Megillat Esther takes place over a nine-year span, during the period of Jewish exile from Israel following the destruction of the First Temple (about 2,500 years ago). The Jewish People were saved from genocide -- at the last moment -- through a miraculous chain of events.
Only after this Divinely ordained "jigsaw puzzle" came together was it apparent to the Jews of the time that, despite all their tribulations, God had been manipulating events all along for their good. This is in fact the central theme of Purim: Though God seems hidden from the world, He is always behind the scenes, running it all to our best long-term advantage.
The key players in our drama are:
MORDECHAI – the Chief Rabbi of Shushan and member of the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin.
ESTHER - Mordechai's cousin and wife, and newly-selected queen to Achashverosh.
HAMAN – the wicked descendent of Amalek who seeks to annihilate the Jews.
KING ACHASHVEROSH – a grubby man who picks his wife through a beauty contest and accepts bribe money for the destruction of the Jews.
VASHTI – the deposed queen whom Esther replaces.
As we go through the Purim story, pay close attention to how the building blocks of Jewish survival are laid in advance, and how seemingly unrelated links fly together in the end to form a chain of events in which the Jews are suddenly saved from annihilation.
King Achashverosh of Persia, who conquered Babylonia from Nebuchadnezzer, rules an enormous empire that spans the entire civilized world -- 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia (1:1).
King Achashverosh holds an elaborate six-month feast for all his officers and subjects in the capital city, Shushan (1:5). Why the celebration? Because the prophet Jeremiah had reported in God's name that following the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews would stay in exile for 70 years (Jeremiah 29:10). According to Achashverosh's calculations, the 70 years had expired, meaning that the Jews -- and God Almighty Himself -- had suffered a permanent, irretractable defeat.
(It turns out that Achashverosh had miscalculated the 70 years. He thought that it began with the exile of the first Jews from the Land of Israel. In reality, Jeremiah's prophecy was figured from the time of the destruction of the Temple -- some 11 years later. Ultimately, the exile did in fact end as prophesied -- after 70 years!)
At the feast, Achashverosh demonstrated his disdain for God and the Jews by actually wearing the special clothes of the Jewish High Priest (Kohen Gadol), and by displaying the Temple vessels (see 1:14). The entire purpose of this feast was thumbing his nose at Jewish holy objects and, in effect, celebrating the end of the Jewish people.
To add insult to injury, Achashverosh invited the Jews to the feast as well. He told them: "Torah is proven false, so give up your hope and join us." Unfortunately, many Jews succumbed to this challenge of faith and attended the party.
The commentators point out that many Jews, though they attended the feast, did so as only an exterior display of support for the king. They didn't really endorse the "feast of Jewish defeat," they just gave the appearance. That is why -- as a measure-for-measure punishment -- God gave the Jews a tremendous scare through Haman's plot. God "didn't really mean it," He just gave the appearance. (This is one of the reasons we wear masks and costumes on Purim -- in keeping with the theme of "external appearance.")
At the feast, Achashverosh asks Queen Vashti to parade "wearing the royal crown" (1:11). The Midrash derives from here that Vashti was to appear wearing only the crown -- i.e. naked.
When Vashti refuses the king's request (1:12), Haman (referred to here as Memuchan) says this is intolerable: If she goes unpunished, then other women will also start disobeying their husbands (1:17). The king takes the easy way out and has Vashti killed.
Piece of the Puzzle: Vashti's death clears the way for Esther's selection as queen, thus giving the Jews an advocate close to the king.
Achashverosh selects Esther in a royal beauty contest to be the new queen (2:17). Rather than a cause for celebration amongst the Jews, this is a national tragedy. People at the time are terribly bothered as to why God would allow Esther -- a righteous Jewish woman -- the terrible fate of being forced to marry a grubby king.
As the events transpire, Mordechai reserves judgement. Being a great sage, he lived constantly with the awareness that God is really the One power behind everything that happens and there really are no accidents. What did he think when -- out of thousands of the most beautiful women in the empire -- his beloved Esther is suddenly chosen to become queen? He believed God must be causing this for a reason.
Meanwhile, Esther keeps her Jewishness secret in order to avoid the risk of forced conversion or other anti-Semitism (2:20). In this way, Esther is an even more potent weapon for the future Jewish redemption because she's a secret weapon.
Then one day, while Mordechai is sitting at the palace gate, he overhears two guards discussing a plot to assassinate Achashverosh (2:21). The Talmud says that as a member of the Sanhedrin, Mordechai knew 70 languages, and was therefore able to understand the guards’ Persian dialect.
Mordechai reports the plot to Esther, and the guards are apprehended. Mordechai's patriotic act is recorded in the royal chronicles (2:23) – yet King Achashverosh remains temporarily unaware of the deed.
Piece of the Puzzle: This incident sets the stage for the king to eventually bestow honor upon Mordechai. The fact that the king is still unaware, means that the "favor" can be saved up for a later time, when it will be most needed.
Haman becomes King Achashverosh's second-in-command (3:1). Fastening an idol to his chest, Haman decrees that everyone must bow to him -- and thus to the idol at the same time. Mordechai is the only Jew who refuses to bow to the idol (3:3). Idolatry is the antitheses of Judaism. As a man-made system, idolatry implies that humans have ultimate control over events.
Haman is enraged by Mordechai's obstinence (3:5). Mordechai is unfazed. He knows that God is running the show, and you can't get hurt by doing the right thing.
When Haman finds out that Mordechai is a Jew, he is so incensed that he seeks to destroy the entire Jewish people. Haman casts a "Pur" (literally "lots"), and the 13th of Adar emerges as the most auspicious day for Jewish annihilation (3:7).
An enraged Haman complains to King Achashverosh: "The Jews are different, they won't eat our food, they keep Shabbat, they won't marry our daughters" (3:8). Throughout history, Jews have been castigated for either being too separatist or too assimilationist. Haman chose the former approach.
As a descendent of Amalek, Haman is the prototype rabid anti-Semite who is driven to hatred of the Jews even at great cost to himself. Haman willingly offers Achashverosh 10,000 bricks of silver (amounting to 750 tons) for the right to decimate the Jews (3:9).
Achashverosh, on the other hand, is the "silent anti-Semite" who agrees to the decree without investigating the validity of the charges. As long as Haman is willing to cover the lost tax revenues, Achashverosh has no objections (3:11).
Upon hearing of this decree, what would we expect the Jews to do? Run? Fight?
Instead, Mordechai dons sackcloth, fasts, prays, weeps and mourns (4:1). Jews have never seen their suffering as empty and without meaning. Rather, pain and suffering are a message and a test from God. Furthermore, Mordechai knows that God never sends a problem without first creating the potential solution.
Mordechai informs Esther of the impending genocide (which is still 11 months away), and urges her to plead to the king for mercy (4:8). Esther fears approaching the king uninvited, because she hasn't been called in 30 days, and it is well known that one can be killed for such presumptuousness (4:11).
Then Mordechai drops the bomb: "It is certain that the Jewish people will be saved one way or another -- because God promised to Abraham so long ago that we will never be destroyed. So really the only issue here is you, Esther. You have to 'save' yourself -- i.e. fulfill your potential and role in this world. I now see clearly why you were chosen as the queen: God placed you in this situation because the redemption is destined to come through your hand. All your talents and skills -- use them today, Esther. This is your big moment, the reason for which you were born" (4:13-14).
The argument was convincing. Esther agrees to risk her life and approach the king without an official invitation.
On the 13th of Nissan, Esther communicates to Mordechai one request: Please have the Jewish people fast and do teshuva for three days in order that we may be worthy of Divine help (4:16).
Esther is received favorably by the king, who agrees to grant her any request, as long as it won't interfere with the stability of the kingdom (5:3). An accusation against Haman certainly would destabilize the kingdom, so Esther merely invites them both to attend a banquet.
At the banquet, Achashverosh again agrees to grant Esther a request. She asks that they attend second banquet (5:8).
Given the opportunity to ask for anything she wants, why does Esther seemingly "waste" it on a dinner invitation? The Talmud says: "If your enemy is hungry and thirsty, give him bread and wine." The best thing that Esther can do is to disarm Haman, to get him to relax and let his guard down.
The plan works: The invitations to these exclusive royal banquets makes Haman so over-confident that he builds a special gallows 25 meters high -- as part of his plot to hang Mordechai (5:14). Haman is flying high. Yet as the Sages say: "Before the downfall, there is pride."
The third day of Esther's fast was the 15th of Nissan -- the night of the Passover Seder (Rashi 5:1). Because of the dire situation, the regular Seder could be forfeited. Still, Esther kept as much as she could and served matzah at the banquets. Additionally, the banquets are called "mishteh ha-yayin" -- a wine feast (5:6, 7:2, 7:7) -- alluding to the four cups of wine drunk at the seder.
That night, following the first banquet, the King is unable to sleep (6:1). Perhaps the Passover food, particularly the matzah and excess wine, caused him heartburn.
Achashverosh figures that since Esther spent the whole evening telling of the Jewish national history (the Haggadah), it is a good time to review the history of his kingdom as well. So Achashverosh reviews his "royal chronicles," and for the first time becomes aware that Mordechai had saved the king's life (6:2).
At that moment, Haman comes by to get permission from the king to hang Mordechai. But before he can speak, the king asks Haman: "What should I do in order to give someone great honor?" (6:6) Assuming the king means him, Haman suggests an elaborate ceremony: dress the person up in royal clothes, put him on a white horse, and have someone else lead him in a parade throughout the city (6:7-10).
Achashverosh says: "Terrific idea! OK, Haman, put Mordechai on the horse and you lead him through the city! (6:10) In a flash, Haman's vision of Mordechai being hanged is replaced by the reality of Mordechai in favor with the king.
In perhaps the most famous scene of the entire Megillah, Mordechai is paraded on horseback through the streets of Shushan, wearing the royal robes -- with Haman leading the way.
After this incident, Haman returns home "with his head covered" (6:12). The Midrash explains the meaning of this phrase: When the parade route passed by Haman's house, his daughter saw them coming and had a great idea: She would take a toilet bowl up to the second floor window, and pour its contents on Mordechai's head! The only problem is that the girl assumed it was her wonderful father being honored on horseback, with that lowly Jew Mordechai pulling him along. So when the parade passed by, she timed it perfectly and -- splash! The one pulling the horse got it right in the face.
The Midrash says that when the girl saw how she'd dumped toilet waste all over her father, she was so despondent that she jumped out of the window to her death. And Haman returned home... "with his head covered."
To make matters worse, Haman found little encouragement at home. His wife Zeresh tells him: "If this is how things are going, you're going to lose your fight against the Jewish people!" (6:13) Little did she know that Esther is planning a royal ambush -- drawing Haman to a banquet at which he is to be the main course.
More Pieces of the Puzzle: Mordechai is in royal favor, at the exact moment that Haman has begun to openly threaten him. Having been flattered and pampered by two banquets, the King is also feeling kindly toward Esther.
At this second banquet, held the second night of the Passover seder, the king is feeling jolly and asks Esther, "What is your request? It shall be granted to you" (7:1).
Esther now recounts the story of Passover in the first person -- including herself as part of the Exodus from Egypt, as we are commanded to do. Esther's words allude to the Passover story: "The Jews were sold to be destroyed, slain, and exterminated" (7:4). Esther now reveals that she is Jewish and that genocide is planned against her people.
Outraged, the king demands to know who would dare threaten the queen and her relatives (7:5). Esther stands up and points across the table to Haman!
Haman is aghast. He pleads with Esther for mercy, and accidentally falls on "the couch upon which Esther was" (7:8). (This hints to the custom to lean during the seder rather than sit.)
Seeing this, the King is shocked to think that Haman would make advances toward his wife. Immediately he calls for the executioner (7:8).
But where should they perform the hanging? "Oh," says Charbonah, one of the guards, "Look, there's a 25-meter gallows already prepared!" (7:9) In the song, "Shoshanos Yaakov" that we sing after the Megillah reading, the final line reads, "And Charbonah shall be remembered for good." He was in the right place at the right time, he contributed to the defeat of evil in the world, and he is immortalized in our Purim celebration!
With poetic justice, Haman is hanged on the same gallows he'd prepared for Mordechai (7:10).
Piece of the Puzzle: The salvation is in full swing; the 180-degree reversal is complete. All the links in the chain of events leading to Jewish triumph come together. Mordechai and Esther reach their peak of royal favor just as Haman plots his final move against Mordechai.
With Haman hanged and out of harm's way, the Jews are able to re-assert themselves in Persian society. Achashverosh appoints Mordechai to replace Haman -- and the "reversal of fortune" is symbolized by the transfer of the signet ring (8:2).
However, since Haman's original decree to annihilate the Jews was sealed by the king, it technically cannot be annulled. Instead, the king must issue a new decree, giving the Jews the right to defend themselves on the 13th of the month of Adar, the day of the planned attack (8:8). The Jews rejoice, and their enemies cower in terror of the new Jewish power.
In retrospect, Haman's decree turns out to the Jews' advantage -- for if his decree had never been issued, the Jews may never have gotten the chance to eliminate the anti-Semites!
The Megillah further reports: "The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor" (8:15). The Talmud says that light refers to Torah, gladness refers to holiday, joy refers to circumcision, and honor refers to Tefillin. The Jews were finally able to resume the study of Torah and performance of mitzvot without any hindrance!
A full 11 months later, the fateful day of Adar 13 comes around. In one corner are Haman's men with their decree; in the other corner are the Jews with theirs. The result: The Jews in Shushan kill 500 men, including Haman's 10 sons -- who, like their father before them, are hung on the gallows (9:6).
Throughout the kingdom, it takes the Jews only one day to defeat their enemies. In Shushan, the fighting takes an extra day, carrying over into Adar 14 (9:15).
The day following the fighting is one of great celebration (9:18). Mordechai enacts an annual holiday, with feasting, giving gifts to the poor, and food to friends (9:22). The holiday is called "Purim," literally meaning "lots that are cast," in memory of how Haman had cast lots to determine the most propitious day for attacking the Jews.
Because the battle lasted an extra day in Shushan, Jews in the smaller unwalled towns henceforth celebrate on the 14th and those in walled cities celebrate on the 15th. All told, the Jews kill 75,000 of their enemies (9:16).
The Malbim in his commentary explains that the miracle was not only that the Jews won the battle, but also that in the days following, the rest of the non-Jewish world stood by and didn't take revenge.
The Megillah says that the Jews "confirmed and undertook" -- "Kimu v'Kiblu" (9:27). The Talmud explains that when the Jewish people originally received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they were to some degree "forced" by God into accepting His law. That initial acceptance was motivated in part by "fear." But following the events of Purim, the Jewish people accepted the Torah anew, this time out of love to God for having orchestrated the miraculous series of events. In other words, the Jews "confirmed and undertook" the Torah from a new perspective.
The name "Purim" bears an ironic twist. While the name "Purim" (i.e. "lots that are cast") sounds like something connoting impersonal "fate," the joke is that the message of the holiday is the exact opposite: There is no such thing as "chance" or "fate." Everything that occurs is God's will. God is always here, actively participating in the world, even though we may not see clear evidence of His presence.
The commentators point out that Megillat Esther is the only book in the entire Bible where God's name is not mentioned even once. Yet nonetheless, God's hand is always -- in the end -- clear and distinguished.
All’s well that ends well for the Jews. Mordechai is second in command to the King, and the Jews enjoy years of peace and prosperity (10:3). At least for the time being...