About this time every year, the Jewish people celebrate the events of Megillat Esther in a holiday we call Purim. It is a festive holiday with parties, noise-making, triangular-shaped cookies called hamentaschen or oznay haman; depending on whether you’re speaking Yiddish or Hebrew… and costumes.
We wear the costumes because what makes Megillat Esther unique is that, unlike all the literature that precedes it chronologically, H-shem took a very “hidden” role in the events described. So too, we hide ourselves behind costumes. In Megillat Esther, H-shem wasn’t shouting from the heavens, sending down plagues, or scrawling messages of impending doom on the walls of despotic tyrants’ palaces like he was doing as recently as the Book of Daniel (and the events of Megillat Esther happened within Daniel’s lifetime). Instead, H-shem set into motion a series of events that on their own don’t seem extraordinary, but when presented together as part of a whole story, it is clear just how divinely coordinated these events really were.
And every Purim, Jews gather to hear Megillat Esther read aloud, and recount the events described.
The Megillat Esther
The megillah opens with King Ahasuerus of Persia, who threw a feast that spanned several days, and everyone in the capital of Shushan was invited to attend. The spoils of the first temple were brought out for display. Mordechai, who was part of the Great Assembly before the first temple was destroyed, had instructed the Jews of Shushan not to attend the feast, but they attended anyway.
During the feast, King Ahasuerus commanded that his queen Vashti be brought “before the king, with a royal crown,” meaning only a royal crown, “to show the peoples and the heads her beauty, for she [is] of good appearance.” Usually Queen Vashti would have been more than happy to oblige, but because she happened to be suffering from a skin ailment at the time, she refused to appear before the king. Not only was King Ahasuerus incensed, this created a precedent throughout the empire for women to defy their husbands–because, you know, this is Ancient Persia, there is no equality of the sexes. King Ahasuerus thus had Queen Vashti executed.
Now without a queen, King Ahasuerus sought a new queen. He held a beauty pageant to determine who to choose to be the next queen. Contestants from throughout the empire were selected, and if selected, participation in the pageant was not optional. The pageant was to have one winner. All the contestants that didn’t win were to not marry the king and not marry anyone. The king was to keep them as his neglected personal possessions for the rest of their lives. This really isn’t a pretty place and time and the lives of this story’s heroes were otherwise miserable but for the glory this story was written to remember. Mordechai’s cousin Esther was one of the contestants forced to participate in King Ahasuerus’s pageant.
And she won. She kept the fact that she was Jewish a secret.
King Ahasuerus promoted a certain Haman to be his royal advisor. Haman got pissy because when he was promoted, everyone was supposed to bow to him, but Mordechai refused. So in classical anti-Semitic fashion, Haman convinced King Ahasuerus that it was a good idea to kill all the Jews, and since it was all the same to King Ahasuerus, Haman started plotting his next genocide.
Learning of this, Mordechai decided that he needed to find a way to convince Esther, who was now the queen, to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people. Queen Esther was not so eager to take on this issue, or (considering what happened to the last queen) be so bold as to ask her King of anything.
So, as written in the megillah, “Mordechai ordered word sent back to Esther, ‘Do not imagine that you will save your life in the palace any more than the rest of the Jews. But if you hold your tongue at this time, liberation and deliverance will arise for the Jews from somewhere else, but you and your family will be destroyed. And who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’”
To emphasize the point that Mordechai is making, what he is essentially saying is, “It isn’t a matter of whether or not the Jewish people will be saved. In the end, H-shem will find a way to save the Jewish people. The only question you have left to ask yourself is–will YOU be a part of it?” That is really the question we’re all being confronted with. This question is rather applicable to any time of history, but especially in our own time the question is as relevant as ever.
What side will you be on?
One example of a very contemporary issue that I find very fitting is the issue of environmental devastation and the destruction of our planet. Let’s start there, with how this issue is commonly referred to, and therefore how the issue is framed. Is it really the planet we’re destroying? Won’t the planet keep on spinning with or without us? Let’s call this issue what it is; the destruction of the human race. Regardless of the outcome of our action or inaction (and by “our” I mean human beings, I fully recognize that almost all of us aren’t really in control and are being held captive in a global society driven by a select few psychopaths), the world will be just fine; it’s us who are doomed (as well as the various other species we take with us).
The world can and will survive the havoc human beings wreak upon it, but can we?
When you realize the point that Mordechai is making, it occurs to you that there must have been all those people who were posed with the same question that Esther was posed with it, and either wouldn’t answer the call of their day, or simply couldn’t make sense of the question. We’ve forgotten about most of them, and the few that we do remember, we don’t remember them fondly. But thousands of years later, we’re still talking about Esther.
We have the account of these events from Megillat Esther, as well as from other ancient literature. There is so much that can be written about this episode of Jewish history, I can keep on writing article after article about it. No more spoilers in this article; find out how the story ended for yourself.
About the Author
Clifton lives in Jerusalem, Israel. He continues to study and live Judaism and the Hebrew language. His interests include astrology, tradition, history, foreign language, linguistics, literature, calligraphy, cartooning, and community service. He uses his writing, as well as his fine art to channel his interests.