Today we’ll be setting the record straight on a number of points in the Megillah story, which is perhaps the most widely known non-fiction publication by and for the Jewish people. Every year, Jewish communities read Megillas Esther on Purim to commemorate the holiday. (This year it will be on Wednesday night and Thursday.)
“And it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh, the same Achashverosh who ruled from Hodu to Cush, one hundred and twenty-seven provinces…”
That was the setting. The Jews were exiles in the Persian Empire, a kingdom that spanned 127 provinces – all of the civilized world in the year 369 BCE (2,830 years ago). The ruling monarch was Achashverosh, and the city of Shushan was the seat of the Persian throne.
It’s three years into his reign and he is celebrating the event in style. For 180 days, he feasted and drank with delegates from all over his kingdom, with gross displays of wealth and ostentation. And after that, there was an exclusive seven day celebration for the locals in Shushan.
At some point during the festivities, Achashverosh sends a message to his wife Vashti, summoning her to his side with naught but the royal crown. She refused, and he killed her in a drunken rage.
When he sobered up, he found himself so very alone. He needed a wife, and he didn’t quite know how to find one. That wasn’t a problem though, because he was the ruler of the civilized world. He had all the beautiful girls in the kingdom brought to him for a grand selection.
Introducing Mordechai, the Jewish leader in the Babylonian/Persian exile who lived in Shushan. As it so happened, his niece Esther, whom Mordechai had raised after her parents’ death, fit the criteria for the king’s woman hunt. Now, she wasn’t exactly excited by the prospect of becoming the queen, but she was brought along just like all the other girls in the kingdom. The prospective queens were subject to a lengthy beautification process, but Achashverosh fancied Esther above the rest and made her his queen. She omitted mention of her ancestry.
Not long after, Mordechai overheard two officers, Bigsan and Seresh, plotting to assassinate the king. He told Esther as much, and she notified the king. An investigation followed, and the two would-be killers were themselves killed. Achashverosh credited Mordechai with saving his life, and recorded the incident in his Book of Chronicles.
At this point in the story, Achashverosh saw fit to promote his long time advisor, Haman. Haman was a really evil man, a descendant of the Amalekites and a sworn enemy of the Jews. As the second in command, he declared that everyone should bow down when he was present, to show humility and respect to a man so powerful.
Mordechai wasn’t amused. He didn’t want to bow to a mere mortal, when G-d really ruled the world. He ignored the new law, and by doing this he incurred Haman’s wrath. Thus were the seeds of revenge planted in Haman’s mind. Having Mordechai killed would have been revenge enough, but Haman wanted to be thorough. He wanted to kill all the Jews as one fully destructive stroke of vengeance. He asked King Achashverosh for permission to do so, offering an enormous sum of money by way of persuasion. The king gave the go-ahead. He gave Haman his ring, with which he would be able to issue any decree he saw fit. Achashverosh refused the money.
Haman cast a raffle to determine which day he would bring destruction upon the Jewish nation. He came up with the 13th of Adar. The name of the holiday actually originates from this raffle. (Purim, being plural of Pur – meaning raffle, or lottery) Notices were sent to the 127 provinces, copies of the decree issuing the Jews’ destruction.
The Jews found out, and Mordechai instructed the Jews to fast and pray. Esther planned to approach the king without a formal invitation, a violation punishable by death. After three days of fasting, she went in. Instead of killing her, Achashverosh asked her what was up. She invited him to a party, and, “Oh, invite Haman along too, k?”
At the party, Achashverosh asked Esther what she wanted, but she shrewdly dodged the question and invited both the king and Haman to yet another party.
Haman was leaving the party, whistling a merry tune that smelled of alcohol. Suddenly, he saw Mordechai, who would not bow down to him. Haman was angry. He was rich, he was powerful, and he had apparently played his cards right to be invited to parties by the queen, not once, but twice. His plan to kill the Jews notwithstanding, he was incensed by Mordechai’s lack of respect. He spun on his heel and headed home, where he plotted Mordechai’s more immediate death with his family. “Build a gallows for him,” suggested Zeresh, his wife. Haman agreed and set out for the palace to request permission, despite the late hour.
In the meantime, Achashverosh was trying to sleep but was having difficulty. “Fetch me the Book of Chronicles,” he drawled. And inside, he found the account of Mordechai saving his life from Bigsan and Seresh. “How was he repaid?” the king asked. But he’d never repaid.
And that’s when Haman asked for an audience with the king. Achashverosh acquiesced. “Tell me Haman,” he began, before Haman could say anything. “What should happen to one who the king wishes to honor?” Haman opened his mouth and closed it. He’s got to be talking about me, he thought. He responded:
“For a man whom the king wishes to honor, let them bring a royal garment that the king has worn, and a horse upon which the king has ridden, and upon whose head the royal crown has been placed. And let the garment and the horse be entrusted in the hands of one of the king’s noble ministers, and they shall dress the man whom the king wishes to honor and lead him on the horse through the city square, proclaiming before him, ‘So is done for the man whom the king wishes to honor!’”
King Achashverosh interjected – “Quickly, grab the horse and royal garments, and do what you just said for Mordechai!”
Haman gaped at him for a second, then ran from the palace to do the king’s bidding. Mordechai was paraded around with honor, and Haman was disgraced. Before he had a chance to compose himself, he was summoned to Esther’s second banquet.
Achashverosh asked Esther what it was that she wanted, and this time she was ready with an answer. “Someone is trying to kill me and my entire nation!”
The king was aghast. “Who would do such a thing?”
“It’s Haman, that twisted individual sitting right next to you,” said Esther.
Achashverosh was very upset, and he took a walk to cool down. Haman tried to plead with Esther, and he kneeled at her feet. The king chose this moment to return, and he saw Haman in close proximity with his wife and lost it. Someone mentioned the very gallows that Haman was building for Mordechai, and the king ordered him hung. They hanged Haman that very day.
Esther properly introduced her uncle to the king, and he promoted Mordechai to Haman’s position, which was now conveniently vacant. Esther asked the king to repeal the decree against the Jews, but he said that he could not, due to bureaucratic red tape. Instead, Mordechai sent out his own decree, signed with the king’s ring, calling for the Jews to take up arms against their enemies.
The Jews defended themselves on the 13th of Adar, and killed anyone who tried to attack them. In the capital city of Shushan, the fighting continued for another full day. The Jews were saved from certain annihilation and the holiday of Purim was to be remembered as a day of celebration for all, to this very day.