The kingdom of man versus the kingdom of God

Two central charaters stand in stark contrast to the debauchery of the king and the evil of Haman.

HAMAN RECOGNIZES His Fate’ (produced between 1648 and 1665) by either the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt or his workshop (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
HAMAN RECOGNIZES His Fate’ (produced between 1648 and 1665) by either the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt or his workshop
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Megilat Esther, which we read on the evening of Purim and on the following morning, tells us about the miracle that occurred about 2,300 years ago when the Jewish nation was saved from mass extinction.
Haman, the adviser to King Ahasuerus, who ruled over the Persian Empire, was angry at the leader of the Jewish people, Mordecai, due to the latter’s refusal to bow down before him. As revenge, Haman planned to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews in the empire in one day. But the salvation of the Jews was set even before Haman’s plan. Sometime before that, Esther, Mordecai’s niece, was taken to the king’s palace, and he chose her to be the queen of the empire. At great risk, she ingeniously managed to thwart Haman’s plan.
But the Megila is more than this story. It opens with a description of magnificent banquets thrown by Ahasuerus for his ministers and slaves and the residents of Shushan. These banquets are depicted with details given about the abundance of wine and the luxuriousness of the events.
The Megila’s ending also deals with the kingdom of Ahasuerus unrelated to the salvation of the Jewish people. “And King Ahasuerus imposed a tribute on the land and on the isles of the sea. And all the acts of his power and his might and the full account of Mordecai’s greatness, how the king advanced him – are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?”
Why would we be interested in Ahasuerus’s tremendous kingdom? Why was it important to the writers of the Megila that we be impressed by the Persian king’s wealth and power?
ACTUALLY, THE Megila itself – other than the beginning and ending – tells a very different story of Ahasuerus’s reign. He seems to lack character, lack backbone. While in a state of drunken stupor, he allows his first wife to be banished, and he wakes up the next morning and regrets what he’s done.
As the story unfolds, we see that the king is himself ruled by Haman, who quite effortlessly manages to get the king to sign off on a decree to annihilate the Jewish people, with the king not even interested in which nation was being discussed. It was enough for him to hear Haman say, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples... and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be.”
And if we suspected that the king did indeed comprehend the significance of his signature, we immediately find out about his mental state when Queen Esther (his second wife) tells him: “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish,” and the king displays his ignorance with the question, “Who is this and where is he, who dared to do this?”
The reader can’t help but be shocked. Is the king that unaware of his own actions, or is he feigning innocence? How many nations had he signed off on to be destroyed, such that he doesn’t know which one she is referring to?
It turns out that the lofty descriptions of Ahasuerus’s kingdom that appear at the beginning and end of the Megila are no more than a backdrop to the true state of this kingdom. This was a ruler who acted carelessly and made major decisions in a drunken state; this was an irresponsible king who was easily controlled. There is a great deal of irony in the descriptions of the kingdom, undoubtedly done in a clever way by the writers of the Megila.
Two central characters stand in stark contrast to the debauchery of the king and the evil of Haman. They are Mordecai and Esther, a man and woman who did not have power or wealth, but acted out of deep faith in the righteousness of their path. Mordecai, who would not bow down to Haman, recognizes the importance of standing tall in the face of a powerful regime; Esther acts devotedly for her nation and does not shy away from Ahasuerus’s inconsistent moods. Cleverly and shrewdly, she manages to turn the tables on Haman’s plan and save her nation from the destructive decree.
Mordecai and Esther represent the person of faith, the one who knows that God has not abandoned the stage of history and that truth and goodness emerge victorious over falsehoods and evil.
The celebrations of Purim that know no bounds express our identification with Mordecai’s and Esther’s deep faith. We believe that the world is led by God, Who stands for values of justice and kindness, and therefore we can look evil in the eye and be confident that truth and goodness will beat it. Even if human evil has not been destroyed, we raise a glass and toast a hearty “L’haim!” with faith in the God of Israel, the God of history, the God of justice.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.