Purim and The Persian Period

The Persian exile began on a positive note for the Jewish people but quickly turned dark with the threat of holocaust at the hands of one of history’s great anti-Semites.

In a remarkably short period of time, the mighty empire of Babylon was toppled and taken over by invading hordes of Persians and Medes. All that had been Babylonian now became absorbed into the Persian Empire, which at its height included 127 countries stretching from Afghanistan and India in the east to southern Ethiopia and the sub-Sahara continent in the west.

Jews welcomed the change because, as much as they had grown accustomed to the conditions in Babylon, they felt a sense of justification in the almost supernatural downfall of the empire that had destroyed their Temple and sent them into exile.

The change in rulers also opened a new window of opportunity.

When the Persians and Medes took over there were a number of immediate revolutions among the generals themselves until Ahasuerus reached office. The new rulers needed intelligent, capable and industrious officials to help stabilize and run their empire. They found many such candidates among the Jewish people.

Zoroastrianism

For the most part, Babylonian culture did not tempt the Jewish masses to assimilate, as we discussed. However, from the first chapter of the Book of Esther when Jews partook of the lavish banquet of Persian monarch Ahasuerus, it is evident that assimilation threatened to become an issue under the Persians. In general, the Persians liked the Jews, especially during the initial decade of their rule when they treated the Jews particularly favorably. The only thing they did not like was the Jewish religion.

The Persians believed in a form of worship that is today called Zoroastrianism. It was a dualistic theology that proposed a god of light and a god of darkness who were in constant struggle against each other.

The Jewish religion starkly opposed Persian dualistic theology. At times it could be a bone of contention between Jews and Persians. Deep down, the Persians probably felt that the Jews were right, but that only made them more uncomfortable. Outwardly, they may have tolerated them but when the opportunity came many found vent for latent hatreds.

That opportunity came in the form of a vicious anti-Semite named Haman.

The Miracle of Purim

The Book of Esther begins with an unbelievably lavish 180-day banquet thrown by the Persian king Ahasuerus. To the casual reader, it is difficult to understand the connection between the banquet and the rest of the Book of Esther. Many years passed from the time of the banquet to the events that led to the decree of extermination by the Persian authorities. Even most Jews of the time did not see the connection. However, from the biblical perspective the banquet was the spiritual cause of the terrifying events that were to follow.

The real problem with attending the banquet was that its purpose was to celebrate the fact that the prophecy of Jeremiah, which predicted that the Jewish people would be redeemed after seventy years (Jeremiah 29:10), was proven false. In actuality, Ahasuerus’ calculation was false. However, in his mind at least, the feast was a celebration that the Jews would remain in exile forever and subservient to him. The deeper purpose of the banquet, therefore, was to celebrate what was in effect the downfall of the Jews.

To emphasize this point, at the climax of the 180-day celebration Ahasuerus took out the utensils of the Temple (that he had inherited from the Babylonians who had sacked Jerusalem) and displayed them, the Talmud says (Megillah 12a). He even put on the garments that belonged exclusively to the High Priest (ibid.). The Jews in attendance must have stood there aghast. But it was too late. Their presence gave credence to the king’s act.

What an enormous for desecration just for Jews to walk in there. It was an indication of how far off course they had strayed. Only Mordecai had been bold enough to declare that it was forbidden for Jews to attend the feast in the first place. Tragically, his words fell mostly on deaf ears.

Haman

The Divine Providence needed to correct the straying course of the Jewish populace took the form of the Hitler of his day, the wicked Haman. As is often the case, anti-Semitism has the effect of restoring to the Jewish people a sense of identity and mission that was lacking when things were going smoothly. The Talmud itself said:

“And the king removed his ring [to sign the decree of extermination of the Jewish population] (Esther 3:10). Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: ‘This removal of the ring was more effective than the 48 prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel, because none of them were able to truly effect change in Israel. But the removal of the ring did change them.”

In other words, Haman — as the unwitting vessel of Divine Providence, and even though he certainly did not intend to do so — did more for the Jew spiritually than all the prophets in the Bible.

Haman’s desire for power was insatiable. At the height of his wealth and power, he strutted past the king’s gate as everyone bowed to him except Mordecai (Esther 3:2). Suddenly, the fact that millions of people bowed down to him meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was that one person, Mordecai, would not bow down to him. It was more than Haman could bear.

And it was not enough to just kill Mordecai, but now was the moment to unleash his hatred for Mordecai’s people. He approached Ahasuerus with the ultimate bribe and offered to give the king 10,000 talents of silver from his own account – a wildly enormous sum – to destroy the Jewish people.

He almost got away with it.

Indeed, if not for all the strange circumstances and hidden miracles – which became known as Purim[1] – he would have gotten away with it. There was a latent anti-Semitism in Persia. The king himself was only too happy to play along. It was Haman’s suggestion, but Ahasuerus had no problem passing a law that all Jews be slaughtered (Esther 3:10).

Few if any would have protested or thought twice about it[2] – if not for the Divine Providence that turned everything around and had earlier made Esther the queen (Esther, Chapter 2).

To Everything there is a Purpose

It is hard to imagine a less probable heroine than Esther. She was a young woman of great modesty and piety. All of a sudden, she was conscripted against her will to join an international beauty contest.

Ahasuerus was a drunkard with a violent streak. What were the odds of someone like him marrying someone like Esther? Poor, gentle, sweet Esther – the most pious of women. Therein, lays one of the great ironies of the story.

All of us are set aside by God for a purpose, but generally it is hard to read God’s mind and we do not know what the purpose is. We do not see what God intends for us. Nevertheless, many times in life God prepares a person for one event. When that event arrives, and we react to it accordingly and properly, then a glimmer of understanding comes to us. Suddenly, the questions of what am I and what I am I doing here and what does God want from me come to resolution.

That is what happened to Esther. At great risk to her own life, just as things were looking most grim, she revealed her Jewish identity to the king and accused Haman of trying to murder her and her people. Ahasuerus responded by hanging Haman, who was now finally undone by his own ambition and cruelty.

Aftershocks of Purim

After the joy of the Purim miracle quieted down, the Jewish people were hit by the aftershock of just how close they had come to annihilation. It snapped them back into reality and served as a brake on the assimilatory tide.

That is why the Talmud (Shabbos 88a) says that at that time the Jewish people once again accepted upon themselves the Torah. The first time was, of course, at Mount Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai was so great that the people could not really say no. Now that they had been driven out of the Land of Israel and were living under the whim of tyrants and anti-Semites it was easy to throw it all away. Who needed to be Jewish?

However, after the Purim miracle they voluntarily accepted upon themselves what had involuntarily been thrust upon them at Sinai, and in so doing reestablished the eternity of the covenant first forged at the Holy Mountain. They accepted the covenant unconditionally now. It was not dependent upon revelation or even success in their land.

Next Leg in the Odyssey

Purim changed the Jewish people in profound ways. It created a new potential within them. And usually when that happens monumental events follow.

Indeed, that monumental event took the form of an electrifying announcement that the Jews could return to their land and rebuild their Temple. How the Jewish people took to that news is the subject of the leg in the odyssey that is Jewish history.


[1] From the word pur, which means “lottery,” referring to the lottery Haman used to determine the month to destroy the Jews (Esther 3:7), but in a deeper way indicating that there is no such thing as luck and coincidence.

[2] There were Persians who tried to help the Jews, but the Midrash reports that it was out of their hatred for Haman rather than their love for the Jewish people. No doubt on his way up to power Haman stepped on many heads and incurred the wrath of many people. When the opportunity to enable his downfall came they were happy to do so, but it was less for the sake of the Jews and more to destroy Haman (see, for example, Esther 7:9).

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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