a half-remembered children’s song about Purim)

“Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man,
HamentashenAnd Haman was his name, sir!
He would have murdered all the Jews,
Though they were not to blame, sir!”

“Oh today we’ll merry, merry be,
Oh today we’ll merry, merry be,
Oh today we’ll merry, merry be –
And ‘nasch’ some hamantaschen!”

The Persian State Lottery – the “Pur” (of “Purim”)

Haman, ever superstitious, decided to use a Lottery to determine the date of the “Great Execution.” And the Lot fell on the merry month (later, anyway) of Adar. He then approached the King with these diabolical words, “There is one nation scattered and separated among the nations in all the provinces of your Kingdom, and their laws are different from those of every other nation, and the King’s laws they do not observe, and it is not worthwhile for the King to leave them alone.”

“The Removal of the Ring”

Now that’s a very strange statement coming from the mouth of Haman, “It’s not worthwhile for the King to leave them alone”!? After all, why not leave them alone? Who were the Jews bothering?

In any case, Haman proceeded to offer ten thousand talents of silver from his own treasury to Achashverosh for the purpose of funding the operational aspects of his “Solution to the Jewish Problem.” By his next gesture, Achashverosh demonstrated that then, as now, “money talks.”

Achashverosh removed the signet ring from his finger, and gave it to Haman, making him the “Lord of the Ring.” With it, Haman could authorize “Royal Proclamations” as he pleased. Because this ring controlled millions of bloodthirsty Persian and Median swords, the truth is evident of the statement we find, “The removal of the ring of Achashverosh had more effect on Israel (in terms of moving them in the direction of “Teshuvah,” Repentance) than the sixty prophets who prophesied in the time of Eliyahu” (Eichah Rabati, 4:25). Although ironically, it was the disobeying of the prophecies that led to the removal of the ring.

The date is now set: the thirteenth of Adar. On that day, our haters wish to destroy the entire nation of Israel, G-d Forbid. At first, it boggles the mind. Even the Nazis, may their names be erased, needed several years to inflict the damage that they did to our People, and they used “High Technology.” How could an entire nation be destroyed in a single day?

But the answer is simple. The Nazis operated more-or-less out of the public eye. They didn’t publicize the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the crematoria. But in the case of Persia and Media, the entire population of the empire of Achashverosh was to be involved in the bloody work. And everywhere, the Jews were a minority, defenseless without the help of the One Above.

Chorus:

“Oh once there was a wicked, wicked man,
And Haman was his name, sir!
He would have murdered all the Jews,
Though they were not to blame, sir!”

“Oh today we’ll merry, merry be,
Oh today we’ll merry, merry be,
Oh today we’ll merry, merry be –
And ‘nasch’ some hamantaschen!”

Mordechai’s Request

Through his channels, Mordechai knew of what had happened in the palace, the agreement between Achashverosh and Haman about how to deal with the Jews. But he also knew something more important – which he had been told in a dream – that the Heavenly Court had ruled in favor of Haman. Because the Jewish People had derived enjoyment from the Feast of Achashverosh, and worshipped idols time after time, and would not learn the perilous nature of its ways.

He tore his garments and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went into deep mourning. He went into the heart of Shushan and cried out with a great and bitter cry. Esther heard about the mourning of Mordechai and of his greatly altered appearance, and anxiously sent word to find out what the problem was. Mordechai thought, “This must be why HaShem put Esther in the palace.” He informed Esther of the bad news and requested that she go immediately to the King and ask him to rescind the proclamation that spelled disaster for the Jews.

Esther responded initially that even she, the Queen, could not just walk into the chambers of the King uninvited. The Law of the Persian Court was that anyone who did so, for whom the King did not extend his golden scepter to him or her, had forfeited their life.

To which Mordechai responded with the immortal charge, “Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the King’s house from your responsibility to the Jewish People. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows whether it was not just for this purpose that you were elevated to the palace?”

Esther Rises to the Occasion

That was enough for Esther to hear. Now she and Mordechai would act as a team, and try to raise their fellow Jews to fast and do “Teshuvah,” Repentance, before HaShem. She said that she and her maidservants would fast for three days, and she asked Mordechai to organize a “Ta’anit Tzibbur,” a public fast, in her behalf, to invoke more “Rachamim,” from the Father of Mercy. “U-vechen, “And so, I shall come to the King, though it is not according to the law, and if I must perish, then I will perish.” (Esther 4:16)