Last week was Purim, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from the genocidal Haman in the ancient Persian empire. Purim happens to be one of my favorite holidays, not least because it involves dressing up in funny costumes, performing plays that parody current events and whatever your favorite alcoholic beverage of choice is. Still, without a doubt, my favorite part of the Purim holiday is the reading of Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther), the story of how Esther and Mordechai saved the Jewish people from Haman’s plot to wipe us out.
The story is well known to most Jews, and very enjoyable in both the hearing and the telling (though some tellings are more creative than others). My favorite part is about halfway through, when the King can’t sleep, so has one of his servants begin reading to him from the book of records (presumably with the hope that this would conk him right out – Ahasuerus is very obviously not a policy wonk). The records reflect that some years previously, Mordechai had informed the Palace of a plot by two of the King’s chamberlains to murder the King. This being behavior that royalty likes to reward (in the quite understandable hope to remain thoroughly un-murdered), the King asks, “What Honour and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this?” and is quite shocked to discover that the answer is precisely bupkis.
Not one to let insomnia hold him back from affairs of state, the King summons Haman into his room. Haman has been loitering in the courtyard preparing to ask the King for permission to hang Mordechai, for the unpardonable crime of not bowing down to the man who would most certainly Make Shushan Great Again. This is after he has already convinced the King at the beginning of the tale to endorse a decree that marked the Jewish residents of his empire for genocide on a date he appoints. Before he can make the request to execute Mordechai in particular, however, the King queries him, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?”
Haman, being the down to earth guy that he is, thinks to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honour besides myself?” and describes his own perfect day out on the town. “For the Man Whom the king Delighteth to Honour, let royal apparel be Brought Which the king Useth to wear, and the horse That the king Rideth upon, and on Whose head a crown royal is set and let the apparel and the horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes, That They may array the man Therewith Whom the king Delighteth to Honour, and cause Him to ride on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him: Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour!”
The King is overjoyed with Haman’s response, and immediately cries out, “Make haste, and take the apparel and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew!” What followed was most definitively not Haman’s best day, as he led Mordechai through the streets, delivering to the pious and unbowed Mordechai his own lusted for ego trip.
Why do I love this story? Because it’s funny, certainly. And also because it involves an unprincipled power-seeker receiving an ironic comeuppance. Speaking as someone who works in a city filled with unprincipled power-seekers, that’s quite a draw. But there’s another reason I love it. You see, the truth is that this part of the story is unnecessary to the narrative. It’s an interlude in the larger Purim tale, which is much more about Queen Esther’s courage to use the privilege and power of her position to save her people, even at great personal risk to her life. You could tell that whole story without this amusing tale of Haman’s humiliation. Yet the Megillah includes it, and I have a theory as to why.
Megillat Esther is somewhat unique among Jewish holiday narratives in that it lacks any form of direct divine intervention. Passover comes with the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea; Shavout has the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Even Hannukah, which is primarily about a secular military victory and, like Purim, is not biblical in origin, has the ‘miracle’ of the oil which lasted for eight days when only enough for one was left. Purim has no such miracles, no direct divine intervention. When the Jewish people are finally saved thanks to Esther denouncing Haman and enlisting the support of the rather flighty Ahasuerus in enabling the Jews to fight for their lives, there is no violation of the laws of nature to bring about this victory. It is a small win, and one entirely attributable to human efforts.
So also is Haman’s humiliation and Mordechai’s unwitting elevation, even if it is a sidenote in the more important story of Esther’s bravery. Indeed, this part of the story seems to be the result of neither human will or divine intervention. Instead, it’s just pure dumb luck. Events transpire in just the right way, from the King’s insomnia to Haman’s loitering in the courtyard at just the right time, to enable this cherry on the sundae of the Jews’ deliverance.
Though it is less impressive than the parting of the sea or raining down mana from above, this is much more like how we look for G-d in the modern era. The Talmud teaches us that it is forbidden to rely on miracles – that we must live our lives with the expectation that it will be our choices and our efforts that will lead to our success or failure. To sit around and wait for G-d to elevate you – or to be foolhardy with ones life in the confidence that a miracle will preserve you – is strictly prohibited. Joshua could count on G-d to halt the sun in the sky to win a battle and Moses could use the tools that G-d gave him as proof of his divine mandate. We just have to do our very bests, hoping for an outcome that will likely be indistinguishable from a lucky break.
But sometimes, despite not lounging about in expectation, we succeed against truly shocking odds. Sometimes this happens through the success of a dangerous gambit we only took because our moral obligations left us no choice, like Queen Esther risking it all to approach the King and ask for the salvation of the Jewish people. Sometimes it comes through no particular plan of ours, when a good deed from long ago comes back to reward us when we least expect it, as it did for Mordechai. In these moments, I feel the divine presence. I don’t mean it in a proselytizing sense – we Jews don’t do that, and everyone should feel free to interpret the world in the way that helps them manage life’s challenges best for them. But for me, there is something profoundly meaningful in seeing G-d when I find success despite long odds – especially when I know that any success is an interlude between past and future failures. The story of Esther serves as a bridge between the biblical age of miracles and the world we have now. In the world we live in, stuck relying on our own efforts and dumb luck to save us and those we care about, it helps a lot to feel G-d at ones back when we finally eke out a win.