Megillat Esther – No Coincidences!
American literary critic Barbara Johnson is credited with the phrase that faith is seeing light with your heart when all your eyes see is darkness. The spirit of this quote echoes part of the verse in Micah (7:8) which says כִּי אֵשֵׁב בַּחֹשֶׁךְ ה’ אוֹר לִי – Though I sit in darkness, G-d is a light for me. Along with that sentiment, we can add that faith, emunah, is seeing Divine providence at play even when Hashem’s involvement is not readily apparent. Salvation can come in small, barely perceptible glimmers until we gradually see the light burst forth as is portrayed by the end of the Esther story (8:16) that לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר– The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor (see Midrash Tehillim 22).
The task of the reader of the book of Esther is to reveal the light, the glimmer of the proverbial hand of the Almighty, embedded and interwoven throughout the story. In Hebrew, “מגילת אסתר” can be understood homiletically to be related to לגלות הנסתר, “revealing the hidden,” finding G-d in the הסתר פנים, the concealed relationship which we experience during this period of exile. For this reason the name of G-d is absent in Megilat Esther. One might easily read about the dire and life threatening situation of the Jewish people under the reign of Achashverosh and conclude that we were somehow saved by some fortuitous circumstances. One who lives with emunah knows that there is no such thing as coincidence, but rather that Hashem is intimately involved in our lives, b’hashgacha pratit, watching, guiding and intervening with love (see Tehillim 33:13-14).
After we read of Achashevrosh’s party that was held to establish his reign in Shushan (see Be’ur haGra), we are told that Vashti also makes a party for women and it was specifically held in the main palace of the king and not in her palace (Esther 1:9). This was without apparent reason other than to create the situation where the king is suddenly left without a queen, creating the opportunity for Esther to be chosen. However, as much as we might take the familiar story that Esther became queen for granted, bear in mind that there are a vast 127 provinces and to many it would have been a great honor or shrewd political move to marry the reigning king. Many potential marriage partners would have great wealth, resources or other connections to offer. What are the chances out of all the hundreds and thousands of young beautiful potential new queens, that an unidentified, orphaned Jewess is chosen? Especially when the midrash (Midrash Abba Gorion 2) presents the idea that Esther was 75 years old and according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha (Talmud Megillah 13a) she had a pale, greenish complexion, and she refused any extra aids to beautify herself (Esther 2:15), yes she found favor in the eyes of all who saw her (Esther 2:15). It is a wonder that Achashverosh chose to find a queen in such a fashion, which is seemingly beneath the dignity of a king of his stature. Furthermore, it is quite astonishing that he halts the process immediately upon discovering Esther. As the drama unfolds, Esther continues to find favor against all odds. After the Jewish people fasted for three days and Esther goes uninvited to speak to Achashevrosh, breaking royal regulation, he offers her a welcoming response which is unexpected in light of his earlier treatment of Vashti for not obeying the king’s orders. The Taama Dekra notes that after three days of fasting, by laws of nature, one would not easily find admiration and attraction – but this was turned around by G-dly miracle.
On the heels of the episode with Vashti, Achashverosh writes a letter to everyone in all 127 provinces declaring that every man should wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people (Esther 1:22). This absurd letter was also part of the Divine plan which helped save the Jewish people later, as Rava said “were it not for the first letter (sent by Achasheverosh, which everybody discounted), there would not have been a remnant or refugee left from the Jewish people (Talmud Megillah 12b). Rashi explains there that the nations considered the king to be a fool and didn’t take the directives of the second letter (Esther 3:13) calling for the destruction of the Jews seriously, but rather waited and did not act immediately. This was critical to the ultimate salvation of Am Yisrael.
Instances of hashgacha pratit abound in a close reading of Megillat Esther. Mordechai just “happens” to be in the right place at the right time to overhear Bigtan and Teresh plotting against Achashverosh (Esther 2:21). Mordechai just “happens” to speak their Tarsian language since he was in the Sanhedrin and knew 70 languages (Talmud Megillah 13b) and the verse (2:23) tells us that the claim was investigated and evidence was indeed found to support Mordechai’s testimony. It is not a given that proof would be found nor is it assumed that Esther would inform the king of the plot in Mordechai’s name, as she does (Esther 2:22). The story of Megillat Esther continues with numerous incidents woven together to reveal the Divine plan for salvation. (Rashi, Talmud Megillah 13b). Malbim (Esther 3) points out it was hashgachat Hashem that Mordechai was not given an honorarium for his service immediately but it was written and saved in the sefer zichronot to be read at the exact time when Achashverosh was “coincidentally” having a difficult time sleeping (Esther 6:1). At this point Haman will also “happen” to show up at the king’s court in the dark of night (against the explicit directions of his wife Zeresh to go in the morning! See Esther 5:14) to reveal his scheme to have Mordechai killed. Ultimately, Haman’s zeal and impatience leads to a significant outcome where the task of honoring Mordechai is thrust upon him. (Esther 6:10).
Haman was so enthusiastic to have very high gallows of 50amah (approx 25 meters or 82 feet tall) comparable to a six story building in his own backyard made with the intention of hanging Mordechai Hayehudi (Esther 5:14). He wanted everyone to see the downfall of the Jew. This was orchestrated by Hakadosh Baruch Hu, so that Achashverosh could later see it himself, as the power of hearing is incomparable to the power of sight (Be’ur HaGra 5:14). When the officer Charvonah famously says (Esther 7:9) “Here is the gallows which Haman made for Mordechai, the man whose words saved the king!” Achashevrosh immediately sees the looming gallows from the palace windows and in an amazing “וְנַהֲפֹךְ הוּא,” turn of events (Esther 9:1) orders Haman to immediately be hanged on his own monstrosity. There is no time for Haman to plead his case or bribe his way into Achashverosh’s good graces. The complex level of details which had to fall into place for this exact moment to happen is beyond the explanation of natural occurrences (see Malbim 9:17). Mordechai takes over Haman’s estate and the king’s ring which had previously been worn by Haman goes to Mordechai (Esther 8:2), and he sends letters for the Jews to defend themselves.
At the close of the megillah, we have another surprise. Our hero and heroine lived in an empire filled with antisemitic prejudice, where Mordechai is fearful for Esther’s safety and intstructs her not to reveal her Jewish identity (Esther 2:10). It was amazing hashgacha that Esther appeared to every nation as if she belonged to their nationality so that she didn’t need to reveal her true identity (Talmud Megillah 7a) – this is reflective of a time of galut – when admitting you are Jewish is a dangerous thing. By the end of the megillah, we find that וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי־נָפַל פַּחַד־הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם and many of the people of the land professed to be Jews (Esther 8:17). Ralbag explains in the verse that some of the population willingly converted to Judaism and some gave the appearance of being Jewish. Being Jewish was transformed from something that was stigmatizing into something sought after and valuable in the eyes of all.
We are living today in the miraculous time of “ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו,” the beginning of the manifestation of our redemption (prayer for the State of Israel) where today to be a Jew could be the very thing that saves your life. In a recent post from the daily whatsapp of Sivan Rahav Meir ( 08/03/2022) she quotes Natan Sharansky as saying
“The world has changed. When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was an unfortunate designation. No one envied us. But today on the Ukrainian border, identifying as a Jew is a most fortunate circumstance. It describes those who have a place to go, where their family, an entire nation, is waiting for them on the other side.”
May we learn our lessons from the past and hopefully continue to be proud members of the people of Israel, proudly representing the state of Israel. May we continue to live our lives with the heart of emunah, where every day is nuanced with connection to the Almighty. The story of Megillat Esther is one for all generations, since in every time period we need to be reminded to continue to pore over the megillah to find more examples of Divine intervention permeating the story, with the aim that we may do the same in telling the stories of our own lives.