The Purim Story - In Memoriam of Mr. David M. Warren (Menachem Dovid ben Harav Yosef Z'L)
The central figures in the story of Purim share a common characteristic – all of them are out of place.
Ahasuerus was the son of Darius and led the nation of Medea. After Belshazzar, the king of Persia, died, Ahasuerus married Belshazzar’s daughter, Queen Vashti, and became the King of both Persia and Medea. The Yalkut Shemoni (chapter 1409, 13th century) says Belshazzar, had he still been alive, would have opposed the marriage. After all, who was Ahasuerus that he should be king of the world’s largest empire
Queen Vashti was then executed after she refused Ahasuerus’ request to appear and show the Queen’s beauty at his party in “only” her crown. (Talmud Megillah 12B). Vashti was protecting the dignity of her father Belshazzar and did not want Ahasuerus to receive credit for anything he did not deserve. (Yalkut Shemoni 1049) Haman, with the Royal Council’s approval, advised Ahasuerus to kill his queen, the one who made him king, because her refusal undermined his authority.
Haman was descended from King Agag of Amalek, who only lived long enough to have offspring because, centuries earlier, King Saul sinned by showing compassion to Agag rather than killing him. (As a result, the House of Saul lost the kingship of Israel.)
Mordecai, president of the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court), overheard a conspiracy to kill the king while attending a royal celebration of the Jews’ continued exile.
Esther, Mordecai’s cousin, became queen after she was forced to participate in a beauty contest. The contest, itself, was initiated upon the advice of Ahasuerus’ chamber servants who were trying to cheer up the king, following Vashti’s death. (Esther 4:2)
The idea that circumstances can change in an instant leads to a fascinating exchange between Mordecai and Esther. (Megillat Esther 4:1-17)
Trapped inside the palace, Esther sends a servant to inquire why Mordecai was at the palace gates wearing sackcloth and covered in ashes. Mordecai tells her servant of Haman’s plan to eradicate the Jews. He tells Esther, she must “go to the king and beg and plead on behalf of her people.”
Esther responds, “All the king’s servants and all the king’s territories know that any man or woman who comes before the king, to the inner courtyard, who hasn’t been called, there is one law for him – death – unless the king extends his golden scepter to him and he lives and I haven’t been called to the king for the past thirty days.”
Mordecai replies, “Don’t imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape in the king’s palace. Because if you stay silent during this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish and who knows if it wasn’t for a time like this that you attained royalty. “
Esther answers, “Go and assemble all the Jews that are present in Shushan and fast for me – don’t eat or drink for three days and nights and today I and my maidens will also fast and then I’ll go to the king, which is unlawful, and if I perish, I perish.”
Esther’s reluctance was perfectly rational. Her predecessor, one of the most beautiful women in the world and of royal descent, was executed on a whim. Approaching the king unbidden was a capital offense. The risk was too great.
Mordecai’s response is very telling on multiple levels. First, never assume we can separate our fate from the rest of the Jewish nation. Throughout history, prominent Jews have been subjected to the same degradations and violence of anti-Semitism as the lowest vagabonds. Secondly, a person’s true security lies in his devotion to God. Finally, when we’re in a position to help a fellow Jew, God forbid we squander the very opportunity that God has presented us.
When Esther asked that all the Jews in Shushan fast with her and her maidens, she was binding herself to the Jewish people. They would pray together. She would risk her life to save her people. She would accept the consequences of doing the right thing. “And if I perish, I perish.” Esther as the Jewish people’s deliverer realized that God has infinite ways. As Mordechai told Ester, “relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish.”
Every day, we do what we can to protect ourselves and our families from the seeming randomness of the world around us. All of these measures are good and proper but it would be a tragic error to imagine they, alone, are sufficient.
The lessons of Purim are that each of us plays an integral role in the success of our communities, God is involved in our everyday lives, and only God has the ability to protect us from misfortune. Esther lived because she risked her life to save the Jewish people.