There is something very curious about the Purim story. The story is very gripping and suspenseful. The main events occur with exquisite timing. God’s guiding Hand is clearly revealed. And as with any good tale, salvation arrives at the proverbial nick of time.
But something is missing. If we look closely, we will notice that the heroes of the story actually do almost nothing. In fact, most of the events of the story happen to them rather than being precipitated by them. Esther is taken to the palace against her will. She does nothing to enhance her appearance but is appointed queen nonetheless. She refrains from telling King Achashveirosh her Jewish ancestry. She later reports the plot against the king – not in her own name but in the name of Mordechai. And finally, at the climax of the story, she reluctantly approaches King Achashveirosh – only after the second time Mordechai prods her – to ask for the deliverance of her people.
Purim seems more a story of “being in the right place at the right time” than one of proactive motion. It is almost as if some great story is unfolding around the main characters rather than their having anything to do with it.
But therein lies the key to the story. Let us look closer.
I would like to jump ahead to what I feel is the crux of the Purim story – and what I also feel are some of the most difficult verses in the entire Torah.
Haman’s wicked decree is looming. The wholesale destruction of the entire Jewish people has been decreed. Mordechai sends Esther a message, instructing her to approach the King immediately, to at last reveal her ancestry and beg that the King spare her people.
Esther responds as follows (4:11, paraphrased):
“Everyone knows that no man or woman is permitted to come before the King, to his inner courtyard, without being summoned. This is punishable by death – unless the King extends his golden scepter in clemency. I have further not been called to the King for 30 days.”
In other words, it is much smarter to wait until I am called. That hasn’t happened for quite some time; it’s likely to occur any day now. If I approach unsummoned, at worst I’ll be killed. At best I will already owe my life to the King. It would be a very inauspicious time to ask for another great favor.
A reasonable suggestion. After all, Haman’s decree was not going to take effect for almost a year. So how does Mordechai respond (vv. 13-14, also paraphrased)?
“Do not imagine you will escape the fate of the Jews because you are in the King’s house. For if you remain silent, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from somewhere else, and you and your father’s house will perish.”
Huh?! Did I miss something? What triggered such a harsh response? Did Esther’s relative safety in the palace ever enter the conversation?!
Mordechai’s response would be understandable if Esther would have initially answered like this: “You know, Mordechai, I really sympathize with you and the rest of the Jews. But personally, I am safe in the palace. This isn’t my problem; it’s yours. And since I don’t feel this is so pressing, I think I’ll wait to approach the King until it’s a little more convenient.”
Had Esther said something like that, Mordechai’s sharp retort would have been in line. “You’re not safe either! You must act like this issue is as pressing for you as it is for the rest of us!” But that is not what Esther said – in any way, shape or form. She presumably had the interests of the nation as her top priority. All she did was suggest that they find a better time! Did Mordechai misunderstand her? They seem to be talking past each other, rather than actually communicating.
But they were. And in that lies the key to the entire Purim story.
Esther thought that they were going to save Israel. They needed to maneuver, to pull the right strings, to time things just right. She thought that it depended on her. She had to plan this out carefully – to approach the King at just the right moment.
Mordechai was different. He saw through the smoke. It wasn’t they who were going to save Israel. It was entirely God’s doing. The villains in the story were a bunch of nobodies, despite all their pomp and formidability. Haman for most of his career was a barber (Talmud Megillah 16a). Achashveirosh was a commoner – in fact a stable boy – who never deserved to be king (ibid. 11a, 12b). They were mere pawns propped up by God to goad Israel to repent. And if we would repent, then in spite of all their alleged power and fearsomeness they would collapse in the breeze like a house of cards.
In fact, Mordechai never wanted to approach Esther to begin with (4:4). Esther sent him royal clothes to replace his sackcloth, to enable him to enter the palace. He refused to take them. He wanted to do one thing only – repent to God. If that would occur, the decrees of our enemies would make no difference whatsoever.
“You’re not going to save Israel. God will. But you can choose to be a part of it.”
Finally, Esther sent a messenger to Mordechai asking what was happening and what she could do. And then Mordechai responded: Go to the King. “You’re not going to save Israel. God will. But if you really want to get involved, to make yourself into a cog in God’s Master Plan, you are welcome. You will not save Israel, but you will volunteer to make yourself into the tool God will use to bring about the salvation.”
Esther saw the external world and took it seriously. She thought it was Haman who was threatening the Jews. She thought it was Achashveirosh who could save them – if they could only get in his good graces. And she likewise thought that she would be the one to do that, if she would only use her position and influence – her being “in the King’s house” – and time things just right.
Mordechai responded that all such events are merely God acting through the natural world and mankind. We need to see through that if we are to overcome the challenge of the physical world. “Don’t think that you are safe in the palace or that you are queen for any other reason. God will save us anyway – so long as we are worthy. I never asked you to save us – to make some elaborate plans how to best influence the King. I only asked that you allow yourself to be moved by the divinely-orchestrated events – to passively allow God to work through you.”
In fact, Mordechai told her further: “Go to the King at what on the surface is the worst possible moment – when he will be angered at your very trespassing his abode. For the people have repented. The time is now. They are ready for Divine intervention. On earth this is the worst possible time to approach the King. In heaven it is the ideal time. And the salvation of Purim will occur when we recognize that heaven is all that truly matters.
God’s name is never mentioned in the Scroll of Esther. There are no open miracles. We do not see Him on the surface. But the key to the Purim story is seeing Him just behind the scenes. Only when we recognize that even the most “natural,” mundane events of this world are truly God speaking to us, will we have truly learned the message of Purim, and will we be able to overcome the Hamans which threaten us both on the outside and within.