Adapted from the Hebrew Hasipur Ha'amiti shel Purim, by Eliezer Isaacovits
The news hit Shushan like a benign bombshell. After years of cruel oppression under the tyrannical Nebuchadnezzar, the fate of the Jewish community was taking a dramatic turn for the better. An official decree from the palace of King Ahashverus (Xerxes) announced a serious of celebrations to mark the anniversary of his majesty's rise to the throne of Persia and Medea − and the Jews would be invited to attend!
What a welcome change from the tyrannical discrimination of the past! Not only was the king inviting the Jews to attend; as a gesture of good will and understanding, he had instructed the royal chef to make arrangements for kosher food and wine for his Jewish guests.
The relief and rejoicing among the king's Jewish subjects in Shushan was immense. At last they could breathe freely and enjoy life without fear of repercussions and repressive edicts. True, since King Cyrus had agreed to allow the reconstruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, there had been something of an improvement, but nothing like the validation that the invitation to the banquet represented.
With Cyrus' decree, a small group of returnees had left for the Holy Land to re-establish the Jewish community there. Their efforts were greatly hampered, however, by local gentiles who preferred that the Holy Temple remain a heap of stone and ashes.
The majority of Persian Jewry did not join the return to the Holy Land; instead, they remained, in the words of the Megillah, "dispersed and separated" among the nations of the world. They were ill at ease in their adopted home, and the gentiles treated them as second-class citizens.
Now, there was a new glint of hope for the Jews of the vast Persian Empire. King Ahashverus's invitation to the Jewish community to take part in the forthcoming celebrations was tantamount to a formal acknowledgement of the right of the exiled Jews to assume an equal footing into the other ethnic groups of Persia and Medea.
The Jews optimistically interpreted Ahashverus's gesture as indicative of new winds blowing in Shushan, the capital. A spirit of liberalism promised an easier, fuller life for Persia's Jews. The attitude of the general populace would be friendlier and more conducive to mutual business transactions. The life of the exiled Jews would finally become rosier.
The entire community was astir with optimism for the future of the Jews in Persia.
Given this atmosphere, the Jews were shocked to the core when Mordecai, the leading rabbinical authority of the generation, handed down a ruling that no Jew should attend the banquet in the royal palace. His proclamation seemed to defy all reason: At long last, official government policy acknowledged that there was no place for discrimination against the Jewish community. At long last, the exiles from Judea found themselves placed on an equal footing with their gentile neighbors. Their legal rights would soon be recognized before the law, and they could look forward to an easier, more relaxed relationship with the general populace. It would be far easier to make a living. Despite their exile, things were looking up.
In their eyes, this invitation to the banquet was the best thing that had happened to the community in years. With all due respect for Mordecai's stature as a talmid chocham and scholar, how could he forbid them to accept his majesty's invitation? What a golden opportunity the gala festivities would offer to cultivate a rapport with the royal ministers and advisors. Here was their chance to impress government officials with the talents and skills the Jewish community could offer his highness, if only they were allowed to live in peace and observe their religion without interference. Surely the atmosphere at the celebration would be warm and congenial, and highly conducive to forming new bonds and establishing vital contacts in high circles. Government officials who had never actually seen a real, living and breathing Jew, would finally meet one in the flesh. Now was their chance to impress upon the Persian court that the stories about horns and tails were just that: stories, and no more. Persia's intelligentsia would learn to appreciate the Jewish mind and intellect. It was a golden opportunity, one to be exploited to the maximum.
And now, Mordecai's ban on attending the festivities threatened to ruin it all! At first there were only whisperings of protest, and subtle hints that someone younger should be sought to head the community. Despite Mordecai's vast knowledge and experience, and with all due respect, the man in the street clucked his tongue and declared that the times had changed; apparently, Mordecai was too set in the old ways to keep up with recent developments.
When it became clear that no one would succeed in explaining to Mordecai that his ruling had been an oversight, in polite terms, the wags began to express their opinion more openly. "Mordecai is an expert at the holy texts, but he doesn't understand modern politics."
Others pointed out that the Babylonian gentiles with whom Mordecai had dealt when he first went into exile were antagonistic, aggressive men of the military. They had seen themselves as conquerors, not as men of culture. In contrast, the Persian elite of Ahashverus' generation were more refined in their tastes; they sought to distinguish themselves as patrons of the arts and humanities rather than men of the sword. Mordecai's attitude might be correct when dealing with elements like the Babylonians, but what had the Jews to fear at the hands of the more cultured Persians?
It must be, people reasoned, that Mordecai was not aware of the distinction between the two cultures, and that he had based his decision on his experiences with the Babylonians. Had he only been more familiar with Persian culture, theorized the critics, surely he would have urged the Jews to welcome this opportunity to strengthen the bonds between the two nations.
Yet another camp expressed their criticism from a different angle. "Let the rabbis decide matters of religion; the diplomats and politicians should deal with matters of diplomacy and politics." The older and more reserved members of the community raised their eyebrows in alarm at such brazen criticism of Shushan's greatest scholar, but in the final estimation, no one could come up with a logical explanation for his ruling.
Whatever the theory behind it, there was no lack of criticism of Mordecai's ruling not to participate in the royal festivities. Indeed, on the first day of the celebration, the Jews flocked to the palace grounds in full force, anxious to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown. Their eyes went wide at the sights they beheld inside the royal courtyard. The furnishings, paintings, and tapestries were beyond anything they had ever seen. The food was also unique, both in form and in flavor. The wines were superb; everyone found something to his taste.
All in all, the atmosphere was congenial and festive; the representatives of the Jewish community took advantage of the camaraderie to forge new friendships and project a positive "Jewish image" on the statesmen and nobles from many new lands.
The secular leaders of the community in Shushan considered their efforts at the banquet to be a great step forward for the Jews of Persia. Indeed, there followed nine years of peace and quiet during which new business contacts were established.
The community grew and flourished with no disturbances from the gentiles around them. Looking back, the heads of the community viewed their efforts with satisfaction and congratulated themselves on not having followed the advice of the scholarly Mordecai.
Bad News for Shushan's Jews
Then, without warning, the Jews awoke one bright morning and learned that their arch-enemy, Haman, had been appointed Prime Minister of the Persian Empire. The senior officials of the community convened to consider just how they should react to this new development. The majority of those present agreed that it was best to maintain a low profile at such a time. No steps should be taken that would attract attention to the Jewish community per se.
Regarding Haman's pretentious command that one and all bow down before him, the committee deliberated for long hours. Did this constitute a form of idol-worship specifically forbidden by Jewish Law? If so, were they required to risk punishment, or even death, in order not to transgress?
After much discussion and research into Jewish law, the men came to a clear decision. Since a human being could not be considered a pagan idol, there was no prohibition against bowing to a person, as opposed to a carved or graven image.
The committee members breathed a sigh of relief and made plans to announce their conclusions to the community at large. The meeting broke up with the general feeling that the situation was not ideal, but, thank Heaven, everything was under control.
Their peace of mind was rudely shattered by a new inexplicable ruling from Mordecai: "No Jew shall bow down to Haman!" Mordecai himself was the first to abide by this directive. Time and again he roused the new prime minister's ire by refusing to bend, in the slightest, whenever the two met. What was more, Mordecai made no effort to avoid encountering Haman; on the contrary, he seemed to go out of his way to ensure that their paths cross. It seemed as though he was just looking for the opportunity to flaunt Haman's decree by remaining tall and erect when everyone else prostrated himself before that arrogant prime minister.
Such provocation could not go long without retaliation on Haman's part. The prime minister was enraged; each additional act of defiance by Mordecai, strengthened his determination to avenge the insult to his high office (and high opinion of himself). It would not be enough to deal a deathly blow only to Mordecai himself; he must devise a way to punish the Jewish People as a whole.
Haman fumed and plotted, and came up with a scheme so devastating that not even the most pessimistic of the Jews could have predicted it. After clever manipulations and machinations, Haman contrived to have the king issue a decree allowing the enemies of the Jews "to destroy, to murder and to annihilate all the Jews" in one single day!
When issued to the public, Haman's decree made Jewish blood run cold throughout the kingdom. "Just look!" the Jews wailed. "What a catastrophe Mordecai's fanaticism has brought upon us all!"
Those among the mourners who were blessed with good memories, no doubt recalled Mordecai's extremist position nine years previously, when he declared that his fellow Jews should not participate in King Ahashverus' feast. "Already then, he was too radical; now look what he's gone and done with his unbending 'religious principles'!" they exclaimed.
Once again, there arose cries of protest. "He's not sensitive to the needs of the present generation!"
"He's too extreme for this type of situation!"
"It's suicide to let a fanatic like Mordecai make decisions for the entire community!"
Given that Mordecai's knowledge and insight were far greater than that of his opponents, however, we ask ourselves how Mordecai came to make these decisions. What underlying principles prompted him to put up such brazen opposition to Haman and his egoistic decree? Could it be that he was in fact naïve? Or perhaps he was enclosed in the proverbial ivory tower, steeped in his study of Torah, and oblivious to the currents and undercurrents that flowed deep and swift around him? At first glance, logic and reason seemed to lie with the protesters.
If we delve into the events of Purim more deeply, we will find that it was Mordecai, and not his contemporaries, who was fully aware of current events and trends – far more than the "experts" who were so critical of his stand.
Thanks to his righteousness and Torah knowledge, Mordecai was like an outlook perched atop the mast. He was able to see further afield than the man in the street, or the secular experts in political affairs and economic policies. To his perceptive eye were revealed the consequences of what seemed at the time to be the most prudent course of action, but in actual fact, was fraught with danger for the future.
In the long run, it was Mordecai who proved to be perceptive, while the others were shown to be naïve and shortsighted. Only Mordecai was aware of the scenes behind the scenes, the spiritual forces which invisible to the untrained eye, but nonetheless, powerful and infulential, molded the events of the Megillah.
At the time the Jews attended the banquet, Mordecai foresaw what would come about, and warned his fellow Jews accordingly. Unfortunately, his words fell on deaf ears. Only after an involved process of dire threats that brought the people to new spiritual heights did the nation as a whole come to realize their error in judging their leader's actions and attempts to guide them.
Adjusting Our Spiritual Receptors
A transistor can receive only those frequencies for which it has been adjusted. A slight change of frequency, and the receiver falls silent, as though there were no waves being broadcast into the air.
Most of us have our antennas set to absorb only the waves of the physical world around us. For us, the material world is what is "real"; spiritual affairs do not command our attention.
The heightened stature of the tzaddik, the righteous individual, is manifest in that his "antenna" is refined and adjusted to afford him sensitivity to the waves broadcast by the spiritual world. His impressions of events are far more perceptive than ours. They have an added dimension to which most of us are not sensitive; we have not sufficiently honed our antennas to the point that they are capable of absorbing the signals sent out by the spirit.
Each of us has a "snapshot" of his or her environment, according to the information supplied through his antenna. That of the tzaddik includes much more detail, for he perceives both physical and spiritual elements of the world around him.
In addition, just as a satellite image covers far more area than a photograph taken from the window of a tour bus, so, too, does the tzaddik grasp a far wider view of world events than the ordinary man-in-the-street. What is more, the fact that our image of our surroundings is based solely on its physical properties, and not the spiritual implications, serves to mask essential, significant elements. The tzaddik is capable of penetrating the outer, purely physical covering and evaluating the events taking place underneath the surface.
To peel away the outer covering and become attuned to the spiritual frequency of the Purim story, we must review the story of the Megillah from a unique viewpoint. As a result, the events will be seen differently, and our questions will be answered.
In contrast to the impression of the casual reader, our Sages tell us that Ahashverus was motivated by a profound hatred for Israel right from the beginning of his rise to power. The banquet he held was intended only to divest his Jewish subjects of their last remnant of Heavenly protection.
From the days of Nebuchadnezzar onward, a spiritual threat hovered over Israel as a result of the fact that they had bowed to idols and worshipped pagan gods. At the time, they could fall back on the defense that they had acted under threat of dire punishment. Now Ahashverus sought to entice them into committing similar transgressions, but of their own free will. There would be no threats involved.
With the insight of the righteous, whose antenna is set to absorb spiritual signals, Mordecai sensed that the question of attending the banquet was a spiritual test from Heaven. Impressing the king and his ministers with Jewish talent and skill would not solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Just the opposite; it would erode that final layer of divine protection that was shielding Israel from the dangers which surrounded them.
Nine years after the Jews attended the banquet despite Mordecai's warnings to stay home, Haman rose to power. Only Mordecai sensed the connection between the two events. Only Mordecai perceived the imminent danger, not from the evil decree of Haman, but from the sycophantic attitude of the community towards the gentile powers at the time. The secular leaders felt a strong need to ingratiate themselves with the gentiles; only Mordecai realized that the Jew must concern himself with finding favor in the eyes of Heaven, not of the ruling government authorities or ruling party.
At such a time, Israel must manifest a steadfast devotion to pleasing their Creator, and Him alone. Only in this way can they atone for the shortcomings of the past. So long as they acted on the premise that their salvation lay in establishing the "right connections" at court, or pulling strings in higher circles, they were misplacing their trust and denying the fact that everything depends on their Father in Heaven.
As our Sages put it succinctly: "The heart of princes and kings is in G-d's Hand." This was the message Mordecai intended to convey to the people; their only hope to save themselves was to turn to G-d, and not to temporal powers.
To this end, Mordecai organized what would be called in modern terms a massive "repentance rally", a campaign to arouse the Jews of Shushan to review their spiritual status, and to rise even higher. At the same time, he sent Esther to meet with the king, but only after the Jews had observed a three-day fast of repentance. Although the fast would weaken them physically, it would strengthen them spiritually, making them worthy of Heavenly intervention and rescue from the grasp of those who would destroy them.
When Mordecai commanded them to fast, the Jews of Shushan were in a quandary. On the one hand, there seemed to be no logic behind Mordecai's plan. A community-wide fast would render them hopelessly weak and unable to defend themselves. On the other hand, Mordecai impressed upon them that Haman's threat did not stem from a natural, political cause, so that it was pointless to fight it with natural or political strategies.
This insight could not be proven or disproven by reasoning and logic. Nor could one bring evidence for it from history neither, for or against. The factors involved were purely spiritual. It required that one have full confidence in the tzaddik's insight and his perception of higher realms of cause and effect, forces not ordinarily revealed to the eye of the casual observer.
It has been said that the greatest miracle of Purim was the fact that the people accepted Mordecai's words and complied with his instructions. On the surface, they might easily have rebelled, removed him from office, and even sent him into exile. Instead, they remained completely loyal to the dictates of the Torah regarding the directives of the tzaddik: "You shall not turn away, to the right or to the left, from the matter which they will say unto you."
In the end, they chose to follow the dictates of faith rather than political analysis.
Purim celebrates their decision to rely on their Torah leaders and not their own five senses and power of reason. In doing so, they demonstrated that they had corrected the mistakes made earlier when they chose to attend Ahashverus' banquet. Once their error had been rectified, there was no longer need of a Haman and his diabolical schemings to put their faith to a test. They proved themselves worthy of witnessing Haman's fall from power, and utter destruction.
Untold spiritual strength was demanded of them to attain this level of faith. Hence the day of Purim is compared to that of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Our Sages tell us that at the time the Jewish People accepted the Torah, there was an element of coercion involved. The revelation of G-d's Presence, the thunder and lightning, and other supernatural phenomena left little room for free choice. They would have had to be more than human in order to refuse the Torah G-d offered them.
On Purim, the situation was reversed. The natural circumstances which prevailed at the time, pointed to placing one's hopes on diplomacy and political manipulations. The people were called upon to rise up to the more spiritual approach of Mordecai and the Torah Sages; they did so, and were saved.
Purim marks a renewed acceptance of the Torah. This time, the Jewish people were motivated only from within, with profound love and an overwhelming desire to draw near to their Maker.
"For the Jews there was light and rejoicing..." (Megillah X:X)