The story of Purim as it is recorded in the Megillah is typically understood as a battle of good against evil, of Mordechai and Esther against Haman, and of the descendants of Shaul against the descendants of Amalek. It is typically understood as a battle for our very existence which we won through God’s hidden miracles. If we understand the story this way, though, then we must entertain certain questions.
First, what did the Jews do to deserve this punishment, namely this decree of genocide. The Gemara suggests but ultimately rejects the suggestion that we partook of non-kosher food. Indeed, there is no mention of this or any other sin in the Megillah. Even if the Jews attended the king’s party, is there anything wrong with wanting to go so that you could take a selfie with him? Second, why does Mordechai refuse to bow to Haman and endanger his life and potentially the lives of others? Bowing is often seen as a sign of respect and our Biblical heroes bowed to others many times throughout the Tanach and were not criticized. Some commentaries suggest that Haman had an idol affixed to him so if you bowed down to Haman, you were effectively bowing down to the idol. However, if that is the case, why doesn’t the Megillah mention that explicitly? Third, how are the first and tenth chapters relevant to the plot of the Megillah? We may need to know the background as to the selection of Esther as queen, but why is there a lengthy Chapter One that highlights the elaborate celebrations of Achashverosh? And what does the three-verse Chapter Ten add to the plot? How are the facts that the king levied a tax on the people and that he was a mighty king relevant to the plot of the story?
I recently came across an article on this topic in the Megadim Journal that was written in 1995 by an Israeli scholar, R. David Hentschke. This article argues that the plot of the story is not about Haman versus Mordechai or Esther or the Jews; rather, the Megillah is all about Achashverosh and his kingdom. It’s not a story about a wicked man named Haman. It’s a story about a completely immoral, self-centered, paranoid and emotionally weak individual who happens to control the entire Near East, and how dangerous that can be. Perhaps Haman is the most wicked man in the Megillah, but he is not necessarily the most dangerous man. Chapter One describes the king’s power and how he invites the entire world to a lavish celebration, and it also explains what makes him so dangerous. Achashverosh is someone who makes life and death decisions when he is dunk and when someone flatters him, whether that person is Memuchan, Haman or Esther, for that matter. Achashverosh is a vain king who has all the power to do what he wants and that is very dangerous.
Mordechai realizes this fact. He understands Achashverosh’s capriciousness and when he discovers that Achashverosh appointed the Jew-hater Haman as his second in command for no apparent reason, Mordechai realizes that this appointment is utterly disastrous. In response, Mordechai protests by refusing to bow to Haman. In effect, Mordechai refuses to acknowledge Achashverosh’s appointment. In fact, the servants of the king tell Mordechai “madua ata over et mitzvat hamelech,” or “why do you violate the command of the king?” In not bowing down to Haman, Mordechai is protesting not merely Haman, but he is protesting the king, his appointment and his capriciousness. Mordechai may even be willing to die as a martyr for protesting the king’s appointment because he realizes how dangerous Achashverosh is.
Even after Haman is killed, you would think that the Jews can now celebrate, but even after he is killed, Esther must plead with the king because the decree to kill the Jews cannot be overturned. From any objective standard, not being able to overturn a decree, especially one of this magnitude, seems utterly ridiculous. Additionally, Achashverosh is a king that wants to reward Mordechai for saving his life so he commands that Mordechai should be paraded all over town. Meanwhile, he plans on having Mordechai killed in a few months with the rest of the Jews. Does that make any sense?
The article concludes by contrasting the kingdom of Achashverosh with kingdom of God. The subjects of Achashverosh’s kingdom were forced to follow his nonsensical laws, whereas the Jewish people, God’s subjects, accepted the Torah out of love at this time.
Perhaps, though, the point of the Megillah is to make us aware of the fact that there are sometimes dangerous people in the world who allow wickedness to persist and are effectively oblivious and passive to this wickedness. Mordechai the Jew refuses to be silent. Mordechai the Jew says that we must fight apathy to evil and he prevails upon Esther to do so. This story tells the Jew of our responsibility as a member of society to fight for what is right. This story tells us not to remain in our own world, caring only about our own interests. This story tells us that we have a broader agenda and a broader responsibility as Jews to the outside world to truly be an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. In fact, that’s how the Megillah ends. The Megillah ends in Chapter Ten with Mordechai being appointed second to the king. Mordechai must remain in this position because the king was, is and will continue to remain a very dangerous man. However, if we do persist and fight for justice, then maybe the Megillah is telling us that even though we may not always see it, God will help us behind the scenes to ensure our success as he did in our miraculous Purim story that we will read in a few days.