Every year, on the 14th day of Adar in unwalled towns and on the 15th day of Adar in walled towns, we celebrate a relatively unique event which occurred during a crucial period in Jewish history.
Upon the death of Nebuchadnezzar in 562 BCE, Jewish oppression at the hands of the then Babylonian empire was soon to be eased. Once Nebuchadnezzar had died, quarrels among a rebellious priesthood ensued along with a succession of inept rulers which left the empire vulnerable to aggression. Indeed, Cyrus the Great who then ruled the Persians and Medes emerged to conquer the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE despite Babylonia’s joining forces with Egypt, the Lydians and the Greeks. Now the Jews were under the aegis of Cyrus – whose rise was prophesied in Yeshayah 45:1 and Daniel 5. As soon as Cyrus assumed control of Babylonia, he instituted a policy of leniency and toleration towards all foreigners, including Jews, and their faith. He even allowed the Jews to return to the Land of Israel, if they wished, and to rebuild the Temple – the Biblical account of which is borne out by excavations at Persepolis, capital of the ancient Persian empire.
This attitude initiated by Cyrus continued throughout the reigns of the Persian dynasty and that of Xerxes (Ahasuerus) in particular. “And it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, who reigned from India unto Ethiopia, 127 provinces….the king Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him….and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:1; 3:1-6). After a series of events, “The king granted the Jews who were in every city to gather themselves together and to stand for their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them” (Esther 8:11). “And Mordekhai wrote these things and sent letters unto all the Jews who were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, near and far. To establish among them that they should keep the 14th day of the month Adar and the 15th day of the same annually. As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy and from mourning into a good day that they should make them days of feasting and joy and of sending portions one to another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:20-22).
Despite hateful enemies who wished to destroy them, the Jews managed to overcome their enemies and to induce the king to overturn his decree which was prompted by his evil viceroy Haman. To be sure, modern scholars were skeptical for a time concerning the narrative of the Book of Esther; but modern scholars are now generally agreed that the Book of Esther’s narrative is plausible, clearly contemporaneous with the events of the time and its description of Persian court life, manners, customs and mores and is supported by archeological excavations (see Richard N. Frye, The Heritage of Persia, New York: 1963, p.95ff.). At any rate, to commemorate the events of the Book of Esther and others like it, we annually read the Biblical Book of Esther, and, in appreciation of our continued existence, we present each other with gifts, and, to continue to help the downtrodden to overcome, we present gifts to the poor.
Let us hope that, in the spirit of Purim, G-d shall continue to assist us in overcoming our enemies, whoever they may be, and help us progress and move forward from strength to strength, fully developing our potentials and rejoicing in the gifts He has bestowed unto us – His people.