Ari Sacher

“Alternate History” Parashat Vayikra – Purim 5784

I have always enjoyed reading alternate history. According to Merriam-Webster, alternate history is “fiction that is based on history and that explores what might have happened if certain historical events, figures, etc., had been different. Kennedy surviving the assassination attempt is a popular event of alternative history, inspiring novels, stage plays and short stories.” In this essay, we will look at one alternate history of the holiday of Purim.

R’ Thomas Furst, writing in “Torah Mysteries Illuminated,” asserts that the story of Purim from start to finish contains no less than thirteen “coincidences,” such that if even one of them does not occur, then Haman gets his wish and all the Jews in the entire Persian Empire are killed. For instance: It just so happened that Mordechai overheard Bigthan and Teresh plotting to murder the king. It just so happened that out of all the women in the Persian Empire, King Achashverosh chose Esther, a well-connected Jewess, to be his wife. And so on. My personal favorite is when the king just so happened to have trouble sleeping [Esther 6:1]: “On that night, the king’s sleep was disturbed, and he ordered to bring the Book of Chronicles, the chronicles, and they were read before the king.” It just so happens that the Book of Chronicles is opened at the exact location in which it is written that Mordechai once saved the king’s life. The king wants to reward Mordechai and at that precise moment, it just so happens that Haman comes knocking at the king’s door to tell him that he should hang that very same Mordechai on a 35-meter gallows he has just built expressly for this purpose. The Book of Esther describes things so matter-of-factly. The verses are simply dripping with irony. Each and every year when I read them, I get goosebumps.

Now here is where the alternate history comes in. What would have happened in an alternate world in which the king sleeps through the night until he is awakened by Haman, who can’t wait to tell him about his plan to hang Mordechai. In the spirit of Purim, I fielded this question to Microsoft Copilot (using ChatGPT-4): In the Purim story, what happens if Achashverosh does not discover that Mordechai saved his life? “If King Achashverosh had not discovered that Mordechai saved his life, the narrative could have unfolded quite differently. The discovery was a pivotal moment that led to Mordechai’s eventual rise and Haman’s downfall. Without this event, Mordechai might not have been rewarded, and Haman’s plot against the Jews might have proceeded without the crucial intervention by Esther and Mordechai. The story underscores the importance of recognition and reward for good deeds, as well as the idea that seemingly small events can have significant impacts on the course of history.”

Unfortunately, it seems that ChatGPT is not up to the task. Rabbi Yonatan Eyebeschutz[1], writing in “Ya’arot Devash,” and the Hida[2], writing in “Chomat Anach” both note that even had the king not had a bout of insomnia, Haman and the king were already invited to a party the next morning sponsored by Queen Esther, who was going to tell the king that Haman wanted to kill her and her people. Even if the king does not discover that Mordechai had once saved his life, Haman is still going to be killed and the holiday of Purim remains safe and sound. Why, then, was it important that the king be given a starring role in “Sleepless in Shushan”[3]? Again, I turned to Chat-GPT: But Queen Esther would still have told the king that Haman wanted to kill her and her people. “Indeed, Queen Esther’s revelation to King Achashverosh about Haman’s plot was another critical moment in the Purim story. Even if the king had not learned of Mordechai’s earlier act of saving his life, Esther’s courageous act of revealing her Jewish identity and exposing Haman’s plan to annihilate her people was pivotal. Her intervention directly appealed to the king’s affections and sense of justice, which ultimately led to Haman’s downfall and the salvation of the Jewish people. This part of the story highlights the themes of bravery, advocacy, and the power of individuals to change the course of events through their actions.”

While the Artificial Intelligence was admittedly impressive, I was not satisfied by its answer and so, to quote the great Sage, Hillel [Avot 1:14] “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I went back to the scripture to look for an answer and it hit me full force in the face. Let us walk through the scene in the Book of Esther in which Esther pulls the rug out from under Haman’s feet. Haman, Esther, and King Achashverosh meet at a feast for a second straight day. Esther has promised the king that she will reveal to him a great secret. The king is curious. He asks her what she wants – he is willing to give her half the kingdom – and she breaks the news to him that she and her people have been sentenced to extermination. When the king demands the identity of the perpetrator, she points her finger at Haman. The king, white with anger, storms out of the room and Haman falls before Esther to plead for his life. The king returns to the feast, sees Haman all over Esther, and explodes [Esther 7:8]: “The word came out of the king’s mouth, and they covered Haman’s face.” At this moment, Haman is a dead man walking. The Purim story could very well have ended here[4].

But it doesn’t. Harbonah, one of the king’s chamberlains, speaks up and tells the king [Esther 7:9] “Also, behold the gallows that Haman made for Mordechai, who spoke well for the king, standing in Haman’s house, fifty cubits high!” Had the king not heard about Mordechai the night before, Harbonah’s statement would have been meaningless. Were it not for the king’s recent discovery that Mordechai had once saved his life, the king would not have known who Mordechai even was[5]. Harbonah’s revelation angers the king, and he shouts [Esther 7:9] “Hang [Haman] on it.” The Purim story could very well have ended here.

But it doesn’t. One final verse is appended [Esther 7:10]: “They hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordechai, and the king’s anger abated.” I suggest that this verse is so critical for were it not written, the story of Purim could have ended very differently. King Achashverosh is perhaps the most capricious character in all of scripture. He becomes angry at his wife, Vashti, and he has her killed, only to replace her with Esther. His minister, Haman, comes up with a compelling idea to exterminate the Jews[6] and the king nonchalantly takes off his signet ring and hands it over to Haman, giving him essentially unlimited power. After the king has Haman killed, he slips the signet ring off Haman’s finger and gives it to Mordechai, giving him essentially unlimited power. What was to prevent the king from one day killing Mordechai and handing the ring over to somebody else? On a larger scale, how did the Jewish people know that they were safe? The answer lies in the last three words of the verse: The king’s anger abated (va’chamat ha’melech sha’chacha). There was closure and the only reason this closure was possible was because the king had discovered that Mordechai had once saved his life and that Haman was trying to kill that very same Mordechai. Once Haman was dead, there was no going back. The game was over [Esther 8:16]: “The Jews experienced light and gladness, happiness and honor.” All because King Achashverosh – miraculously – forgot to take his Nyquil.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1] Rabbi Eybeschutz lived in the 17th century, holding positions as Dayan (Judge) of Prague, and later as rabbi of the “Three Communities”: Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek.

[2] Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai, known by his acronym “Hida,” lived in the 18th century in Israel and Italy

[3] Both Rabbi Eyebeschutz and the Hida offer explanations that stray from the simple meaning of the verse. I am looking for an answer that sticks to the plot.

[4] Well, not exactly. There are still the last three chapters of the Book of Esther that describe how Haman was replaced by Esther’s uncle Mordechai (a natural replacement for Haman even had he not saved the king) and the ensuing battle in which the Jews fight back against the Persians who tried to kill them.

[5] Well, not exactly. It is clear from the Book of Esther that Mordechai spent a lot of time around the palace. According to our Sages in the Midrash, Mordechai was an advisor to the king, another reason for his being chosen to replace Haman. Nevertheless, we will stick to the simple meaning of the verse.

[6] Well, not exactly. Haman never explicitly tells the king that he wants to murder all of the Jews. He refers to a generic “certain people, scattered and dispersed.”

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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