Purim is a happy holiday and the book of Esther is great entertainment. But this short biblical book also teaches us some profound lessons about politics, bureaucrats and life. We ought to pay close attention to all its nuances and messages.
This year we point out that according to the book of Esther a woman can save the Jewish people (but she cannot become an Orthodox rabbi - make any sense to you?).
The biblical book of Esther is a dramatic story about a young woman learning the truth about court politics at the highest levels of the ancient Persian administration. It is a disconcerting story. The more we look at the events described, the more we see parallels to political and social realities of any age, even our own.
Esther entered the tale as a naive young woman. She stood as a stark contrast to the tragic Vashti, whose sole sin was to refuse to come and appear at a party with the drunken king. Esther pleased everyone. Hegai, the guardian of the women treated her with special kindness. The king loved her more than all the other women. She charmed the most powerful political forces in the land, and at the same time remained loyal to her people.
Mordecai, her uncle the Jew, was a stubborn man. He refused to bow down to gratify the wishes of the petty bureaucrat Haman. Haman was a vindictive schemer. Angered by Mordecai, he manipulated the king into agreeing to allow him to pursue his own personal vendetta in the name of the king and his country. Mordecai knew that to save the Jews he would need the help of his niece. His only hope was to catch the attention of Esther and use her to counter Haman's strategy. He put on sackcloth and sat in mourning. Esther heard about his actions and inquired about this strange behavior. Mordecai understood that he had only a slim chance at enlisting Esther's assistance. She had become self-indulgent, accustomed to the royal life. So he appealed to her self-interest and to her vanity. If you do not act, he told her, you too may perish. And perhaps God gave you the opportunities you have, so you could save your people when the time came.
Esther confidently prepared her tactics. She first took a daring step, going to see the king without an invitation. Then she modestly invited the king and Haman to a dinner meeting with no agenda. Perhaps she had planned to expose Haman at that first feast, but lost her nerve. So she invited them back a second time. Her carefully laid-out plan was dramatic and it failed. She arose at the feast, pointed her finger at Haman, and accused him of trying to kill her and her people. She expected the king to be outraged, and to turn against Haman and order him removed, executed and terminate his plot.
The king did arise in fury. No doubt he was furious with Haman's devious plot against the Jews. He was probably also angry at Esther for trying to manipulate him in her naive scheme to dramatically expose the villain. Esther misunderstood court politics and misjudged the king. He did not turn against his trusted advisor. Instead, angry at both Haman and Esther, he arose to take a walk in the palace garden.
If it were not for Haman's panic at that very moment, the miraculous salvation of the Jews and the festival of Purim would never have taken place. Haman could have decided right there to go after the king and use his slick political skills to regain his stature. He could have told the king that Esther was quite insane. He could have offered to reconsider his actions against the Jews. It was all just a misunderstanding, he could have said. He and the King could have laughed together in the royal garden about how foolish it would be to believe the protestations of a mere woman. So the story could have ended.
And now for the scandal and miracles, they get mixed together - it's not a problem.
Haman's profound guilt and Esther's utter innocence combined to produce an entirely different conclusion. The first part of the Purim-miracle was that Haman momentarily lost his cool. He panicked and made a fatal error. He turned to plead with Esther, fell on her couch, and asked her to spare his life. The ambivalent king returned from his walk in the garden just in time to see his counselor in bed with his queen. Haman turned white. But still he could have weaseled his way out of the situation. He could have made light of the circumstance and belittled the king's suspicions. Trust me. I am your old friend and advisor, he could have said.
But at that moment Harbonah, a low-ranking member of the court, reminded the king that he had a gallows set up for Mordecai and could use it instead for Haman. The second element of the Purim-miracle unfolded and the Jews were saved by the momentary panic of an evil man and the well-timed ironic suggestion of a simple citizen.
So there you have it, a woman saved the Jewish people. But don't try counting a woman for a minyan.