The book of Esther contains the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, and that is when there is a Mitzva (commandment) to read the scroll in public.
The setting for the story was the Persian empire. It was the last few years of the 70 years between the destruction of the first Temple (422 BCE/ 3338) and the building of the second. Achashverosh (Xerxes) was the man at the top of the young empire. His rule stretched from India in the east to the western Mediterranean. Virtually the whole known world stood under his domination – including nearly every Jew alive at the time. There’s a great danger in having all the eggs in one basket (in other words having all the Jews under the rule of one man). What would happen if someone dropped the basket?
Well that’s exactly what nearly happened. Haman held the position of Prime Minister, second in power only to the King himself. To say that Haman was not a great friend of the Jews would be an understatement. In one way or another, Haman received permission from the king to kill every Jew in the empire on one day (the 13th of the month of Adar). Nearly one year before the date of execution, Haman sent secret orders to the governors of each of the empire’s many provinces – orders that were not to be opened until the appointed day. Being a very suspicious man, Haman kept the whole affair as quiet as possible, not wanting to give the Jews an opportunity to upset his plans…
However, three things occurred at or before the birth of Haman’s plan that would have a great effect on the outcome:
- The king, in a drunken rage, killed his (main) wife, Vashti, and replaced her by way of a high-stakes beauty pageant. The new Queen was a Jewess named Esther (although no one at the time knew she was Jewish).
- Mordechai (a member of the Sanhedrin and Esther’s uncle) happened to find out about Haman’s plan and began to act against it.
- Mordechai also happened to overhear details of a plot to kill the King – and warned the King, saving his life.
It was these three things that spelled the end of Haman’s plan. Esther’s relationship with the King, Haman’s uncontrollable hatred for Mordechai (the king’s savior) and the cooperation of Esther and her uncle all brought about the downfall of Haman and the salvation of the Jews.
That’s the story. But the story itself is not the essence of the book of Esther. There are many wonderful events in our history that bear repeating, but they weren’t necessarily included in Tanach (the Bible). In the eyes of our rabbis, there’s something more to the story of Purim
Every single event of the book can have a purely rational explanation. It is possible, in the natural course of things, that Esther, the Jewess, was chosen from all the thousands of women to be the King’s wife; it is possible that Mordechai could have accidentally heard of Haman’s plan to kill the Jews, and of the plot to kill Achashverosh; it is possible that Haman could have just happened to have such a strong hatred for Mordechai… and then just happened to have arrived in the King’s bedroom as the King was thinking about honoring that same Mordechai. All of these things are believable in a natural context. But how likely is it that they should ALL happen, and at just the right time?
The book of Esther, therefore, is the story of the quiet, invisible hand of G-d in history. The book is an expression of our belief in G-d’s directing control in all human activities. Add up all the coincidences in this book (or in your own lives!) and you’ll sometimes see how it just doesn’t add up.
So that’s the story. But there’s one more thing. Why did G-d have to allow the Jews to get into such hot water… only to bail them out with such an impressive succession of quiet miracles? Wouldn’t it have been better to kill baby Haman in his crib or something like that?
The answer, our rabbis tell us, is that the Jews of that generation needed this trouble to inspire them to see the hand of G-d, and to return to a greater level of Mitzva-observance.
Thus, Mordechai’s response to the crisis makes sense. Did he organize mass rallies outside the Persian embassy? How about a petition? Letter-bomb campaign? Nope. He “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes (signs of mourning)… and he cried a great and bitter cry” (Esther 4 1). He arranged that in every province to which news reached, there was “great mourning among the Jews and fasting and crying….” Why does someone fast if not to impress Someone Above (G-d). What’s the best way to impress Him? Teshuva – repentance and honest change.
Now that you have the whole story of Purim, everything else is just detail.