Historical Overview of the Purim Story

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Jacob's Ladder

The history of the Jewish people in the close to three millennia since the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash is divided into four phases. These are the arba galuyos-the four exiles-which, with only a brief respite in the days of the Chashmonaim, span all these years, to this very day.

In his prophetic dream, Yaakov Avinu saw a ladder with its base on the ground and its top in Heaven and angels going up and down its rungs. These angels are identified by the Midrash as the sarei ha'umos, the patron angels of the four kingdoms that would oppress Yaakov's descendants in their exile. Yaakov saw the sar of Babylon ascend seventy rungs-representing the number of years that nation held power over Jewry-and then descend. Next came the sar of Medea, whose ascent of fifty-two rungs symbolized the length of the Persian-Medean exile. Then came the sar of Greece, who got as high as 180 rungs-the number of years Jews suffered under the Hellenist yoke until their liberation on Chanukah. It was only the ever-ascending sar of Edom that led Yaakov to ask Hashem if this meant that the fourth exile would never end. He was reassured that even if Edom-Rome and its heirs-reached the stars, Hashem would bring it down.

This theme of the four kingdoms and the exiles they were to impose upon Jewry is not encountered for the first or last time in Yaakov's vision. There are at least half a dozen other references in Tanach.

Yaakov's dream is unique in pinpointing the length of each exile. But all the other symbols and visions are alike in offering an opportunity to analyze the nature of each kingdom. It is these concise yet profound insights into the personality of each nation that Chazal and Torah commentators throughout the generations have developed into a fascinating picture of Jewish history.

The events described in Megillas Esther transpired during the second of these four exiles, when Jews were ruled by the kingdom of the Persians and Medes, with a Persian on the throne. We shall therefore repeatedly refer to Chazal's descriptions of these two nations in order to better understand their behavior as reflected in the Megillah.

Persia/Medea - The Bear

Daniel's nocturnal vision offers us a perspective on the king whose power is the focal point of our first section. The second animal that arises from the storm-tossed sea is similar to a bear.

Analyzing the power of Achashveirosh, a self-made monarch who succeeded Koresh as the second of the three Persian rulers of a mighty kingdom, is indispensable to understanding the Megillah. It was his absolute control over the entire inhabited world that made the threat of Haman's genocide so menacing.

The magnificent banquet that occupies the first part of the Megillah was motivated by a combination of factors. From a political point of view it was an effort to achieve reconciliation with those provinces whose rebellion had been crushed. The opulence of the affair expresses the great wealth of king and empire while the orgiastic indulgence reflects the appetites of the bear.

But perhaps most important, it represents the second kingdom's hopes of succeeding where the first one failed. Belshatzar prematurely celebrated the end of Jewish hopes for redemption and was punished with the premature end of his Babylonian kingdom. Achashveirosh follows his example at this banquet, bringing forth the vessels of the Beis Hamikdash to show that there is no longer any need to fear that the Jews will ever have a second one.

Will the Defendant Please Rise

In the hereafter all the nations of the world will be summoned before Hashem, who will point to the sefer Torah in His lap and ask all those who studied that Torah to come forward and claim their reward.

The Romans, as the mightiest of empires, will be first in line. They will claim to have established many marketplaces, built many bathhouses, and amassed many great treasures of gold and silver for the sole purpose of enabling Jews to study Torah. But this contention will be rejected by the Divine Judge, who will point out their selfish motivation in all of these achievements.

As the crestfallen Romans depart, their place will be taken by the Persians, who-like them-will enjoy power until the Messianic era. The Persians will feel confident of succeeding where the Romans failed because it was one of their kings who granted permission to build the second Beis Hamikdash, whereas it was a Roman ruler who destroyed it. Their argument will be that they built many bridges, conquered many cities, and waged many wars only so Jews could study Torah. Once again, Hashem will shatter this defense by exposing its selfish and vainglorious nature.

It is difficult to imagine how nations standing before the omniscient Creator in the final hour of truth will dare to present such transparent claims of being motivated in all their worldly achievements only by the desire to promote Torah study among Jews!

There is no doubt that Jews have been able to study Torah with greater ease because of the commerce, transportation, and other advances of civilization wrought by Romans, Persians, and all the other nations of the world. But this is merely the way the Creator arranged His world to ensure that those who study and live by the Torah will have their needs provided for by others. Credit and guilt, however, depend on one's intention. Each nation is therefore discredited in that ultimate trial for having other reasons in mind.

In a broader sense this idea can be applied to all of Jewish history. The Romans provided us not only with marketplaces and money but with the soul-searing lesson of destruction and exile. Persia provided not only bridges and conquests but the catalyst of teshuvah, in the form of Haman's plot. Each nation that has plagued Israel has served as the rod of Divine anger, so mercifully applied to awaken us before we destroy ourselves with our sins. But Rome and Persia, like Babylon and Greece before them, will be punished for their intention to harm a people they hated without justification.

This is the true perspective of the Purim story. The royal ring transferred from the hand of Achashveirosh was a blessing in disguise for a Jewish nation in need of a shock. But it was also the instrument of a monstrous plan for a "final solution," which inevitably resulted in the downfall of the planner and the triumph of his intended victims.

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