On the rivers of Babylon our forefathers sat and wept. But after they wiped away their tears, they found themselves in the richest country in the world, with many opportunities and positions opened up before them. Nebuchadnezzar founded a state-run school for the gifted, in which youths from all over the empire were trained for Babylonian government service. Among its graduates were Daniel, Hanania, Mishael and Azzaria, who attained honorable positions in the Babylonian government. The Persian Empire that inherited the Babylonian Empire followed its lead; this is borne out by the standing of Mordechai the Jew –second to the king– and Nehemia, Steward of Drinks.
With this in mind, we can understand Ezekiel’s prophecy: And it came to pass in the seventh year, in the fifth month, the tenth day of the month, that certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying… Are ye come to inquire of Me? As I live, I will not be inquired of by you… and that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all; in that ye say: We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone. As I live, saith the Lord God surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, will I be king over you. (Ezek. 20: 1,2,3 32-33)
All the other prophets promised the continuity of the People of Israel through repentance. Ezekiel promised it through Divine coercion that leaves no free choice to Israel.
Ezekiel’s prophecy first came true in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus’ reign, on the 13th of Nissan, when the royal decree announced the 13th of Adar as the day for the destruction of the Jews. There was no forewarning, and the Jews had nowhere to flee. From within the grip of fear arose the cry to God, “And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing.” (Ezek. 4:3).
The Jews of Shushan fasted three days and nights.1 According to the Sages they fasted on Pesach as well. On the fourth day, at the end of the fast, the dawn of redemption broke forth: Haman put Mordechai on the horse. According to the Sages, this revelation of the Divine Presence was more significant than the revelation at Mt. Sinai. There–God imposed himself on his people; here–the people sought their God in the depths of the darkness. The holiday of Pesach took on a new significance, as did the covenant at Sinai. “They fulfilled and accepted–they fulfilled what they had already accepted.” (Shabbat 87)
If before this there seemed to be a contradiction between what Judaism demanded and what was good for the Jews, a harmony was now created between Judaism and the Jews. The Jews’ stature had risen significantly. They fought for their lives, tasted the sweet taste of revenge, and preserved their honor by not putting a hand to the spoils. Four days in the shadow of destruction brought the Jews closer to each other and to their Father in Heaven, and made their mark upon the history of the Jewish people.
The Megilla opens with a description of the grandest feast of all times–a feast whose end is cut short, and whose result is a royal decree, “that every man should bear rule in his own house.” (Esther 1:22) This order was significant for Ahasuerus’s relations with his wife the queen. And indeed, as we will see later, Esther is aware of this law and acts within its framework.
“Then said the king’s servants that ministered unto him: Let there be sought for the king young virgins fair to look on. . .” (Esther 2:2) From now on the king’s life takes on a new aspect. Custom becomes an obsession. Even after Esther is chosen, the gathering of virgins continues. (Esther 2, 19) This lifestyle explains how the king, addicted to sensuality, is so dependent on his advisors, and why he gives such far-reaching authority to his Chief Minister, and why he signs an order for the destruction of a people without even seeing which people is referred to…2
From the atmosphere of hedonistic defilement, abominations and cruelties, we move on to the palace of love and purity–the home of Mordechai the Jew and Esther, his adopted niece. Mordechai belongs to the elite of the Jehoachin exile. Since then many years have passed, but Mordechai still feels as if he was himself exiled from Jerusalem. The title “Mordechai the Jew” shows the depths of his Jewish existence, an existence that Hadassah-Esther shared.
Then, Esther is torn away from him. The Megilla does not describe Mordechai’s anxiety. Instead, it tells with restraint about the fate of the hundreds of young women who did not win the crown. They are kept for their entire lives in the women’s houses of Shaashgaz until the king desires them and calls for them by name. Then they must return to the women’s house once again.
The feeling of Esther’s melancholy is expressed in her prayer: “Lord . . please help your lonely servant who has no other help but You, because I am sitting here alone, and I am alone in the house of the king without father or mother, as a poor orphan asking for charity from house to house, thus I ask for Your mercy from window to window in King Ahasuerus’ home, from the day I was taken here until today.” (Yosephon, Ch. 4)
For five years Esther is cut off from Mordechai. During that entire period he went daily to the gate of the king to hear news of Esther. The miracle of Purim is needed for Mordechai and Esther to meet in public.3 Following the miracle, Esther leaves her life of silence and loneliness for a life of action and activity.
At the gate of the king, the salvation and the blow come. The salvation – when Mordechai overheard the plot of Bigthan and Teresh, and the blow is when Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman and arouses his wrath. According to the Sages, Mordechai gets what he deserves because of his loyalty to Esther, “Rabbi Jacob bar Acha said: The Lord told him: You sought peace for one soul… your life, and you ended up seeking peace for an entire nation.” (Esther Rabbah, 6:18)
God sets two traps for Haman: Esther’s coronation and Mordechai’s contribution to the salvation of the King from Bigthan and Teresh’ plot. In order to set these traps into action, either the connection between Esther and the king has to be renewed, or the King has to be reminded of Mordechai’s contribution. But Esther is not called in to the king for 30 days. She is in constant competition with the new maidens who have been gathered for the king, as well as the older maidens from Shaashgaz’ harem.
In knowing the king’s personality, Esther knows that any meeting she initiates with the king may cost her her life. When she decides to take the chance and approach the king she chooses spiritual preparation through fasting. The fast returns her to the atmosphere of innocence and wholeness that she knew in Mordechai’s house and to the covenant of fate with the Jewish people. Esther is similar to the High Priest in the days of the Temple who enters the Holy of Holies accompanied by the prayers of the people. The prayers are answered. Esther the survivor, who is now saved by the extension of the scepter, becomes a savior. Esther’s worn-out look arouses the sympathy and mercy4 of the king. When she finally points to Haman as the “adversary and enemy,” the king can make the connection between Esther’s sickly appearance and Haman’s machinations.
Haman has a personal conflict with Mordechai and a general problem with Mordechai’s people. Both Mordechai and Esther have a personal fight with Haman and a general fight against Haman’s camp.
When Mordechai asks Esther to go and plead before the king “for her people and for her kindred,” Esther prefers to begin a private war against Haman. By inviting Haman to the feast, she reinforces Haman’s desire for revenge against Mordechai.
Here is a head-on confrontation between the representatives of evil and the representatives of the sacred. When Mordechai’s life is in danger, the King of Kings intervenes and forces Haman to award Mordechai a royal honor, and leaves the coup de grace for Esther and Harbona.
Esther’s plan is to sow in the king a seed of suspicion that Haman is in love with her. When she tells Mordechai “if I perish, I perish,” she means that she will take the risk that the king will suspect her as well and kill her, before she manages to see her plan through to the end. As it worked out, her plan works well beyond her expectations.
In inviting Haman to the feast, Esther arouses his arrogance, which grows and grows until it gets out of control. When his plan begins to go awry, Haman is helpless and does not make use the tools that he still controls. The chain of events develops like this:
Haman does everything he can to come to the second feast relaxed and at ease, and thus he prepares the tree for hanging Mordechai. When, late at night, Haman goes to ask the king to hang Mordechai, he bets on the slim chance that he will find the king awake. The bet pays off; the king is awake and even invites him in to ask for advice. This success swells Haman’s royal visions of grandeur, and he speaks freely about the honor that should be done to someone whom the king wants to honor, thus determining the honor that would be done to Mordechai.
The fact that the king charges Haman with the implementation of this task proves that he suspects that he has imagined this royal honor for himself. If, up to now, Haman has prepared for the second feast with great care, from now on he makes every possible mistake he could before the feast.
When Haman returns home after leading Mordechai around, he has to wash, change clothes, order his servants to cut down the hanging tree that he has prepared for Mordechai, and get to Esther’s feast. Instead, he seeks advice and receives a “prophecy” from Zeresh his wife, “You shall surely fall before him.” The first stage of his fall is in forgetting that the king and queen are waiting for him, and when he is ushered in late by the king’s servants he is filled with great shame and embarrassment in front of them. Thus the words of the prophecy echo in his ears, “You shall surely fall before him.” (Saul makes a similar mistake on the eve of the decisive battle on Mt. Gilboa, when he seeks and receives a prophecy of failure from the “woman that divineth by a ghost”). If Zeresh had been a loyal wife devoted to her husband, she would have tried to encourage him, but as a jealous wife she is afraid of the idea that she would be in competition with Esther–a beauty queen and Queen of the Empire. It is clear to Zeresh, whom Haman would choose…
Haman comes to the feast perspiring and humiliated, and when Esther points to him as “an adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman”, she arouses the manly knight within him, “The Queen is in danger!” The king is afraid: “What is Haman scheming to do to Esther? And who is this mysterious people that Haman is trying to destroy?” The drunk king feels that the air in the palace has become too thick, and goes out to the garden to get some fresh air.
If Haman had maintained his sanity, he would have gone out after the king and explained to him that this concerned a royal edict that the king himself had approved, and that he should calm Esther down, that her life was in no danger. But the terrified Haman makes the mistake of his life and turns to Esther. Why?
He is afraid to go to the king, who had humiliated him in public and made him lead Mordechai, the bane of his life, on the horse. Also, he is still under the illusion that Esther loves him. After Zeresh prophesies a downfall, he puts the last of his hopes in Esther. In his situation, he is incapable of thinking that Esther will also betray him. That would extinguish the last spark of hope.
He is exhausted. He hadn’t slept the previous night. His nerves are raw from the extreme emotional stress he has undergone. The refrain “You shall surely fall” adds to his despair. In this situation he can’t regain his strength, and collapses.
The king returns to the palace, “and Haman was fallen upon the couch whereon Esther was.” (Esther 7:8). The king, who wonders whether Haman is trying to take the Queen from him or to kill her, finds a new twist: “Will he even force the queen before me in the house” (Esther 7:8) Zeresh’s prophecy comes true: “You shall surely fall” A fall in order to rise – to the height of 50 cubits!
Esther fulfills Mordechai’s request to plead for her people and her homeland on the 20th of Sivan, only after Mordechai establishes himself as a key Minister. The king answers Esther: “Write ye also concerning the Jews, as it liketh you” (Esther 8:8). The anti-feminist king grants Esther an operational task in all this.5 The king, with diplomatic flexibility, adds that Haman will be hung “because he laid his hand upon the Jews.” (Esther 8:7).
If we look at the war against Haman the Aggagite as a continuation of Saul’s war against Aggag King of Amalek, we will find an important difference. Aggag was put to death after the war with Amalek, and Haman was put to death before the war with Amalek, by Mordechai and Esther, Saul’s descendants.
The Jewish feast of Purim joy represents an emendation to the first feast in the Megilla. The first feast ended in mourning, while the Purim feast replaces the mourning. The Jewish people, who were present at foreign celebrations, learned to rejoice at its own feasts.
The system of changes spread from the Jewish people to the nations of the world. The entire regime breathed a sigh of relief when Mordechai inherited Haman’s position. Mordechai, the man of principles who would not bow and bend down, filled the place of Memuchan, Haman, and the rest of the sycophants who had surrounded the king.
The decentralized kingdom was reorganized, “And the King Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea”(Esther 10:1). Just as the story of Joseph ends with his contribution to Egyptian society, the story of Mordechai ends with his contribution to the reorganization of the Persian tax system.
The miracle in the Megilla was not only the salvation from death, but also the raising up of a decentralized and humiliated people to a proud people defending its honor and its rights. Had Esther revealed her Jewishness from the beginning, it would have brought about an impetus for assimilation. When her Jewishness was exposed, after the days of fasting and revival towards repentance, the revelation caused a strengthening of Judaism and the recognition of the King of the Universe.
The teachers of the Aggadah gave Esther the title of the Crown of Torah, ‘Give her her rewards’–this referred to Esther, to teach us that she was ordained and sat in the house of wisdom six months.”6