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Megillat Ester: Behind the Scenes


Achashverosh and Haman imbibe from the sacred Temple vessels.

Megillat Ester, (the scroll of Esther), has all the trappings of a fairy tale: a powerful king, a sumptuous feast , a girl's rise from orphan to queen, betrayal, entrapment, and deliverance! In fact, some modern scholars write it off as an unhistorical narrative, designed to amuse and comfort the Jews in their long exile. Part of the magic of Purim, the festival in which we read and celebrate the events described in the book of Esther, is that things do not appear as they are - and book of Esther, itself, is no exception: the story told in the book of Ester describes real people involved in a real struggle that took place during a real time, and involved very real issues. The hidden mysteries of Purim are unlocked and revealed for us by our tradition. Midrashic and Talmudic sources, and the Aramaic translations of the text all point to the following facts:

Shushan, where the book of Esther is set, was the capital of the Persian Empire some 2,500 years ago. The king was Achashverosh, (Ahasveurus), whose predecessor, Coresh, (Cyrus), had conquered the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar, the conquerer of the Kingdom of Judea, and the destroyer and plunderer of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We learn about Nebuchadnezzar and his son, Belshazzar, up close, in the book of Daniel. There is described a feast held by Belshazzar, following which he abruptly and mysteriously dies. He had staged the feast based on computations he had made concerning the fate of the Holy Temple. The prophet Jeremiah, who had witnessed the destruction of the Holy Temple, prophesied that, following a seventy year period, the Jews exiled to Babylon would return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. Belshazzar erroneously drew the conclusion that the seventy year period had passed, that the Jews would not be returning to Israel, and that the Holy Temple would never be rebuilt, and so he chose to celebrate by hosting a sumptuous feast. The highlight of their feast would be the presentation, for all to see, of the stolen vessels from the Holy Temple. His sudden death later that night is perhaps not so mysterious, after all.

Following the death of Belshazzar, the Babylonian Empire was toppled by Coresh, ruler of Persia. Coresh signed an official decree allowing the Jews of Babylon to return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the Holy Temple. Forty two thousand Jews responded and made their way back to Jerusalem. They were met with much political opposition, as well as physical hardships. Convinced by those opposed to the rebuilding of the Temple, Coresh rescinded his order, and the construction of the Temple ceased.

Lesson 1: Temporal powers follow the laws of self preservation. By definition, the preservation of temporal power will be in direct contradiction to the will of the Eternal. Don't place your trust in kings and the like!

When Coresh passed from the scene, Achashverosh became king. Achashverosh was married to Vashti - the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar. It was now for Achashverosh to decide the fate of the Holy Temple.

Mordechai, the hero of the book of Esther, was counted among the returning Jews from Babylon. (His name is mentioned in Ezra 2:2, and Nechemia 7:7.) A young, ambitious politician from Shushan, by the name of Haman, also arrived in Jerusalem. Haman was a descendant of Amalek, whose fanatical and irrational hatred of the Israelite nation would threaten the Jews, generation after generation. Haman saw the rebuilding of the Holy Temple as a political issue with which he could lever himself into a position of great influence with Achashverosh, feed his paranoia, and gain his support for his ultimate plan - the destruction of the Jews. He made public his intentions to persuade Achashverosh to forbid the building of the Temple, and returned to Shushan. The Jewish community of Jerusalem saw fit to send Mordechai as their representative, to try to counter the influence of Haman on the king.

Lesson 2: We ignore the very real day to day struggles that we do face, at our own peril. On the contrary, we must engage in the battle to fulfill G-d's expectations of us. This is the task G-d has appointed for us to perform, as a measure of our desire to achieve His will.

Achashverosh, however, didn't need any coaxing from Haman, as his wife, Vashti, had already told him, "My father, (Nebuchadnezzar), destroyed the Temple, and you would dare to allow it to be rebuilt?" (Midrash Ester Rabba) Bolstered by his wife's stand, Achashverosh, like Belshazar before him, came to the conclusion that the Holy Temple was a thing of the past, and that this "fact" was one worth celebrating. Hence, the one hundred and eighty day feast that is described in the book of Esther. And like Belshazzar before him, he too ordered the stolen Temple vessels to be paraded before the guests as evidence of the final demise of the Holy Temple. That Vashti, the instigator of his intransigence, should suddenly meet her own demise, should come as no surprise.

Lesson 3: Those who oppose the will of G-d will fall.

Notables and commoners alike were invited to take part in the sumptuous feast at the king's table. Flattered by their inclusion in the guest-list, the Jews of Shushan happily participated. It was this willing participation in the festive celebration of the demise of the Holy Temple, that would bring upon the Jews the evil decree of extermination.

Lesson 4: Assimilation leads to extermination.

One Jew, Mordechai, did not participate, nor was he seduced by the favors the king was lavishing upon his fellow Jews. Mordechai continued to tangle and contend with Haman, the tormenter of the Jews. All who are familiar with the book of Esther know that Haman succeeded in convincing Achashverosh to order the slaughter of the Jews. When Mordechai informed Esther of this plan, she entered the king's chamber, to plead on behalf of her people, and Achashverosh, in response, promised her any request she might have, up to "half of the kingdom." Our sages teach us that what he really intended was that he would promise her anything, but not the one thing which would divide (in half) his kingdom: the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, which - located in Jerusalem - would split his kingdom, described as stretching from India to Ethiopia - in two! (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah)

Lesson 5: Putting G-d's will before our own is our only true option.

So yes - he did rescind the permission he had granted Haman to murder the Jews, but no - he did not grant permission to the Jews to proceed with rebuilding the Holy Temple. Not to be discouraged, Mordechai proceeded to gather the Jews during the three day fast the Esther had called for, and taught them the commandments of bringing the barley offering to the Holy Temple. The book of Esther closes with the victory of the Jews over their enemies, the hanging of Haman and his ten sons, and the celebration by the Jews of their enemies' demise.

Lesson 6: Torah teaches us that violence must be met with violence. Passivity and victimhood do not bring peace. Strength and victory bring peace.

But what would become of Esther herself? Was she nothing more than a prop in this story of intrigue? Esther, our sages relate, had a son by Achashverosh. This son, Daryavesh, (Darius), would eventually succeed? Achashverosh on the throne. Daryavesh, son of Ester ordered for the building of the Holy Temple to be completed, as we read in Ezra 4:24: "Then the work of the House of G-d which is in Jerusalem ceased. So it ceased until the second? year of the reign of Daryavesh king of Persia."

Lesson 7: History is G-d's way of punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous.

Mordechai, meanwhile, returned to Jerusalem, where he was appointed a member of the Sanhedrin, which sat, of course, in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, located within the wall of the Sanctified? Courtyard of the Holy Temple.

Lesson 8: In this great struggle to build a house for G-d, so that He may dwell amongst us, we are armed with two attributes: our faith and our integrity.

Having read the in-depth coverage of all the political intrigues, the story behind the story, as it were, one must ask the question: if the book of Esther is really about the struggle to rebuild the Holy Temple, a matter so dear to G-d, then why is G-d's name never mentioned throughout the entire narrative? Why is His guiding hand "hidden", as it were?

The books of Ezra and Nechemia fully cover the details of the building of the second Temple. Mordechai and Esther, the co-authors of the book of Esther weren't concerned with writing yet another book documenting the same facts. So they kept the details below the surface. What was important to them was the spiritual warfare being waged - and that they did, indeed, document.

But again, why downplay G-d's intervention in the story? When the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds, it was all about G-d. After all, it was G-d who had a promise to live up to. It was G-d who wanted His Holy Name to be known to all the nations. And it was G-d who wanted His children to know who had delivered them. The Song of the Sea vocalized all these aspirations, as well as the Israelite's commitment to someday build the Holy Temple on G-d's holy mountain. This was the birth of the nation of Israel. When a child is born, its parents must feed and cloth, shelter and protect the infant. And this is what G-d did for the infant nation of Israel in the desert. Yet, when a child enters adulthood, a parent must no longer be seen hovering over the child, obsessively interfering in his life. Of course the parent will do do all in his power to see that the child will get every opportunity to achieve his goals, but he will do so in a quiet, unseen way, so that the achievement of the child's goals will truly be his - his accomplishment alone. The nation of Israel had a dream from its earliest childhood - the dream of building a dwelling place for G-d - a Holy Temple. It is for the Jewish nation to fulfill this aspiration - and that is the message behind the "missing" G-d of the book of Esther.

And so it remains today that the obligation to build G-d's Holy Temple falls squarely upon the shoulders of the Jewish nation. When the Jews muster up the courage to fulfill G-d's commandment, then G-d, behind the scenes, will see to it that all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in our path will be cleared before us, as He did with His hidden hand - as described in the book of Ester - when the Jews had committed themselves to building the second Temple.


Mordechai teaches the laws of the barley offering, while a chastised Haman
awaits him in order to honor Mordechai at Achashverosh's bidding.



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