Purim

Megillat Esther – Part II

July 2, 2006

PART II – The Golden Scepter

On the third day of her fast, Esther donned her royal robes; according to the Midrash, it was the Holy Spirit that clothed her. She stood facing the throne. “The ball is now in the court,” as they say, of Achashverosh. His is the next great decision. The Talmud in Masechet Megila discusses the personality of Achashverosh, as to the question, “Was he a wise King or was he a foolish King?” It seems clear from his next move that at least here he acted wisely. For otherwise, the story of Purim would be very different, and it would be clear to the Talmud that he was nothing but a wicked tyrant.

Achashverosh extended the golden scepter to Esther and she approached the throne. He asked her, “What is your request, Queen Esther? You may request until half of my Kingdom, and your request will be granted.”

What did Achashverosh mean by his enigmatic expression, “up until half of my Kingdom?” RASHI suggests two possibilities, beginning with the Midrashic. According to the Midrash, the reference is to “something that is in the middle and at the center of the Kingdom;” namely, the “Beit HaMikdash,” the Holy Temple. Achashverosh, according to this view, was refusing to grant permission for the Jewish People to rebuild the Temple, but there is a problem with this interpretation:

The King didn’t yet know that Esther was Jewish; therefore, why would he think

that she was coming to request his permission for what was purely (not really, but according to his limited understanding) a Jewish interest?

The other interpretation is according to the plain meaning, the “P’shat,” of the text. That his response was the response of a King in love with his Queen, and indeed ready to grant her, in a revolutionary departure from male-dominated practices in ancient (and modern) Persia/Iran, up to half of his Kingdom, actually sharing the Kingdom with her.

Esther’s Request

Esther must have thought long and hard during the days of her fasting about what she would ask Achashverosh in order to accomplish her double objective of saving her People from the immediate danger, and to get rid of the danger that threatened them in the future as long as Haman and his family were alive.

She could not have helped but notice that Haman could scarcely conceal his tremendous ambition for the throne, and that he fancied himself a ladies’ man. She intended to use these two aspects of his personality against him.

She therefore answered the King, “My request is that the King and Haman join me in my chambers for a feast of wine.” As soon as she said this, she saw the early signs of jealousy and fear in Achashverosh’s eyes. “I also plan to reveal to you my nationality and royal origins at the feast of wine,” she continued. The smile of pleasure at hearing that his request to know the nationality of the Queen, and her royal origins, would finally be revealed, enabled him to partially conceal those negative emotions as they played across his face. His voice did not betray him either as he said, “Anything you wish, your Royal Highness.” When Esther had left, he commanded one of his lackeys, “Get Haman immediately and bring him to Esther’s feast.”

The first feast went well enough, but Esther didn’t feel quite ready yet to spring her trap. So that when the King asked her, “What is your request, Queen Esther, and what is your petition? I’ll give you up to half of my Kingdom,” Esther played for time, and asked that there be another feast.

Haman’s Transition

When Haman left Esther’s first feast, he was in a very upbeat mood. But he did a quick about-face. The Megilah says it this way, “And Haman went out on that day joyful and with a glad heart, but upon Haman’s seeing Mordechai at the King’s gate, that he did not rise nor stir before him, then Haman became filled with anger at Mordechai.” (Esther 5:9)

When Haman reached his home, in order to assure himself of his greatness, which Mordechai’s non-recognition seemed to open to question, he gathered his family and closest friends around him. He recited before them all the reasons that he was listed in the “Who’s Who of Persia-Media?” and his most recent accomplishment, that Esther had invited him, and only him, oh yes, the King was also invited, to a feast that she was making.

But Haman said that all his accomplishments and all his possessions were “gor-nischt,” as long as the Jew Mordechai didn’t show him respect! Then Zeresh, his “ezer k’negdo,” the woman who was supposed to be his helper, made a suggestion that seemed helpful at the time: “Let them construct a gallows, fifty “amot” (approximately 75-100 feet high, and that Haman should get up early in the morning, and suggest to the King that this upstart Mordechai be hung upon it. Once you do that, Zeresh concluded, you’ll be able to go to Esther’s feast in a happy mood (unless Zeresh herself, jealous of Esther, was trying to rid herself of Haman). In any case, Haman liked the idea and ordered the construction of the gallows be undertaken (oops! a bad word for Haman, in view of who would actually inaugurate the gallows into full operation, but that’s for the future), immediately.

The Turning Point

“On that night, the King’s sleep went a-wandering” Esther 6:1), perhaps because of Esther’s unusual invitation of Haman to what he’d assumed would be a private get-together between himself and the Queen. He was afraid not only of losing Esther to Haman, but also of losing his head in a coup. Specifically, he was afraid that someone had once done him a favor, and he had not repaid his benefactor. So he called for the reading of the Chronicles of the Kingdom of Persia and Media.

The reading began with some items that didn’t seem relevant, such as the number of sweaters worn in the Kingdom during the three previous winters, but then came an item that made Achashverosh sit up with a start! Mordechai the Jew had reported a plot on the King’s life to Queen Esther, who had relayed the information to Achashverosh. The plotters had been summarily hung, but nothing at all had been done for Mordechai!

The King tried to think of an appropriate reward: perhaps a hundred maidens, or thirty thousand camels, but somehow nothing he could think of seemed appropriate for the pious Jew. He needed advice, and quickly. Hearing the steps of someone running, he called out, “Who’s in the courtyard?”

And, lo and behold, Haman “just happened” to be in the courtyard, rushing to the King to request permission to hang Mordechai, as the first victim of the new gallows that he had had constructed in his backyard next to the children’s swings. As Haman entered the throne-room, before he had a chance to pose his request, Achashverosh asked, “What should be done for the person whom the King wishes to honor?” (Esther 6:6)

Surprised by the query, Haman soon regained his composure, and formulated a response, based on the obvious assumption that the King meant him. After all, whom else could the King possibly wish to honor? So he let his fantasies run wild! He said, “For the man whom the King wishes to honor, let them bring royal attire which the King has worn, and a horse upon which the king has ridden, and the royal crown that was placed on the King’s head.” (Esther 6:7-8)

“And let the clothing and the horse be given into the hand of one of the King’s Princes, and let him clothe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him lead the fortunate person on the horse through the broad streets of the city, and let him proclaim before the honoree, “Thus shall be done for the man whom the King wishes to honor.’ ” (Esther, 6:9)

The First Fall

The King, well aware of Haman’s vaulting ambition and jealously suspicious of his intentions regarding Esther, and knowing quite well his hatred for Mordechai, now delivers the first blow to Haman as an unwitting “messenger” of HaShem. The King said to Haman, “Make haste, take the attire and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordechai the Jew who sits at the King’s gate; let nothing fall from all that you have said.” (Esther, 6:10)

With nearly complete humiliation, Haman gives that honor to Mordechai. Haman returns to his home in “mourning and great embarrassment” and receives some more uplifting advice from Zeresh, “If Mordechai, before you have begun to fall, is a Jew, know that you will not prevail against him, but you will surely continue to fall before him.” (Esther, 6:13) While they were still speaking, officers of the King arrived to take Haman, willy-nilly, to Esther’s feast.

Esther’s Second Feast

And so the King and Haman came to drink with Esther, the Queen. The King, by now quite impatient, and more than slightly inebriated, asked again, “Queen Esther, what is your request? I will give you up to half the Kingdom!” (Esther, 7:1-2)

And now, Esther was ready to respond, “If I’ve found favor in your eyes, grant my life as my request, and my people as my petition. For we have been sold, myself and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain and to be annihilated; and if we had been sold into slavery, I would have remained silent, but the enemy is not concerned with the damage done to the King.” (Esther, 7:3-4)

Hearing this, Achashverosh went into a fury, and asked, “Who is this enemy, and where is he, whose heart has emboldened him to do this? (Esther 7:5) And Esther pointed directly at Haman and said, “this is the enemy, this wicked Haman! (Esther, 7:5-6)

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!

And the King rose in his fury, and stepped out into the palace garden, and Haman rose to beg for mercy from Queen Esther, but he slipped, or tripped or, according to the Midrash, was pushed by an angel, and fell onto Esther’s couch. The King, returning from the garden, took in this lovely scene of Haman sprawled on Esther’s couch, and said menacingly, “Do you dare force the Queen, with me in the house?” When those words came out of the King’s mouth, Haman realized that he was utterly lost, and his face went deathly white with terror!” (Esther, 7:7-8)

And now came the advice that fell upon Haman with the full force of poetic justice, from the mouth of Charvona, one of the King’s advisors, “Haman has said that he made a gallows in order to hang Mordechai. But the King has decided to honor Mordechai. Let us not disappoint the gallows – let Haman be hung from it.” (Esther 7:9-10)

The Ring Changes Hands Again

Now Esther begged Achashverosh to rescind the decree concerning the Jews, “for how can I bear to see the evil that will befall my nation, and how can I bear to see the annihilation of my people?” (Esther, 8:10) But Achashverosh answered that the decrees of the King of Persia and Media could not be rescinded. But he did agree to transfer to Esther and to Mordechai, for Esther had revealed her connection to Mordechai the Jew, the signet ring that was given to Haman, and for them to issue decrees that would in effect counteract the original decrees.

Thus, decrees went out to all the one hundred twenty seven states and provinces of the Kingdom of Achashverosh that were a mirror image of the original decrees, but with a role reversal. For now, the Jews throughout the Kingdom were legally empowered to “assemble and to stand up for their lives; to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate every force of any nation or province that would attack them, and to take booty as well, on one day, in all the provinces of the King Achashverosh, on the thirteenth of the twelfth month,,, which is the month of Adar.” (Esther, 8:11-12)

Mordechai now was raised by Achashverosh to the level that was formerly Haman’s. “And Mordechai went forth from before the King, in royal attire of blue wool and white” (the same colors as the modern State of Israel) “and a large gold crown and a cloak of fine linen and purple wool; and the City of Shushan shouted and rejoiced. For the Jews there was light and joy, and happiness and honor. And in every province, and in every city, wherever the King’s command and his law would reach, there was joy and happiness for the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land were converting to Judaism, for fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.” (Esther, 8:15-17)

Thus the effect of the original Amalek, who is described in the Torah as “And he did not fear G-d,” (Devarim 25:18) nor the People of G-d, and that was his essence, and the lesson he taught the nations. That lesson was now reversed.

“And it was turned around”

“And on that thirteenth day of Adar, on the day that that the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them, it was turned around, that the Jews would rule – they over their foes.” (Esther 9:11)

The ten sons of Haman were hung on the same gallows as their father (Esther 9:7), and the Jews were triumphant in Shushan, the Capital City, and everywhere throughout the Kingdom. And everywhere they triumphed over theirmenemies and, although it was permitted, nowhere did they take from the spoils of war (Esther, 9:10,14,16)

In the provinces, the battles took place on the thirteenth, and the victory celebrations took place on the fourteenth. In Shushan, the battle was a two-day affair, possibly because of the presence there of a Persian version of the “Republican Guard,” and the victory celebrations were on the fifteenth of Adar. Therefore, Purim in most places is celebrated on the fourteenth of Adar; in ancient walled cities, such as Jerusalem and Shushan (more specifically, those cities that had walls in the time of Yehoshua bin Nun), it is celebrated on the fifteenth of Adar.

Eternal Purim

So Mordechai and Esther moved to make Purim an eternal part of the Jewish calendar. Because the Jews had done “Teshuvah,” they had repented and “accepted again what they had begun to do” (Esther 9:23), they set themselves again on the proper course as HaShem’s emissaries and witnesses in the world. The holiday was called Purim, because “Pur” means “lottery,” and it was by a lottery that Haman determined the date to carry out his evil plan, and it was on that date that his plans were overturned.

Purim turned the month of Adar “from sorrow to joy, and from a time of mourning to a holiday” (Esther, 9:22). The new holiday was comprised of “days of ‘mishte v’simchah,’ ‘feasting and joy,’ ‘mishloach manot ish le-re’ehu,” sending portions of food from one to the other, and last and most important, “matanot la-evyonim,” presents of money to the poor, so that they too could enjoy a joyous Purim.

“The Jews confirmed and took upon themselves and upon their descendants, and upon all who would join them, that it should not be revoked, to keep these two days every year. And these days should be mentioned and kept in every generation, by every family, in every province and city. And these days of Purim shall not pass from among the Jews, and their memory should not cease from their descendants.” (Esther, 9:27-28)