The story of Purim is a study of what appears to be a series of random acts and chance that are actually the result of divine providence.
Achasverosh, a usurper to the throne of Persia[i], marries then Princess Vashti, palming off her royal provenance[ii] by making her his Queen. The Megillah begins with an account of the grand ball he threw in the third year of his reign[iii].
At the party, he kills his first wife, Queen Vashti, at the suggestion of his best friend[iv], Haman[v]. He then kills his best friend Haman, because of his second wife[vi] Queen Esther[vii]. He was not a very loyal and reliable person and it’s understandable that Esther and Mordechai did not fully place their trust in him.
Haman was an Amalakite[viii] and implacable enemy of the Jewish people. Like his ancestors, he sought the utter destruction of the Jewish people[ix] and to eradicate their legacy of a Torah system of ethical values, norms and mores[x]. The Talmud notes that even before he was promoted to a position of authority under Achasverosh, the stage was set for the failure of his nefarious plan[xi]. Queen Esther and Mordechai were already well placed to frustrate his malign intentions and to save the Jewish people.
This is a key theme of the Megillah. We are guided by divine providence, the antithesis of Amalek’s creed that everything is just a matter of chance[xii]. This does not mean being passive in the face of the challenges life presents. To the contrary, we are called upon to act properly and to the best of our ability. Thus, Mordechai encouraged Queen Esther to intervene, with her husband King Achasverosh, to save the Jewish people from the evil designs of Haman. This was despite the personal risks she would incur by acting so boldly. He advised, if she kept silent in this pending crisis, then relief and deliverance of the Jews would come from another source[xiii]. However, he urged she should be cognizant of the fact that perhaps she was put in this position precisely so she would have the opportunity to perform this vital role. Esther responded positively and acted decisively. She recognized the wisdom of Mordechai’s cogent argument that she had to act now while she enjoyed the King’s favor[xiv]. Delay was not advisable; because there was no assurance her favored position would continue[xv], especially given Achasverosh’s temperament and fickle nature.
Mordechai’s message to Esther was that these were not random occurrences. Even Haman’s figuratively throwing of the dice[xvi] to determine the most propitious date for the planned massacre of the Jews was also not just a matter of chance. Divine providence guided events so that the date picked was almost a year later to provide an adequate time period to counter Haman’s efforts.
The Megillah records Esther successfully enabled the Jewish people to be saved and victorious defensive battles were fought against the forces[xvii] Haman had assembled to annihilate the Jews. Achasverosh received an interim report and the Talmud[xviii] reports he was angered by the number of fatalities suffered by his erstwhile supporters in the Haman cabal, in the capital of Shushan[xix]. He wanted to speak harshly to Esther; but was prevented from doing so by divine intervention. Instead, he asked Esther what else he might do for her[xx]. She responded asking for one more day for the Jews in Shushan to root out their enemies. This seemingly anomalous occurrence in the Megillah invites further inquiry and analysis.
Why did she ask for what amounts to additional security for the Jews in the Diaspora community of Shushan? Why not use this extraordinary opportunity to focus on another situation that was sorely in need of a solution? She might have asked for the right to rebuild Jerusalem and its walls so as to assure the security of Israel[xxi]. Interestingly, Nehemiah[xxii], when presented with a similar opening, does focus on the need to rebuild Jerusalem and is rewarded with the authority to make it so. Yet Esther didn’t and the question is why?
Rabbi Yonatan Eyebeshitz[xxiii] takes up the issue and his answer is most instructive. He cites a most intriguing discussion in the Talmud[xxiv]. It reports that there is a prescribed sequence of three commandments that must be performed when the Jewish people enter the Land of Israel. First they must appoint a king; next they must subdue Amalek; and then only can they proceed with building the Beit HaMikdash. This is because there is no completion of the link to the divine unless the malign influence of Amalek is quelled. In essence, it is Amalek’s propagation of its denial of divine providence that interrupts the link. This might help explain why Esther concentrated on dealing with Amalek first.
Consider, Mordechai had been designated by Achasveros to be the King of the Jews[xxv]. However, while the Jews were saved, the inimical and antithetical influence of Amalek had not been fully subdued. Haman had more progeny[xxvi] than the ten sons expressly named in the Megillah[xxvii], as well as, many followers. The center for the Amalikites was in Shushan[xxviii]. Deterring them from attacking the Jews was also of prime importance.
It is suggested the request for an additional day to deal with Shushan[xxix] was a fundamental part of Esther’s plan. It was designed to militate against any assertion that somehow the defense by the Jewish people was just some unexpected spontaneous occurrence that would likely not be repeated. Haman’s crew might have argued it was just the luck of the draw and mere chance that the Jews happened to defend themselves that day. As was their nature, they might have speculated, why not try again the next day? After all, they did not believe in divine providence.
Defeating this malevolent philosophy of Amalek, which had infected so many, required demonstrating that the victory was the result of divine providence and not just a quirk of fate. Obtaining a new separate mandate for Shushan helped establish that this was not some random event, but a part of an ongoing program. There was a plan and it was genuinely and determinedly being pursued in earnest by the Jewish Queen Esther and newly empowered Mordechai. It was designed to break the false narrative reliant on pronouncements that the world was governed by mere chance. Their elevation and ongoing power was proof that the divine providence guided world affairs and the destiny of the Jewish people.
It is, therefore, no accident that Esther’s son Artaxerxes[xxx] (also known as Daryovish in the Megillah) becomes king and Nehemiah becomes his royal cupbearer. According to the Malbim[xxxi], Esther is there, as the Queen Mother[xxxii], when Artaxerxes asks Nehemiah what’s bothering him and Nehemiah responds by voicing his concern about securing Jerusalem. Artaxerxes then authorizes Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem[xxxiii]. As noted above, by this time Amalek had been quelled. It is also interesting to note that, in addition to the special role of Mordechai described above, Artaxerxes was a Jewish king, actually and fully in power at the time. The role of divine providence in enabling the foregoing is veritably indisputable.
The hidden hand of G-d is often unnoticeable as events unfold. What might seem to be just some adversity visited upon a person by mere chance might actually be an inflexion point. The path chosen in response might yield unimagined and wonderful results. As Rabbi Akiva counseled[xxxiv], everything that occurs in this world is directed towards achieving some ultimate good, even if it doesn’t appear that way, at the time. It is usually only after the fact that sometimes unmistakable patterns can be recognized.
My father-in-law, of blessed memory, was a survivor of Auschwitz. He passed away a year ago on Shabbat, Parshat Zachor. I remember him recounting how he was barely 15 at the time he arrived at Auschwitz and became separated from his mother on a line. He saw a woman he knew from his hometown on another line and he went to her. He asked if he could stay with her, but she said no. She had two infants, one in each of her arms, and said she couldn’t care of him too. He went back to the other line. In that fateful moment, his life was saved. Unknowingly, he had wandered from the line where he might be selected for work to the one slated for the gas chambers and death; and, then, back again. His temporary disappointment at being rejected was ultimately rewarded with life. He next encountered the evil Dr. Mengele, who marveled at his blue eyes and selected him for work and life. A German soldier took charge of the group and asked who was a cook. My father-in-law and his uncle were the only two not to answer in the affirmative. The soldier concluded they must be the only ones actually qualified and they were assigned kitchen duty. This saved him and many in his bunk for whom he was able to obtain some rations.
When he returned home, after the war, he experienced further pain. His father had been killed in a labor camp and his mother had remarried. There was no longer any place for him at home and he was forced to leave. He was devastated by this turn of events, but undaunted, he set out for Israel. He was intercepted by the British and interned in Cyprus. He eventually reached Israel in 1948, in time to fight in the War of Independence. He then met my mother-in-law, married, became a policeman, had children, fought in the 1956 war and then came to the US with his family. Had he stayed home, he would have been stuck behind the iron curtain. Who knows what his life might have been?
My father, of blessed memory, was also a survivor of Auschwitz. He passed away on Purim, twenty-five years ago. His miraculous survival, life and philosophy testify to the to the undeniable influence of divine providence. While his arm was indelibly tattooed with his Auschwitz identity number, he didn’t let it, or the inhuman treatment he was subjected to in the camps, define him. He focused his energy on what could be done in the present, in order to assure a better future. Victimhood had no place in his life and there were no excuses for doing anything less than our best. His legacy was one of accomplishment, not maudlin self-pity. He inspired us to work hard to achieve and imbued us with the strength to overcome challenges. His guiding principle was to have faith in G-d and never give up.
Both my father Z”L and father-in-law Z”L overcame what otherwise appeared to be insurmountable challenges; built meaningful lives and lovely families; and, thank G-d, experienced the blessings of what my father would often refer to as Yiddishe Nachas.
The story of Megillat Esther is an integral part of all our lives and its message resonates. Our very existence after thousands of years of persecution and the horrors of the Holocaust is proof of the power of divine providence. It is no random or chance occurrence that the Jewish people survive and prosper and we are witness to the miracle of Israel being rebuilt before our very eyes.
Purim is a holiday that serves to negate Amalek’s philosophy of a mundane world animated only by chance; bereft of true meaning and a higher purpose. Purim celebrates the Jewish view of a world permeated by divine providence, where the good deeds people perform genuinely matter. Join in the festivities at a public reading of the Megillah. As is our tradition, send Shelach Manot to friends and give Matanot L’Evyonim to those in need. Enjoy a Purim Seudah with family and friends, knowing you have made others happy, as well. Purim Sameach.
[i] See BT Megillah 11a.
[ii] See Esther Rabbah 3:14 and BT Megillah 12b.
[iii] Esther 1:3.
[iv] See Esther Rabbah, Petichta 8.
[v] Esther 1:16 and see BT Megillah 12b.
[vi] This elegant précis of this theme in the Megillah was presented by Rabbi Steven Weil, in his Shabbat Drasha, at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference, attended by the author.
[vii] Esther 7:8-10 and see also Esther Rabbah, Petichta 8.
[viii] Esther 3:1 and see Esther Rabbah 10:13 and Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 17:14, as well as, Malbim commentary on Esther 9:24.
[ix] Pesikta Rabbati 13:1.
[x] Esther 3:8-9 and see Esther Rabbah 7:12.
[xi] BT Megillah 13b.
[xii] See, for example, Sifrie Devarim 296, Rashi commentary on Deuteronomy 25:18 and Haemek Davar commentary on Exodus 17:14.
[xiii] Esther 4:14.
[xiv] Esther Rabbah 8:6.
[xv] Rashi commentary on Esther 4:14.
[xvi] See Esther 3:2, which describes how Haman cast lots (Pur) to determine the date. See also Rashi commentary thereon.
[xvii] Esther 9:1-10.
[xviii] BT Megillah 16b.
[xix] Esther 9:11-12.
[xx] Interestingly, he does not qualify his offer with the condition of only up to half his kingdom as he did in Esther 5:3. As BT Megillah 15b explains, the qualifier was intended to limit her ability to ask for the Temple to be rebuilt (see Maharsha commentary thereon). See also Rashi commentary on Esther 5:3, where he notes that Achasverosh had discontinued the work on the Temple, originally authorized by Cyrus.
[xxi] This insightful question and the comparison of the text cited in Nehemiah to that in Esther was presented by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, the President of YU, at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference Shabbaton, attended by the author.
[xxii] See Nehemiah 2:1-6.
[xxiii] Yaarot Dvash I 17:7.
[xxiv] BT Sanhedrin 20b and see Rashi commentary thereon.
[xxv] See Esther Rabbah 10:12 and Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 50:12.
[xxvi] Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 50:11, which notes Haman had a total of forty sons.
[xxvii] Esther 9:7-10.
[xxviii] SeeRalbag commentary on Esther 9:13.
[xxix] See Mabim commentary on Esther 9:13. He notes that Shushan was divided into two sections, comprised of the part known as Shushan HaBirah (the Capital), where the King and his ministers were situated and the regular city of Shushan.
[xxx] Malbim commentary on Nehemiah 2:6.
[xxxii] See also Rashi commentary on Daniel 5:2, which notes the word Shagaltah means the queen in the Aramaic language like the word Shagal used in Nehemiah 2:6.
[xxxiii] As BT Megillah 15b notes, this was not something Achasverosh was willing to do and according to the Yarot Dvash it was as yet premature, as discussed above.
[xxxiv] BT Brachot 60b.