PURIM

The Real story of the Megillah

 

This week we are simply going to tell a story. You might have heard this story before, but never like this. It’s a story most of us were taught from the age of 3. But equally, most of us have never upgraded our knowledge of it since. Here is the story of Megillas Esther through the eyes of the Vilna Ga’on[1]. It must be pointed out that though, to the uninformed onlooker, the Gra’s version of events seem to be far from the text of the Megillah, all the Gra reveals is mentioned in the pessukim (if one looks at the words with pinpoint accuracy). Sometimes we will point out where the passuk hints to each event, but other times we will leave it to the studious reader to consult the Peirush Hagra himself. If ‘Megillas Esther’ is all about revealing that which is hidden (being megaleh ha’hester) vis-à-vis all the little miracles Hashem employs in running the world, then the Gra certainly does bring out these little miracles in the Megillah. It’s a little long, but we’ve tried to add in a bit of entertainment, and it certainly is worth the read. Here’s the scoop. Brace yourselves for something extraordinary…

The story begins: The New Capital

Once upon a festival there was a king called Achashveirosh. Originally a ‘stableman,’ Achashveirosh had usurped the throne of the Babylonian Empire (previously moulded by Nebuchadnezzar) using various underhand means (Gaddafi would have been proud). Unsurprisingly, as a king of 127 countries over which he had no hereditary right to rule, Achashveirosh was looking for ways to legitimise his rule – to win the people over to douse his fears of a rebellion. Thus, he married a lady called Vashti, who, apart from being particularly beautiful (on the outside at least), was Nebuchadnezzar’s granddaughter.

And, given that she was his ‘security’ to the throne, there was no chance he’d ever part from her. At least that’s before Hashem had other ideas. Anyway, having the destructively common combination of paranoia and greed, Achashveirosh had another ‘interesting’ idea: a royal throne. But not any old throne. He wanted Nebuchadnezzar’s own throne - the one he had plundered from Israel: the throne built by Shlomo Hamelech. The problem was that this was no ordinary throne: only a fitting king would be able to sit on it. Made with deep spiritual secrets, this throne had lions engraved onto it and birds hovering above it, and (as Pharaoh Necho found out), should an unfitting king sit on it, the chair would ‘spit out’ its occupant (hence Pharaoh Necho’s permanent limp). Achashveirosh knew that he would never be able to sit on this throne (the prophet had pinpointed Nebuchadnezzar as the plunderer of Israel), so his craving soon turned to carving. He ordered an exact replica throne to be made for him – one carved to the finest detail to be a perfect match for the original. The problem? The only suitable workmen he could find lived in a city called Shushan, and when they finally (after three years’ work) completed the project, the grand expensive chair was too heavy to move. Thus, the absurd became the impossible: Achashveirosh had his entire capital (with all its government ministers) move from Bavel to a city called Shushan. All because of his power-craving legitimacy-hunting pursuit of this throne. Thus (1:2) ‘it was in those days when the king took residence on his throne in Shushan the (new) capital’ – this was the first time he had sat on his new throne, and Shushan was now officially declared the capital. And why did Hashem orchestrate Shushan? ‘For a Jew lived in Shushan by the name of Mordeachai’ – it would later be this same Mr. Mordechai (who now lived conveniently near the new palace) who would be able to overhear a plot against Achashveirosh’s life. But still, the king would never have Vashti removed. Not in a million years. Unless…

 

The Party

 

Chazal[2] tell us that Nebuchadnezzar was a very stingy person (not so hard to imagine). So much so that after he plundered all the riches of the myriads of countries he conquered, he had them stored in iron ships which he then sunk purely so no-one would enjoy these (his) riches after he died. There is stingy and there is stingy! Anyway, when Koresh took over the reigns (it was he who had allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem) he found these sunken ships and the treasures therein - that was his reward for granting the Temple permit. All in all, the treasures filled 1080 storehouses. Thus, by the time Achashveirosh came to the throne and took possession of these storehouses, he ‘decided’ to dabble in a phenomenally unprecedented display of showboating. In order to impress his subjects with his vast wealth (thus augmenting their subservience to him) the idea ‘was put into Achashveirosh’s head’ to order a giant festival, during which various ministers from the various countries would be shown round these 1080 storehouses. But, due to the vastness of these storehouses, there was only enough time for the ministers to see six storehouses per day. So, with six storehouses to get through each day and 1080 to survey in total, Achashveirosh declared a feast for 180 days. But that was not it. At the end of these 180 days Achashveirosh decided to play the ultimate card to win over the local populous in Shushan…

 

After all, it was of utmost importance to gain favour in the eyes of the people of Shushan. For, as residents of the capital, they would be the ‘first line of defence’ in case of rebellion (the Sirte of Libya if you like). So, with the plan being to get the people to love him (not just feel subservient to him – after all, he was aiming to guarantee their loyalty should they be called on to defend him), Achashveirosh went all out. Chur, Karpas, and several other rare words decorated the banquet hall to welcome every resident of Shushan into the king’s palace. Achashveirosh wanted to show that he was a lovable character, a real ‘man of the people,’ so he engaged in an illusory feat of democracy: In order to make every person feel ‘he belonged there’ not only were personal invitations printed no doubt, but every attendee was able to order the cuisine of his choice. What’s more, everyone was given the wine of their taste – but (in true democratic spirit) they could all do what they wanted at the party. If you wanted to drink then you drank (with refills too), but if you didn’t want to drink then that was also fine – ‘there was no forced drinking’ (1:8). An autocratic tyrant pretending to be democratic: that’s how it work in the Middle East. However, it was at this culmination of the 180 days’ feasting, in the presence of all the important ministers and his ‘beloved’ residents of Shushan, that Achashveirosh (who would never part with Vashti, remember) was about to be visited by the real Puller of the strings.

 

Now Vashti (remember her?) was getting tired of her husband’s constant partying. Coming from royalty herself, she knew that it was most unbecoming of a real king to behave in such a way to openly fress and gulp down wine for 180 days. So, at this ‘final supper’, the culmination of the half-year-long festivities, ‘Vashti decided to make a feast for the ladies’ (1:9). And, in selecting a venue to host such a feast, Vasthi made a bold move. She ditched the Millennium Dome, Royal Opera House, and the Emirates Stadium (three places where nothing of much excitement tends to go on) in favour of a room called the beis ha’malchus. This was the only place in the palace where the king could go alone (save from the bathroom, of course) – it was his special, private room used for private contemplation (or, in the case of a Breslav king, meditation/hisbodedus). Irked by her husband’s public fressing, Vashti went for the beis ha’malchus. Not only that, but this room ‘happened’ to be situated adjacent to the main banquet hall where the men were indulging in their gluttony. Now women have not changed much over the past two thousand years: they babbled-on in Babylon as much as they do today (and loudly at that). And men have not changed much over the past two thousand years either: hearing women’s voices the conversation immediately took on a more crude and perverted tone. Thus, Mr. ‘man of the people’ Achashveirosh, smiling at the head of the table like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, soon saw his smile wiped from his face as an argument broke out in the banquet. Things had started not going according to plan (well, Achashveirosh’s plan anyway). The men (with severe amounts of blood in their alcohol stream by now) were vociferously arguing whether Persian women or Median women are prettier. As the battle raged, Achashveirosh (who had tempered his drinking lest the ‘man of the people’ reveal his true, autocratic tendencies) decided that he had to play arbitrator here, lest this deeply intellectual debate derail his party. So, tempting fate somewhat, Achashveirosh called for a third party lineswoman: he sent for his wife, declaring that ‘neither Persians nor Medians are the most beautiful – I married a Babylonian and she’s the prettiest of the lot.’ Putting their personal bickering aside, the people were silenced, waiting for Vashti to make an appearance (with not many clothes on, at that). This was the moment for Achashveirosh. It was the Ne’ilah of his feasting, so to speak, with Vashti’s appearance supposed to prove his re-jigged identity as ‘man of the people.’ Yet, due to a combination of spots and anger (always a dangerous combination for a lady), Vashti turned down her Mickey-Mouse of a husband, adamant that she would not be dancing at this simcha. Achashveirosh, all eyes on him, began to flare up in particularly unnatural anger (as if anger was ever natural anyway) – ‘and the king was very angry. And his anger burnt inside of him’ (1:12). Now even an angry ‘mouse’ has some sense about him. He was not about to do away with his darling Minnie so easily – after all, it was in his interests to keep her around. So, ever the democrat and sensing a way out of this royal mess, Achashveirosh ordered that the case be referred to the courts there and then…

 

The Courtroom Drama

 

In those times, the Empire had two types of courts. One was legal and the other one crooked. The first was a normal panel of judges who would judge a case according to its rights and wrongs. The second type of court consisted of judges who would ‘know what to say’ – they would second-guess what the king wanted the verdict to be, and they would deliver accordingly. This was Russia (or perhaps Ukraine) at it’s best. Thus, Achashveirosh took his case to (1:13) ‘the wise people who know the times’ (i.e. they know when to say what). And in his referral he stated that ‘Queen Vashti did not follow the king’s order’ (1:15) – sure they’d get the hint that he wanted her to still be his Queen. Yet there was a cog in the system, by the name of Hamman (Memuchan at this point). For just recently, Hamman ‘happened’ to have been appointed to this ‘know what to say’ judicial panel. And what’s more, Hamman ‘happened’ to have been having shalom bayis issues with his (foreign) wife: she was imposing her culture on his household, and he didn’t like it (how would you feel if your wife banned the cholent and gefilte fish, insisting on chamim and matbucha instead?!). So Hamman, ever the devious one, planned to use this opportunity to take his vendetta against his wife to a new level. Speaking out of turn before everyone else, (for the newest judge normally spoke last), Hamman argued that this insult to the king cannot possibly be ignored: the king must take strong measures against Vashti, lest any other wife (i.e. his) follow suit. Thus, he proposed that Vashti would look better with her head removed, and all men should be formally granted rule over their wives. Waxing lyrical, Hamman’s premature speech swung the case, and the other judges voted in favour of ‘the new kid on the block’s suggestion.’ However, Hamman did not stop at that. He proposed that the laws of the Empire be amended somewhat. Whereas previously only matters of direct security could be decided by the king alone (without a court hearing), Hamman argued that anything which affected the king (or his image) was, by nature a ‘security issue.’ Essentially, Hamman argued for the institution of emergency procedures whereby the king could rule and execute judgment on matters relating to himself without having to consult a court. These new ‘emergency powers’ will be important for later.

 

With Vashti gone, stage one was complete. Hashem was the only One dancing at this simcha. Matters were so much beyond Achashveirosh that ‘he thought that this was good for him’ (1:21). Now it’s one thing to rid himself of Vashti. But it’s a completely different kettle of (gefilte) fish to marry Esther. After all, which king looking to validate his regal authenticity would ever go for a Jewish girl – a member of an exiled, downtrodden nation. No king in their right mind would do that. Certainly not Achashveirosh. Or …

 

Esther: A Most Complex Chemical Formula

 

After the impossible became the improbable, then the possible, likely, and then actually happened, Vashti’s death created a void in the king’s heart. Left stroking a photo of her on his pillow at night, as he changed his Facebook status to ‘single,’ Achashveirosh slumped into melancholy. What’s more, his normal wise advisers, scared by the combination of a king in a bad mood together with these emergency powers putting their lives on a knife-edge, stayed away from the king as much as possible. Thus, the only people who were left advising the king in his state of depression were ‘the young servants of the king’ (2:2), whose advice was about as immature as the mouth which they came from. It would be the equivalent of listening to a weather forecaster guaranteeing ‘don’t worry, there is no hurricane on the way,’ and actually believing him – a bit Fishy, no? (he’s taking the Michael!). No doubt noticing that the king was pining for the lost beauty of Vashti, these young whippersnappers advised the king to stage the first ever ‘Pop Idol’ contest known to man. Without Ant and Dec (thus guaranteeing real humour) they advised that the most beautiful women should be gathered for the king to select a ‘Miss Babylon.’ The most shocking thing about this suggestion was that these advisers went for beauty alone. Perhaps too stupid to realise that the king wanted yichus as well as looks, they advised that looks be the only criteria. Though more shocking is the king’s acceptance of their plan. Ignoring Hamman’s implicit advice (1:19) to go for a woman of some impressive lineage, Achashveirosh went with the plan of these youngsters (it’s amazing what a combination of sadness, desperation and Divine string-pulling can do to someone) and sure enough, the painstaking process of gathering all the eligible maidens in 127 countries began. But still, it would never be Esther. After all, as soon as she heard about the ‘beauty contest’ idea, she went into hiding. Not only that, but Esther was not exactly a spring chicken (she was about as old as my Grandma is currently, and if I tell you that she was born during the Depression – which she still insists was nothing to do with her – that should give you a bit of an idea). So, being Jewish, an OAP and hiding, Esther’s prospects were not great. The Shushan branch of Ladbrokes didn’t even have odds on Esther: Margaret Thatcher stood a greater chance of being picked. But natural odds are no deterrent for the Boss…

 

Once Haggai (the officer put in charge of this royal fiasco) discovered Esther (perhaps hiding in the Saddam’s cave, Gaddafi’s drainpipe, or Osama’s mansion) he was convinced that she was the one. Not the special one of course – that accolade was reserved for a Mr. Mourninho who managed Shushan Rovers (Achashveirosh’s local team) – but the one to wed Achashveirosh. Thus, Haggai took good care of Esther and gave her all she requested (perhaps he’d put money on her at Ladbrokes). Anyway, Esther, who by now had found favour in all who met her due to a rare combination of beauty and refinement, religiously followed Mordechai’s command not to reveal her nationhood (which no doubt meant discarding her ‘Tottenham Hotspur Pride of London’ cap), even though she did not know the reason why. This was yet another piece of the grand tapestry which would become significant later. Anyway, Esther was ‘called to the king in the tenth month’ (2:16), the month of Teves – another small miracle in that the coldness of the nights helped endear Esther to Achashveirosh. Yet still, her chances were unlikely at best. Unlike the other girls who saw this as their opportunity for stardom (many were already planning biographies), Esther did not take in any special musical instruments to accompany the Sauvignon. She was forced in against her will, and by this time she was green from sickness. But what’s a little bit of green to the Creator of the world?! A combination of Esther’s piety and Divinely inspired admiration in Achashveirosh’s eyes ‘closed the shidduch.’ The King had decided. Esther was to be the new Mrs. Achashveirosh. But, with no fat lady in sight, the miracles were not over yet. Instead of consulting with his advisers (who would have certainly advised against such a match – especially if her nation of origin was unknown: they would have at least got MI6 in to do extensive background checks), Achashveirosh decided on the spot that Esther was his bashert. And he had all the other girls sent packing quicker than you can say ‘it’s lucky for Shushan when the year ends in 1.’ So the impossible had become the unlikely, then odds on and then actually happened. We had our woman on the inside…

 

Esther: Our Eyes in Shushan

 

The long winter nights being as cold as Manchester in the summer, Achashveirosh quickly took to staying up until the early hours of the morning drinking, after his mood had improved with the coronation of his new queen (awww, young love). Now, this added consumption of wine took its toll on his two chief butlers, by the names of Bigsan and Teiresh (they do sound like wine brands, don’t they). After too many sleepless nights due to Achashveirosh constantly calling them in to serve him more wine, the butlers decided that ‘this city `aint big enough for the both of us’ – it would be their lives or Achashveirosh’s life. Thus, they conspired against the king, planning to spike his drink with a most deadly poison (Pettel perhaps). Mordechai, however, was both onside and on-hand to overhear the plans of this terrible twosome, and he sent a message via Esther to tell the king. It was ‘fortunate’ that Achashveirosh had moved his capital to Shushan, otherwise Mordechai would never have been there to play such a major role. The king, who then had this independently and objectively confirmed (so not by the BBC then) organised for the plotters to be put in their own plot (in the ground), and recorded the event in his Book of Chronicles. Note the speed of events here: Esther’s quick ascendancy to the throne, followed almost immediately by the plotters and Mordechai’s inscription in the royal book. The speed of events will be an important theme later too.

 

Hamman on the Scene

 

Meanwhile, back at the palace, after Hamman’s heroics as part of the judicial panel in perek 1, the king had decided to promote Hamman to chief adviser/minister. Hamman, who was a barber by profession before his judicial big break, let his newfound power go to his hair (head). Thus, when Mordechai would not bow down to him Hamman became incensed. Yet, for some reason, Hamman felt it too lowly to kill one person (and besides, Chazal tell us that there was some past history between these two[3]). So instead, Hamman went for the jugular: he set about annihilating the whole nation. Hamman approached the king, claiming that he had some important business to discuss with him. And, after laying into a certain nation who ‘did not keep the laws of the king,’ he requested that they all be put to the sword. Here comes an important detail. In his request to the king Hamman did not mention the name of this abhorrently wayward nation (take a look, the pessukim don’t mention the Jewish People). The main royal letters merely stated that ‘everyone will rise up against a certain nation on the 13th Adar.’ In fact, the Jews in other places around the Empire themselves waited eagerly for the day they would be able to rid the country of this ‘despicable nation,’ whoever they were! Why did Hamman not name and shame the nation immediately? For he was bent on keeping his ‘lucky date of Adar’ (the date of Moshe’s death) and not having to worry about the Jews applying political pressure to prevent this decree from being executed (literally) in the meantime. So the identity of this ‘nation’ was a secret to everyone. Even the people of Shushan were confused[4]: they were awaiting the 13th Adar but they didn’t know who would be the victims of this massacre. There was one man who did know. His name was Mordechai. Probably told so by a prophetic dream (yes, another little miracle), Mordechai quickly went to work. He started a major Tehsuva movement (he got Aish to open up a Shushan branch): the people of Shushan fasted and prayed. And, after relaying the danger to the oblivious Esther, he convinced Esther to do the unthinkable – to appear before the king uninvited. Now if you think gate-crashing a wedding is bad enough, try turning up to Achashveirosh’s throne without an invite. This was certain suicide: a Japanese kamikaze pilot had more chance of landing on a soft mattress than someone going in to see Achashveirosh without being summoned. And what’s more, Esther was observing a multiple-day fast at the time: she hardly had that ‘glamorous look’ about her that would make the king want to spare her life. So, with the fasting Jews of Shushan waiting with baited (bad) breath and the royal guards ready to pounce, Esther entered the lion’s den…

 

‘Boys, I’m going in’

 

Now you might have noticed a Divine pattern in proceedings so far: Hashem does not seem to be particularly bothered by odds (ask the cricketers: if you can match-fix what do odds matter?!). Thus, it ‘happened’ to be that on the day that Esther strode into Achashveirosh, Achashveirosh had decided to move his throne to the next room along: he was now ‘sitting on his throne in the beis hamalchus opposite the entrance to his palace.’ (5:1). This was an important move, for it meant that as the guards readied themselves to pounce on their female prey, Achashveirosh had a view of Esther coming towards the entrance. What’s more, the fact that Esther looked so drained and that she had risked her life to see it only served to endear her in his eyes: he felt that he had to do something for his poor Queen who was obviously in distress. Now, as if hidden Divine intervention was not enough, at this point Hashem’s intervention became a bit more ‘involved.’ Not too dissimilar to NATO’s job in overthrowing a desperate drugged-up dictator in Libya - He sent his troops in. Thus, the gemarra[5] reveals that Hashem ordered three angels into action at this point: one held Esther’s head up (she was too weak to support her own head properly), one endeared her to Achashveirosh, and the third pushed him to extend his golden sceptre to her – guaranteeing her survival. So, with these secret agents pulling off one of the most remarkable espionage missions to date (though Entebbe was pretty impressive), Esther had a trick of her own to pull out of her crown: the seudah.

 

Knowing that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach (which, presumably applies to people who don’t have hearts too), Esther invited Achashveirosh and Hamman to the seudah – both of whom immediately accepted her request. This was a Kasparov-esque grandmaster move, for it had two important outcomes. First, keeping the king guessing what her request was made for a night to forget at the palace (see below). And second, Hamman (who knew that Esther had grown up in Mordechai’s house) now thought that Esther sided with him over Mordechai (villains have never been known for their brainpower). Here’s where the speed factor comes into play again. Because Hamman was so happy at being invited to this most exclusive VIP dinner (he was no doubt ironing his tuxedo for the occasion), it hurt him all the more when he walked outside and saw Mordechai, again refusing to bow to him. Consequently, in a building project that even the quickest Arab builder would be proud of, Hamman (at the advice of his erstwhile wife) had a gigantic gallows built ready to have Mordechai hanged in the morning. It seemed that at this point Hamman was ready to stoop so low as to kill an individual Jew (that’s what pride does to a person). Starter question for ten: why was the tree so tall? It depends who you ask. Hamman built it at such a height so he could have the joy of seeing Mordechai’s hanging body from far away. Hashem had it built at such a height because later on Achashveirosh (in one of the worst moods known to man) would be able to notice the tree and make a quick-fire decision to have Hamman hanged on it. But we’re not there yet. As well as advising her husband to turn lumberjack and build this gigantic tree-come-gallows, Mrs Z. Hamman advised her husband (5:14) to go to Achashveirosh first thing in the morning to request to hang Mordechai. Getting there first thing would both allay Hamman’s impatience and mean that no-one could plead Mordechai’s case – he’d be killed too early for the people to kick up a fuss. So, after pitching his tent outside the palace to get front-row seats at centre court for the morning, Hamman was waiting for the cockerel to crow before marching into the palace. Good job too, for Hamman was not the only sleep-deprived person that night –Achashveirosh was tossing and turning too...

 

Mordechai: A Star for A Day

 

Like all good husbands (especially paranoid ones), Achashveirosh was up all night worrying about trying to second-guess what his queen’s request was. In the midst of his turning, he came to the following (intelligent) conclusion. First, Esther would never risk her life requesting something for herself – and given that she had no relatives, it must be something to do with Mordechai (it seems the king also knew the Esther-Mordechai connection). Second, in order to bolster her request she’d claim that Mordechai had done a favour for the king. So, as one does in such a situation, Achashveirosh got out the Royal Chronicles and saw that, lo and behold, he owed one to Mordechai. Delighted at finally cracking the mystery (well done Clouseau), as dawn neared Achashveirosh asked the unlikely-to-be-answered question ‘who’s in the courtyard’ (6:4). And, as they say, ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. Hamman, who had waited there all night to submit his ‘hang Mordechai petition’ (probably signed by the UN), was right on-hand to be ushered in for some ‘important business’ of the king. And, as shocked as Greece when they won the Euros in 2004, Hamman stammered to accede to the king’s request to lead Mordechai around the city on horseback. Not only this, but this former hairdresser had the indignity of being reminded of his lower-class past by being made to trim Mordechai’s hair for the occasion. Pride comes before a…

 

As Aaron Lennon will tell you, speed is a most important factor (well, in his case, the only factor). As Hamman was finishing up with Mordechai, still smarting at his public humiliation, he was called in for a second feast with Esther and Achashveirosh. Thus, when Esther revealed her request and pointed the finger at Hamman for trying to have her nation killed, Hamman’s was too flustered to allow his usual eloquence to get him out of this sticky situation. In fact, the same CIA (Central Intelligence Angels) were employed again here – this time so save Esther from a royal hash. For Esther, by now utterly exhausted, mistakenly began to point the finger at Achashveirosh when saying the words ‘this evil enemy’. But an angel pushed her finger towards Hamman, and the danger was averted. Hamman was now cornered. With the king and queen looking on, he had nothing to say. He could not argue that the Jewish nation is evil and deserved to be killed anyway, because Esther was there to argue back. And he could not say that had he known that Esther was Jewish he’d never have ordered their death, for Achashveirosh had already heard him decry ‘the wickedness of this nation who deserve to be killed.’ Thus, ‘Hamman trembled in fright in front of the king and queen’ (7:6) – because both were there he had no response. Now Achashveirosh was not an idiot. Paranoid, angry and a megalomaniac yes, but idiot no. He was not about to part with his prize officer just yet: he liked Hamman, and he was indebted to him for helping him consolidate power. So in reality, there was no chance a ‘snag’ like this would make Achashveirosh do away with his trusted advisor. Lucky the real King was running the show then…

 

Hamman’s Downfall

 

As Achashveirosh left the feast in a rage (not for the first time), his plan was to cool down by taking a relaxing stroll through the lush expensive royal gardens. But the real King had other plans. Cue the CIA again. Entering his beautiful garden, the king’s mood went from precarious to seething when he saw a team of workers uprooting his gorgeous grove, favourite foliage and royal roses. Appalled, he demanded to know why they were destroying his garden. ‘Hamman commanded us to do so,’ was the answer he received. The king was about to explode (how was he to know that this team of gardeners were really angels on a mission!). As if that was not enough, when the king strode back inside to see Esther, Hamman was so distressed that he had fallen on top of Esther – giving the impression to the on-looking king that Hamman was trying to kill her. Three events in quick succession (the Lennon effect). For Hamman it was a case of three strikes and you’re out.

 

Witnessing this scene happened to be a fellow called Charvonah. Despite his French-sounding name, Charvonah turned out to be a military hero in this story. For he initially sided with Hamman, and now that the chips were down he switched sides (perhaps his name is more Italian then). Seizing on his opportunity to put in his two pennies, Charvonah sighted the gigantic edifice of a tree Hamman had built to hang Mordechai (it was tall, after all), and suggested that Hamman be hanged on it instead. The king, still irate, agreed at once. Now normally the case would have had to go to a judicial panel. And this would have meant certain acquittal – for by now Hamman had ensured that all his cronies were appointed to the judiciary. But not so long ago at a party a certain young judge had orchestrated a change in the constitution. A certain Mr. Hamman Esq. had provided Achashveirosh with emergency powers to be able to decide a case unilaterally if the case affected him. So, with as many as two words, the king bypassed the courts and had Hamman hanged (high-fives all round).

 

But there was still a major obstacle to hurdle: the letters ordering the mass killing of the Jews had already been delivered to all citizens of the Empire. And it was firmly entrenched in the Babylonian constitution that a letter that had the king’s stamp could not be rescinded under any circumstances – after all, such an act would lead to the devaluing of such a letter in the future. And not everyone would believe another letter sent out saying that ‘Hamman made a mistake: that’s not what the king ever meant to say and the previous letters should be destroyed’ (this is not Communist Russia, after all). The villain might be off the scene, but there’s still a mighty pickle to deal with…

 

Rescinding the Letters: The Empire Strikes Back

 

Fortunate that Hamman never mentioned ‘the Jews’ expressly in his main initial letter then! Remember – Hamman was waiting for the day to arrive before he revealed that his victims would be the Jews (it was a safe way of guaranteeing no political lobbying to save the Jews). So Mordechai simply sent out new letters ‘confirming’ that the secret ‘enemy nation’ referred to in Hamman’s letters was ‘the enemies of the Jews.’ Yet there was still a danger. There might still be some people who had not realised that the Jews were killing their enemies legitimately - based on a royal edict. Thus, there was a danger of ‘enemy backlash’ against the Jews for what they had done. Not to fear: the king agreed to allow (and publicise) the Jews to have another day of killing their enemies in Shushan – so everyone would realise that their initial elimination was also under the king’s direct orders. So, it came to pass that not only did Hamman never see his plan fulfilled, but it was his letters that allowed the Jews to plunder their enemies. And, as the very end of the Megillah tells us, Mordechai was so loved by all that even after he died no-one thought of exacting revenge from the Bnei Yisrael. Not only that, but as a result of the four aspects of Bnei Yisrael Hamman wanted to destroy we got four compensation packages. He wanted to destroy our physical bodies – we got the mitzvah of a Purim seudah. He wanted to destroy our spirit – we got major doses of simcha. He wanted to take our money – we got our enemies’ money. And he wanted to destroy our souls – we got the mitzvah of reading the Megillah.[6]

 

That’s the real story of the Megillah. Well, nearly. That’s without mentioning the ru’ach hakodesh, as well as the changing of the mazalos – which the Gra[7] dubs ‘the main miracle of Purim.’

 

What to learn?

 

Megillas Esther is not a history book: as Rav Chaim Halpern puts it, no-one has ever bothered to check the ‘Sefer Divrei Hayamim Lemalchei Madai U’Paras’ (10:2) in which the story is also recorded. And the Megillah certainly did not make it into Nach solely due to its excitement factor.

The theme of Megillas Esther is that Hashem is hidden – but if you look hard enough (with an objective lens that is not afraid to seek truth) you will see that He is orchestrating everything. Though things might look disjointed and disparate, Hashem has His Master-plan. Hashem’s Name is not mentioned in the Megillah. But if you look hard enough He is there: every time the word ‘king’ is used without the adjunct ‘Achashveirosh,’ it refers to the King of Kings[8]. He’s there orchestrating the big events, and He’s there in the little events too – the first letters of the words ‘let the king and Hamman come’ (‘Yavo Hamelech Ve’Hamman’) in Esther’s invite to her feast spell Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh, as the Yosef Lekach points out.

 

The truth is, the theme that struck me the most after learning the Megillah this year was the statement of the gemarra that ‘Hashem prepares the cure before the malady.’ Chazal[9] tell us that Hamman’s decree was caused by our bowing down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol plus our attending Achashveirosh’s feast. Yet, as we saw above, even before we repented (and even before we sinned in coming to the feast in the first place) Hashem was already preparing the stage for the various miracles of the Purim story (think Nebuchadnezzar’s treasures, Hamman’s judicial speech, etc.). Hashem wants us to survive and fulfil our potential as the Chosen People. He wants us to spread His light across the world. If we start recognising His Hand in our lives we will have gone a long way to achieving that ends.

 

 

[1] As Rev Brevda comments, much of the Gra’s insights in the Megillah are from the Yosef Lekach: a commentary on the Megillah by Rav Eliezer Ashkenazi around 400 years ago

[2] Esther Rabbah 2:1

[3] As soldiers, Hamman and Mordechai once found themselves in the desert. Hamman bought some food and drink from Mordechai in return for selling himself as a slave. When Hamman approached Mordechai to accuse him of not bowing down, Mordechai brandished the ‘document of sale’ to try and put Hamman in his place.

[4] The Gra explains the passuk ‘and the people of Shushan were navochah’ (3:15) to mean that they were confused – and that this does not only refer to the Jews of Shushan. This is not like Rashi’s explanation of the passuk.

[5] Megillah 15b. It is cited by the Gra 5:2 and he explains how this can be seen from the passuk.

[6] Gra 3:13. The Megillah is a mitzvah – it uplifts the soul.

[7] Gra 9:26

[8] Esther Rabbah 3:10, Gra 1:10 and 7:10

[9] Rashi 4:1

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