Although the theme of the blind hatred of monotheism and its values by those who sought to exterminate the Jewish people — despite the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob not allowing his people to live on merely in the pages of history books like other peoples — is woven through many of the most significant days of the Jewish calendar, for some reason Purim stands out from all the other holidays.
The story, from the Book of Esther, is set in Persia, which ruled the civilized world in 4th century BCE. King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), famous for his revelry and hedonistic feasting and easily swayed, executes his queen in a delirious hour at the suggestion of his advisers, but sobers up to realize that he might have found a more humane way to protect his pride.
All the daughters of the continent-spanning empire, whose borders stretched from Ethiopia to India, gather in the royal harem for a month-long, multi-round beauty contest. In the end, through the intervention of Providence, the king chooses Esther, the niece of Mordechai, the prophet who leads the Jewish community of the empire.
Nothing could be further from the young, inexperienced, and extremely modest and chaste girl than the splendor of the palace and the frivolous behavior of the hedonistic king, but given no choice, she accepts the marriage proposal and takes the throne. She does not disclose her Jewish origins to the king, something her uncle was concerned about, because who knows what danger it would expose her to.
Soon after, Mordechai, a prominent leader in the royal court, smells an assassination plot against the king, ans immediately informs Esther, whose intervention leads the secret police to catch the plotters, and the plan is foiled.
Then Haman, the king’s evil adviser and second-in-command of the empire, enters the scene with his diabolical plan to offer the king a wealth of treasure in exchange for the heads of the Jews; the king, disliking the Jews himself, or perhaps out of sheer indifference, gives Haman carte blanche to exterminate them.
The Jews are defenseless, there is nowhere to flee; resisting the royal army is impossible, the royal decree has been enacted into law, mass genocide is inevitable. And they say history doesn’t repeat itself.
Haman’s career is soaring, his confidence as the king’s right-hand man never stronger.
But Mordechai swings into action and informs Esther of the King’s plan, and Esther feels the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. She knows that in order to dissuade the king from carrying out the decree against the Jews, she must get him to drink a few glasses of wine. So she invites Ahasuerus and his evil adviser Haman to dinner but does not come forward with her request that evening.
Perhaps due to the wine and the boisterous feast, the king is kept awake that night. His servants, who are accustomed to entertaining him with stories on such occasions, remind him of the assassination plot against him and how it failed. They also remind him that the Jewish Mordechai received no reward for saving the king’s life. Ahasuerus, not liking to remain indebted to anyone, gives a royal reward to Mordechai whose days are numbered precisely because of his decrees.
Haman senses by this time that all may not go so smoothly with his plan to exterminate the Jews. But he is invited to another feast, again hosted by Esther, so he has no time to think through the possibilities.
This banquet, which Haman expects to strengthen his position, proves fatal for him, as Esther reveals her origins to her husband and reminds the king that the decree Haman lobbied the king to pass, and which has since become law, will be the end of his queen, Esther, too.
Ahasuerus then, remembering how many times in his life he has been misled and exploited due to his credulity, orders the execution of Haman and his family and revokes the decree against the Jews.
The Jewish community’s joy is, of course, boundless, and the leaders order that the day of deliverance be celebrated annually as a compulsory holiday by Jews worldwide.
But the story recorded in the Book of Esther is not unique in the Bible because of the attempt to exterminate the Jews and its failure. It is the only book in the Bible in which God is not mentioned, although the hand of the Creator is evident in every moment of the story. This is surely why we identify so easily with the heroes of the story of Purim, who are an example to us all of trusting in Providence and the fact that, although God does not show himself as he did to the prophets of old, his watchful gaze and protective hand will not fail us even in the most dire of hours.
The original version of this article appeared on Neokohn in 2020.