Purim is the most festive and happy holiday in the Jewish calendar. It is the only holiday that carries with it an obligation to drink wine to the point that one doesn’t know the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai!” It is also customary to dress in costume on Purim. What’s behind all this merriment?
The short story is, “They tried to kill us, Hashem saved us, let’s eat!” The long story, detailed in the Megillah written by Mordechai and Esther, describes the reasons for the enormous celebration.
The Megillah contains three different story lines.
Story line #1 – Esther becomes queen
The Megillah begins with a lavish, over the top, 180-day party made by Achashverosh, king of 127 lands, in the third year of his kingdom. After the long party for the high officials of the kingdom, Achashverosh made a second seven-day party for the environs of Shushan, the capital city. King Achashverosh, according to the Midrash, invited even his Jewish subjects to the second party, and provided kosher food and kosher wine for his honored guests.
Mordechai, a prophet and the leader of the Jewish people, told the Jews that they were not to attend the party. King Achashverosh was serving drinks in the vessels of the Holy Temple, and he wore the holy clothing of the High priest. How could a Jew be present as Achashverosh made a mockery of the Holy Temple? Yet, most of the people ignored Mordechai’s directive, went, and had themselves a ball. Many of them succumbed to the illicit pleasures being offered to the Jewish people in an effort to trip them up. Unfortunately, enjoying from the forbidden party put the Jewish people in spiritual danger and made them subject to Haman’s evil decree.
On the last day of the party, when Achashverosh and his cohorts were deeply inebriated, an argument ensued as to which country has the most beautiful women. Achashverosh, who claimed that his wife was the most beautiful of all, sought to end the argument by requesting that his queen, Vashti come in her birthday suit to grace the gathering. Vashti was prepared to fulfill the king’s request, but she strangely developed an unsightly rash over her body and was in no condition to appear before the judges. Not wanting to admit that she wasn’t fit to appear, she sent an insulting refusal to the king through the messengers. Vashti was the daughter of Balshetzar, the former king, and Achashverosh came to power through marrying her. So, she felt that she could treat the king poorly, since she was the source of his power. However, Achashverosh was so deeply humiliated in front of all of his officers and dignitaries, that he decided that Vashti needed to suffer some consequences for her insolent behavior. He put the question to his advisors, and Haman, who was nobody special at that time, came up with the idea that Vashti should be killed. Haman had a daughter whom he hoped would become the next queen, and therefore came up with an excuse that would look like a service to the entire kingdom, to kill Vashti.
“You know Your Highness; Vashti has really done a terrible disservice to every man in your kingdom! When a man asks his wife for something, she will respond by saying, ‘No dice! Vashti didn’t listen to the king, so I’m not listening to you!’ It is imperative that you deal with her appropriately to rectify this matter so that the people of your kingdom know that the man is in charge in the home!”
Seeing this as an opportunity to establish himself as an independent ruler no longer dependent on the royal blood of his wife, Achashverosh seized the opportunity and had Vashti killed.
When Achashverosh recovered from the party, he became lonely for a queen. His advisors suggested that he hold a beauty contest to choose the next queen.
There was a holy and righteous man living in the capital city Shushan, Mordechai, a descendant of the tribe of Binyamin. His cousin Esther, was an orphan, and Mordechai adopted her and raised her as his own daughter. She had a special way about her, and anyone who saw her found her to be beautiful. When the proclamation came forth from the palace that the king is looking for a new wife, all eligible women were encouraged to present themselves to Hageh, the person in charge of processing the candidates. Scouts were also retained to find candidates for the king.
The last thing Mordechai and Esther wanted was for Esther to become the queen of a gentile king,Achashverosh. Hence, knowing of Esther’s unique quality of finding favor in the eyes of all who beheld her, Mordechai hid Esther and did not allow her to leave the house while the search for a queen was going on. However, as Mordechai entered the house one day, a scout who stood opposite the door, was able to see in and spotted Esther. Her magic worked on him, and he immediately realized that this was possibly the girl who would capture the king’s heart. Four years after the contest began, Esther was taken to the king’s palace where she was ultimately chosen as the queen.
Story line #2 – Mordechai discovers a plot to kill the king, and it is recorded in his name
After Esther became the queen, Mordechai hung around the royal palace to stay close to Esther and to stay abreast of what was going on with her. One day, while sitting outside the palace, he overheard two of the king’s servants discussing plans of how they were going to poison the king. They were speaking a very arcane language and did not expect that Mordechai could understand what they were saying. What they didn’t know was that Mordechai was a member of the Sanhedrin, and, as such, had to know all seventy languages of the different peoples, and thus he was able to understand them. He reported what he overheard to Esther, and she reported it to the king in the name of Mordechai. An investigation revealed that the allegations were correct, and the perpetrators were caught and executed. That Mordechai the Jew saved the king’s life was recorded in the book of the king’s chronicles.
Story line #3 – The king elevates Haman and Haman creates a plan to kill the Jews
After the king took Esther as his queen, he was so smitten with her that he wanted to repay Haman for the great piece of advice to kill Vashti, the very factor that led to his wonderful new queen, Esther. For his reward, the king elevated Haman’s position in his kingdom to second in command.
Touting his new power, Haman decreed that all must bow down to him when he passed by. Mordechai, however, would not bow to him. Mordechai was from the tribe of Binyomin, the only one of Yaakov’s sons who did not bow down to Haman’s ancestor Esav. Hence, Mordechai was not permitted to bow down to Haman. In his rage, Haman asked Achashverosh to exterminate the Jews, and Achashverosh gave him permission. The date was set for the 13thday of the month of Adar when all non-Jews would be encouraged to kill any Jew that they knew, and the Jew’s possessions and wealth would become theirs. One day, Haman became so upset at Mordechai that he decided that Mordechai had to go right now, and to facilitate that, he constructed a gallows 100 feet tall to hang him. Only one detail remained: to ask the king’s permission to hang him. Haman finished the gallows in the wee hours of the morning, and figured he would just hang out at the king’s palace until morning when the king woke up, so he could ask him permission first thing in the morning.
There is nothing remarkable about any of the three stories lines. Each story follows a natural path and required no miraculous involvement from Hashem. There is also no reason that these three stories should ever have intersected and affected each other. But the all-knowing Hashem has the ability to direct matters to bring forth His goal, and nobody can stop Him. The hand of Hashem becomes apparent when, in one night, these three stories converge to upend all of Haman’s evil plans, get him hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordechai, and save all the Jews. How is that?
When Mordechai found out about Haman’s plot to kill every Jew on the planet, he told Esther that she must approach the king and beg for mercy for her people. Esther replied, “I haven’t been requested by the king for a while now, and anyone who attempts to enter the kings’ chambers without permission is subject to the death penalty. Unless the king extends the royal scepter, but that is very risky. He may be so upset that I had the nerve to come see him without being called, that he may have me killed.”
Mordechai told her that she must risk it, otherwise all may be lost. Esther told Mordechai that she was prepared to risk her life, but before doing so all the Jewish people of Shushan must fast for three days and three nights. She would do the same. The fast atoned for the illicit pleasure that they enjoyed at the original party, and expressed their understanding that the decree was strictly from Hashem and that their salvation was completely in His hands. Hashem accepted their teshuva (repentance). After the three-day fast, Esther went to Achashverosh. When Achashverosh first saw her, he was upset that she had come without permission, but, miraculously, he calmed down and extended his scepter to her. Esther used the opportunity to invite the king and Haman to a party that she was throwing for them that night. At the party, the king asked Esther, “Esther, you risked your life to speak with me. It must be very important! What is it that you want?”
Esther deferred the kings’ request, telling him that she wished to invite him and Haman to a second party tomorrow, and that at that party, she will reveal her deep secret to the king.
Achashverosh and Haman left the first party with very different thoughts.
Haman was elated and so proud of himself. After all, he was the only person invited to the private party Esther threw for the king. Not only did the king value him, even the beautiful queen understood his importance and would not make a party without him. Tomorrow’s party would be even better, he thought.
The king, on the other hand, was extremely perturbed and perplexed. Wasn’t it a private party just for the two of them? So why was Haman there? He couldn’t for the life of him figure out why Esther invited Haman to the party.
The Sages in the Talmud also pondered why Esther invited Haman to the party. Why not tell the king about his plot to destroy the Jewish people without him there? They reveal that Esther had 12 different motives in mind. Here are a few of them. 1. She wanted Achashverosh to be jealous of Haman. 2. She was setting a trap for Haman. 3. She didn’t want the Jewish people to think that since she is the queen they don’t have to pray and beseech Hashem for help. She acted like a conspirator to make sure that Jews keep up their prayers to Hashem and not rely on her. 4. So that no one should suspect that she was Jewish. 5. She wanted Achashverosh to think that perhaps there was a secret connection between her and Haman, and would therefore kill them both. The benefit of this would be that when an officer makes a decree, but dies before it is executed, the decree is abolished. (Story line #1)
Esther’s plan worked on Achashverosh and when he went to sleep that night, the unresolved matter of why Haman was at the party gave him no rest. As he lay awake in bed hour after hour, as thoughts of a conspiracy against him by Esther and Haman began creeping into his mind. But, he countered, how could it be that I don’t have even one loyal subject that would tip me off? Could it be that in the past someone saved my life and I didn’t reward him? Maybe word has gotten out that it doesn’t pay to save the king; he doesn’t reward you anyway! How could I check this idea out? I’ll have the book of chronicles brought and read, perhaps there is something there.
The king ordered the royal book of memories be read to him, and there it was found that Mordechai saved the king’s life by reporting that Bigton and Teresh, two of the kings’ servants, plotted to kill him. When Achashveroshheard this, he immediately asked, “What reward was Mordechai given for that?” “None at all!” came the answer. This must be it, thought Achashverosh. This is why no one will reveal the secret plot against me! I will show them it pays to save the king! (Story line #2)
Mordechai had saved the king’s life five years earlier, and, by now, there were many new entries into the king’s book of royal affairs. Looking for this information would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, yet, when the book was opened, Hashem had it open to this story exactly.
The king wanted to reward Mordechai in an elaborate and public way, but decided to seek outside help for an idea of how to do it. Just as he reached this decision, Haman had finished the gallows that he had prepared for Mordechai and had come to the palace to ask permission to hang him. The king asked, “Who is in the courtyard?” not expecting anyone specific to be there, when the response came, “Why, Haman is in the courtyard, Your Highness!” (Story line #3)
By this time, it was the middle of the night, and what a surprise to find his second in command officer hanging around the palace at 2 or 3 in the morning. Officers are usually home sleeping at this time. How unusual!
“Have him come in!” exclaimed the king. Before Haman could open his mouth to make his request to hang Mordechai, the king posed the following question to him.
“Haman, how shall the king show honor and respect to someone he wishes to reward?”
Haman was so full of himself at this time that he immediately thought that the king must be talking about him, so he knew exactly what to say.
Without skipping a beat, Haman responded. “The king should take the royal clothing that he wore and the royal horse that he rode on the day that the royal crown was first place on his head, and give it to one of his high officers to dress this person in, and parade him through the streets on the royal horse proclaiming before him, “’So shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!’”
Achashverosh then told Haman to do exactly that to Mordechai the Jew.
Here is where the un-miracle happened. When story lines 1, 2 & 3 converged on the same night, events unfolded in a very natural way to turn everything on its head. There were no seas split, and no hailstones pummeling Haman, just Hashem working His magic behind the scenes.
Haman came to the king’s palace to get Mordechai killed (story line #3). Had the king’s sleep not been disturbed (story line #1), and had he not read about Mordechai saving his life in the book of chronicles (story line #2), Haman would have received the king’s permission to hang Mordechai, and that would have been the end of the story. Without Mordechai, everything would have fallen apart, for he was the one who was designated to defeat Haman. But because an obscure fact hidden in five years of royal history came to light just at the time the king was trying to get a message out that it pays to save the king, it turned Haman’s plan to kill Mordechai on its head. Instead of hanging Mordechai on his gallows, he found himself parading Mordechai about town in the king’s royal garments on the king’s royal horse proclaiming “So shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!”
Now, for the rest of the story.
Just when Haman finished parading Mordechai around town, it was time to attend Esther’s second party and Haman was rushed off to the party.
Once again, the king asked Esther what was on her mind, and this time, she told the king about Haman’s plot to kill her and her people, the Jews. The king got very upset at Haman for attempting to kill the queen, and went out to the garden to cool off. Haman saw that the king was fed up with him, and approached Esther to beg for his life. In his haste he tripped and fell on her (the Talmud says he was pushed upon her by an angel) just as the king was re-entering the room from the garden. From the king’s perspective, it looked like Haman was attacking the queen. The king yelled at him, “Are you out of your mind? Trying to conquer the queen while I’m right here!?”
As soon as those words left the king’s mouth, a hood was placed over Haman’s head, a sign that the king was finished with him. At that point, Charvona, one of the king’s servants, said to the king, “The gallows which Haman prepared to hang Mordechai on, who saved the king’s life, is ready right outside!” The king said, “Hang him on it!” And so they did.
This started a cascade of positive effects for the Jewish people. Esther brought Mordechai before the king and the king gave him Haman’s position. He also gave Esther Haman’s house and wealth. Esther begged the king to rescind the death decree issued by Haman, and although the rule was that once a decree had been issued it could not be rescinded, the king gave them permission to draft a second decree that permitted the Jews to kill their enemies on the very day their enemies were supposed to kill them, the 13th of Adar. The 14th of Adar brought a rest from the fighting and tranquility for the Jews, because their enemies had been subdued and were no longer a threat to them. The Sages established the 14th of Adar as the Purim holiday.
This is why the 14th of Adar is for us a festive holiday. It is the day we celebrate the un-miracle of Hashem’s involvement in the daily affairs of life. In retrospect, it is clear to see Hashem’s hand involved in the events and controlling them behind the scenes without any split seas, pestilence or hail stones. When the Jewish people properly repented, Hashem activated the pieces that had already been set in place, Esther in the palace, and the information about Mordechai saving the king’s life, to bring forth the salvation to His people. This is the case with the Jewish people today both as a nation and as individuals. Hashem is deeply involved with our lives. He is behind the scenes making things happen for us, as much as He did in the story of Esther.
This is the reason for the masks and masquerading on Purim. It is to highlight that Hashem is hiding behind the scenes and pulling all the strings as He did in the Purim story. Although Hashem’s name is not mentioned even once in the entire Megillah, His fingerprints are all over it. Similarly, Hashem hides behind the camouflage of nature. So great a camouflage artist is Hashem that so many are fooled into thinking that it isn’t camouflage at all; nature operates on its own. The celebration of Purim is the celebration of Hashem running the world incognito, a very joyous thought indeed.
Our Sages teach us, that if the entire Jewish nation would repent and return to Hashem as did the Jews in the times of Mordechai and Esther, we would also immediately merit the coming of Mashiach and the final redemption of the Jewish people.
What an exciting thought! Hashem is behind the scenes involved in all that is happening. All the critical pieces for the complete redemption are in place just waiting to be activated when we are worthy if it. This is truly a reason to rejoice! Let’s celebrate! Have a happy Purim!