“The True Story of Purim”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, speaks of the fashioning of the clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Since this Thursday night marks the beginning of the joyous festival of Purim, my message this week will focus on the Book of Esther, with a brief reference to parashat Tetzaveh.

Many are under the impression that the story of Purim is but a tale of a mad anti-Semite, Haman, who together with the simple-minded King Ahasuerus and their nasty cohorts, wanted to destroy the Jewish people. It is never clearly established whether their hatred of the Jews was because of typical anti-Semitic resentment, or due to the fact Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down to Haman.

The true story of Purim is far more complex than a simple anti-Semitic tale. It begins in the year 604 BCE when Nebuchadnezzer, the king of the Babylonian Empire gains control over the land and the People of Israel. Approximately seven years later, in the year 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzer exiles the Jewish king of Judah, Yechonia, and the Jewish elite, which includes Mordechai. Finally, in the year 586 BCE, the Beit Hamikdash, the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians.

Despite its great prominence and power, the Babylonian dynasty of Nebuchadnezzer comes to an abrupt end in the year 535 BCE, with the assassination of Nebuchadnezzer’s grandson Balshazzar. The end of the Babylonian dynasty was actually prophesied by the prophet Daniel who interpreted the famed writing on the wall. After the decline of the Babylonians, the power was transferred to the ascending Persians and Medes, under the monarchy of Darius the Mede.

The prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied at the time of the Temple’s destruction, was able to somewhat temper his fateful prophecies by offering consolation to the People of Israel, predicting that the Temple would be rebuilt seventy years after its destruction. (Jeremiah 29:10) “For thus says the Lord, that after seventy years of Babylon are completed I will remember you and perform my good word, concerning you, to make your return to this place.” The prophet Daniel, in Daniel 9:2, reiterates Jeremiah’s prophecy.

In the year 534 BCE, seventy years after the rise of Nebuchadnezzer, the Persians and Medes take hold of power over the Land of Israel. Cyrus, the Persian king grants permission for the Jews to return to their homeland and build a new Beit Hamikdash. Unfortunately, under pressure from the enemies of Israel, King Cyrus orders a halt to this construction.

When Ahasuerus ascends to the throne, the ban on building the Temple remains in effect during his entire reign. The sages explain why King Ahasuerus’s generous offer to Esther is limited to only “up to half the kingdom.” According to the Talmud in Megillah, “half the kingdom,” but never the whole, to prevent the rebuilding of the Temple and to forever preclude the Jews’ return to Jerusalem.

The feast described at the beginning of the Book of Esther took place in the year 529 BCE, the third year of Ahasuerus’s reign, because king Ahasuerus mistakenly calculated that 70 years had passed since the destruction, which he regarded as the exile of King Yechonia and the Jewish elite. Ahasuerus rejoiced because clearly the prediction of the prophet had not come to pass, and now there was no hope that the Temple would ever be rebuilt. The Jews were doomed to oblivion forever.

All of this is further reinforced by the Midrashic interpretations concerning the grand party which Ahasuerus threw for 180 days. According to the Malbim, (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, 1809-1879) one of the preeminent bible commentators of modern times, Ahasuerus was really a pretender to the throne, a mercenary who had accumulated much wealth, and had bought himself the monarchy. He marries Vashti, the great granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzer and daughter of Balshazzar, in an effort to lend legitimacy to his kingship. Finally, in the third year of his reign, when Ahasuerus feels secure, he tries to dispel the common perception that he bought his way to the kingship, and that he used Vashti as a means to legitimate himself.

The party Ahasuerus throws serves a double purpose: To prove his legitimacy as a monarch, and to celebrate the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people. In order to properly celebrate the destruction of the Jewish people, Ahasuerus dresses up in the vestments of High Priest, those very garments that are described in such detail in parashat Tetzaveh. According to the Midrashic sources, each day of the 180 day celebration, Ahasuerus took six of the 1,080 different treasures which had been looted from the Beit Hamikdash by Nebuchadnezzer, and showed them publicly as a symbol of the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people.

At the end of his 180 day party, Ahaseurus throws a second “bash” in Shushan the capital, for all the people who live there. He does this especially in Shushan to win the sympathy and loyalty of those who reside closest to the royal palace, to insure his security in times of trouble. He invites everybody to his party, not distinguishing between nobility, officers, the usual elite guests and the common folks. Trying desperately to win the support of the masses, he breaks with longstanding Babylonian tradition, allowing the commoners to enter the wondrous gardens of Babylon. He does away with all restrictions on drinking, allowing those who can drink and even those who can not drink to celebrate with him. He passes a host of liberal decrees, allowing local cultures and languages to flourish.

According to the Midrash (Esther 1:11), Ahasuerus summons Vashti, his Queen, to come to the celebration, “B’cheter malchut,” in her royal crown, “L’harot ha’amim v’ha’sar’im et yaf’yah, ki to’vat mar’eh he,” to show off to the people and the officials her beauty, for she was beautiful to look upon. The rabbis say that Ahaseurus commanded Vashti to come to the party in the “Royal Crown” and nothing else, totally unclothed, so that her true beauty could be displayed and appreciated, which would prove that he did not marry her because of her lineage. Now he could show the people that he married Vashti only because of her beauty, since Ahasuerus was now true royalty himself, no longer dependent upon his Queen’s royal lineage.

Incredible as it may seem, the Midrash relates that the Jews participated with great enthusiasm in Ahaseurus’s party, despite the fact that the party was a celebration of the destruction of the Jewish people and a mockery of the Jewish G-d! Yet, Jews could not resist being part of this great “happening” in Shushan and drank to inebriation from the holy vessels that had been defiled by Ahaseurus. The real reason for the sword over the Jewish heads, say the rabbis, was that despite Mordechai’s insistence that they refrain from attending, the Jews allowed themselves to enjoy the feast of Ahaseurus. But a feast of this magnitude could not be resisted.

Once again, we see that the enemies of the Jews are really Divine instruments. Haman’s anti-Semitic actions were not simply arbitrary hateful deeds. They were a direct response to the Jews’ own actions. Haman’s decree now threatened the Jews’ very existence. For the Jews to be spared, it was necessary for someone to arise and affirm publicly G-d’s supremacy.

After five years of serving as queen, Esther was not very eager to give up the comforts of her royal lifestyle, until Mordechai shook her to the core, telling her that salvation for the Jewish People would come through other avenues if she refused to intervene on behalf of her people. Mordechai eventually rallied the Jews to acknowledge G-d’s primary role in their lives and His supremacy in the universe. Only then does salvation arrive from the wicked schemes of Haman and the anti-Semites.

It’s not a simplistic story. In fact, it is a story that repeats itself again and again in Jewish history. Would that we pay closer attention to it and its critical message.

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.