Said Haman to Achashverosh: “Let these [Jewish] people be destroyed…” The King removed his signet ring, gave it to Haman and replied: “Do with them as you see fit.” …A decree went out to destroy, slay and exterminate all Jews, young and old, women and children on a single day, the 13th of Adar and to plunder their possessions…
Shortly after Hamen’s demise (in the month of Sivan), Esther begged the King to annul Haman’s genocidal plot that was still scheduled to occur in seven months time.
Achashverosh replied: “An edict which is written in the King’s name and sealed with the royal signet may never be revoked.”…
The rabbis note that the book of Esther begins with a codeword that signals hard times ahead. The verb, ויהי (and it was), seems innocent enough, but in Hebrew its first two letters spell vay (meaning oy, or woe). R. Berekhia wonders: How could it be that already, there, in the first word, tragedy lurks.
And he actually concludes that, really, it’s always that way, for destiny is a real force in the universe. It seems that from the beginning of time HaShem decreed the fate of each soul and the mark it would leave on the world.
…From the first instant of creation HaShem assigned a fitting destiny to each and every person [that would walk the earth]…He appointed Cain to be the model of all slayers and Abel the prototype of those slain. He made Noah the first of those saved from disaster and Abraham the first to be circumcised [by Divine command]…He put Nebuchadnezzar at the head of all ravagers. And, [most relevant to our matter at hand,] He made Achashverosh the prototype of sellers and Haman, the prototype of buyers. When the people saw that these last two souls were here, now, and set to go they cried, “vay vay (oy oy).” Esther and Mordecai wrote the Megilla and opened it with this word to convey that mystery.
This commentary introducing the Midrash on Esther presents free will and determinism as the central theme of our Purim tale. The story revolves around a genocidal decree signed by “the king,” a double entendre that (in the Megilla) also always indicates the King of Kings (KoK)—the Prime Mover and Shaker of history. And the Megilla informs us that a pronouncement from the king (read KoK) can never be revoked. Once issued it MUST be executed. Yet in this instance, despite the irrevocability of Divine decree, the proclamation does not, in the end, materialize; there was no genocide. Clearly there is a contrary force—hidden and formidable—that can oppose HaShem’s decrees and prevail. Yet this rival power could not possibly succeed unless it too had God on its side.
And that is the mystery of free choice and determinism: It is (seemingly) impossible for both to rule, yet equally impossible for either to not. They are complementary forces both of which are emanated by HaShem and willed by Him. Each serves a crucial function in the cosmic order and their territories do not overlap. “In the place of destiny there is no free choice. And in the place of free choice there is no destiny.” Yet when they converge in the human psyche their boundaries get fuzzy and it’s nearly impossible to sort them out.
In one place the Talmud declares that fate (mazal) rules our lives. In another place it claims the opposite. One can resolve the paradox by distinguishing between two types of mazal. Higher mazal includes those elements of life that are truly predestined (for better or worse). They are intrinsic to our soul mission. Our whole purpose is enmeshed with them. No amount of prayers and merits will change them, for if they would cease, there‘d be no point to our life.
Lower mazal includes everything else—the challenges that keep us growing and the resources that sustain us. And their circumstances ARE alterable through effort, prayer and merit. Some are easily changed while others take years of exertion.
Unfortunately there are no guidelines about which features of our life are from category 1 and which are from category 2. Is this condition something I can change through prayer and effort or is it something I must learn to live with? The Talmud informs us that “children, livelihood, and lifespan are completely determined by mazal,” meaning they are fated and no amount of merit can change them. Seems clear enough, yet in other places the Talmud makes opposite statements which show that children, livelihood and lifespan are not fated…that prayers and merits do make a difference in their regard. This means that there is no rule of thumb—one person’s livelihood could be predestined while another’s might hinge solely on effort.
The Megilla asserts that a King’s directive cannot be annulled and thus it epitomizes higher mazal. The Midrash claims that this applies to us all for HaShem decreed the destiny of every soul. We are all constrained by Divine edict, some for good, and some (apparently) for bad. Cain was destined to murder, Nebuchadnezzar to ravage, Haman to buy the rights to annihilate the Jewish people, and Achashverosh to forgo moral protest and collaborate. We call them wicked people, but are they not just fulfilling their destiny? If a decree from the King cannot be revoked, what options did they really have?
Yet we also see that the very same source which asserts the irrevocability of Divine mandate—the Megilla itself—chronicles an instance where the King’s proclamation does not actually occur. How could that be? In the crucible where choice meets fate possibilities arise that seem, at first, to break the rules.
The interplay of these two cosmic forces—free will and destiny—is a dialogue that occurs within each instant of life. We meet our moments unsure of what can change and what cannot. We exert our will and HaShem responds in kind—by either prospering our path or blocking it. We regroup, revise our plan and push again. Gates open, others close, some things budge and some things don’t. But even when butting against higher mazal, although we cannot change it, we can affect its impact on our lives. We can intensify or reduce its influence—refine or coarsen its expression. The Talmud says that one born under the astrological sign of Mars is destined to have blood on his hands, but there are options: He could become a mohel (circumciser), a surgeon, a shochet (butcher) or a murderer. These four (very different) lots-in-life emerge at the interface of choice and destiny. They illustrate the power of choice to control how a decree materializes even to the point of neutralizing its negative impact. There are exceptional choices that can even sweeten the unfolding of a bitter fate to such a degree that gladness eclipses the sorrow that would otherwise (naturally) have ruled.
So we see with Haman and Achashverosh—both destined to stumble big-time. Yet Haman was defined by his misdeed. It consumed his life, blackened his legacy and culminated in a humiliating death. Conversely with Achashverosh—his predestined moral failure consumed only a short interval of his kingship. Following Esther’s lead he reversed his decision, corrected his misdeed, did teshuva of a sort, and moved on with his life. What parted their paths. How did Achashverosh end up here and Haman end up there?
In addressing this question we are going to explore an oft-ignored area of the Megilla. We tend to view its characters as black and white. Esther, Mordecai, Hasach (and Charbonah) are the good guys. Achashverosh, Haman, Vashti, Zeresh are the bad guys. We are not used to learning lessons from the folks on the other side of the tracks. Now, here, we’re going to see that actually there are shades of gray among them. Most notably Achashverosh who has very lofty mystical associations but, even on the level of pshat, has redeeming attributes, as we shall see.
The first answer to our question is that Achashverosh’s decision to marry Esther changed the entire course of his life. Esther was stunning, to be sure, but so were all the damsels that crossed his threshold. Esther’s beauty touched his soul and Achashverosh allowed himself to be moved by her—he favored that subtle virtue above the glitz and without hesitation chose her as his wife. In that moment, completely out of character, Achashverosh picked the high road. That decision redeemed his life and tempered the impact of his fated defect.
The second answer derives from the method Achashverosh employed to thwart his original (and irrevocable) diktat. It exemplifies how to dialogue with fate and contain its repercussions. In so doing Achashverosh demonstrates the power of teshuva. He was not daunted by what must have seemed a hopeless task. “An edict issued by the King can never be revoked (even by the King himself).” Yet, instead he stepped out of the box and instructed Esther and Mordecai to write a new dictate that, while not revoking the first, would neutralize its impact.
While my original decree—permitting citizens to destroy, slay and exterminate all Jews on the 13th of Adar—may not be revoked, I hereby empower you to devise a new proclamation concerning the Jews and post it in the King’s name stamped with the royal signet. Esther and Mordecai issued the following proclamation: “The Jews of every city shall organize and defend themselves. They are permitted to destroy, slay and exterminate any armed force… that attacks them…”
And actually, in the end, the result of the decree and its countermand produced an outcome that was even better than if the original edict had never occurred. For after all the turnabouts in the year between the first decree and its scheduled enactment, only the most rabid anti-Semites still took up arms and attacked the Jews on that designated day. Consequently, they were also the only casualties. When the dust settled, 75,810 savage Jew-haters where gone from the world at their own initiative, because they could not contain their hostility and refrain from attack even when the odds were now hopelessly against them. No innocents were harmed and there was no collateral damage.
The Purim story is an amazing account of how Achashverosh (aided by Esther and Mordecai) dialogued with his rotten fate, minimized its pernicious impact on his life, and asserted his free will to accomplish the opposite of what would have occurred had he passively surrendered to his destiny (as Haman did to his). In the end Achashverosh aided the Jewish people instead of collaborating with their destruction.
And so it goes for us: Exercising free choice to counteract a bitter mazal generates a greater measure of good in our lives than if that intractable edict had never occurred. Yet it is also true, that recognizing this bonus might entail a shift in perspective that is a journey unto itself. HaShem unleashed these two contrary forces into creation—free will and determinism—because the vortex of their encounter produces blessings unimagined. It is strange but true that the world is a better place because of Achashverosh’s fated misdeed and his teshuva around it. “Nothing (not even higher mazal) can stand in the face of teshuva (the exalted choice to pursue truth and align with spiritual law).”
On Purim we celebrate the turn of events in which Achashverosh played such a central role for Esther’s grace behind the scenes drew out the best from him. May we too (as Esther’s heirs) do the same as she. May we model through our lives the grace that comes from choosing good. And just as Esther’s call for every Jew to fast and pray, sparked a will inside the king to also turn toward good—may our prayers and Purim joy cause our antagonists (both inside and out) to taste the thrill of choosing good and reorient toward there. Help us, please, to always choose the most spiritually productive option in each moment. May the united force of our free wills pull down our destiny, that here and now, without delay, mashiach comes today.
EAT, DRINK, AND BE HOLY
1 Megillat Esther 3:9-14.
2 Megillat Esther 8:8
3 Esther Rabba, Prologue, 10.
4 Tiferet Tsion on Esther Rabba, Prologue 10.
5 Midrash Esther Rabba includes twelve introductions to the Megilla. It is the nature of these introductions that each rabbi presents what he feels is the overarching theme of the Purim tale.
6 R. Isaac Luria (Ari), Arba Meot Shekel Kesef, at the end (as quoted by R. Tsadok Hakohen, Tsidkat HaTsadik, #40).
6 TB Shabbat 156a.
8 TB Shabbat 156a.
9 R. Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, vol. 4, p. 98 – 108).
10 When the Talmud asserts that “Fate does rule our livesיש מזל) (לישראל” it refers to this higher mazal.
12 “When the Talmud asserts that “Fate does not have power over our lives (אין מזל לישראל)” it refers to this lower mazal.
13 TB Moed Katan 28a.
14 TB Yevamot 50a; Nidda 70b; TB MK 28a; TB Brachot 31b; Pesikta Rabbatai 43:7; Bible stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and Chana, M. Shabbat 2:6.
15 TB Shabbat 156a.
16 Regarding Achashverosh’s teshuva see Yaarot Devash as brought by Me’am Lo’ez on Esther 7:5 (and 7:10).
17 R. YYY Safron (The Komarna Rebbe) in Ketam Ofir on Esther 1:1; The Shela, Notes to Sefer Bereshit, Parshat vayetze.
18 Megilla 8:8-13;
19 Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 3:1.