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Chaotic Good

The Book of Esther opens with a long prologue, introducing a detailed and vivid snapshot of life in the mighty Persian Empire.

It tells us about a six-month festival, culminating in a seven-day feast for noble aristocrats and foreign diplomats at the royal palace. The story includes a long exposition on the materials of the columns, couches, cups, decanters, drapes, food, and pavements. We learn that the king drunkenly summons the queen to present herself in front of all his guests, but she refuses. Insulted by her refusal and on the advice of his entire cabinet, he orders her execution.

The story then goes into lengthy detail about the meticulous search process for a suitable replacement and how the royal retainers train the potential candidates in etiquette and protocol before establishing that Esther’s beauty and grace win universal admiration, and she is named queen.

This differs from the typical structure of the stories we are familiar with. Consider that the Exodus, our most consequential story, is very short on introductory detail – a few terse sentences about the rise of a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Yosef or his family, how the new Pharaoh gradually subjugated and enslaved his Jewish subjects; and how a man from the house of Levi had a son, who would grow up to be Moshe, their savior. The backstory is set briefly, allowing the main story to take center stage and unfold. The Book of Esther takes a while to get going.

Why does the Book of Esther have such a long and drawn-out prologue?

The main story abstract is familiar to us; there was an existential threat, so the Jews turned to God for help, crying, fasting, and praying, and God ultimately listens to their pleas for salvation – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.

The Chasam Sofer suggests that what makes this particular version different is precisely the long prologue.

This story marks a paradigm shift – the end of an age of miracles and prophecy. The Creator does not appear in this story, and His guiding hand is only apparent to us readers. But while we can easily recognize God’s hand influencing the story’s main events, we can also spot it in the long prologue, how before the main story has even begun, God’s hand arranges all the disparate pieces for the endgame.

We should recognize that the festival and party the story opens with were a national victory celebration of conquest and victory; the Persian Empire had conquered Israel and exiled the Jews, many of whom attended this party! While we might reasonably expect God to have some compassion for contrite Jews desperately praying to be saved, could we reasonably expect that God would be pleased with Jews joining the celebration of their downfall and the loss of the Holy Land? And yet, this story tells us that God was watching in those moments too long before the Jews turned to Him and before the threat rose, before any semblance of story structure had yet to unfold.

Our sages identify Haman with Amalek, the eternal foe whose primary weapon is chance and chaos. Haman attempted to co-opt chaos by using a lottery, a game of chance, to identify an auspicious day for genocide.

But not only did the lottery fail, but the chaos Haman attempted to weaponize was also his undoing – Mordechai broke the law and refused to bow, and Esther broke protocol when she went to the king with no summons; both articulations of chaotic good. One of the story’s key themes is that chaos and chance are forces within God’s ambit and purview.

It’s actually one of very first things we know about God, from the very dawn of creation; that God exists amid a formless void and then organizes chaotic void into the order of creation – וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹקים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.

Haman’s mistake is the heresy of Amalek; the observation that the world looks coincidental and random is not wrong, but the conclusion is. Things can look a certain way, but things aren’t all they appear. We express this theme with the custom of dressing up.

The Ishbitzer suggests that this also underlies the custom of drinking to intoxication on Purim to the point we can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordechai. By letting go of knowledge as an empirical process, we abandon any semblance of order or structure and embrace chaos; we know from the Purim story that before anything and everything, not only can we find God in the chaos, but that chaos has served God’s purposes all along – there is simply no way it could ever pose a threat.

The Creator is hidden in the story; Mordechai has no cause to believe in a happy ending. And yet the readers can follow the trail of breadcrumbs every step of the way.

The stories contained in the Torah and prophets are passed down to us because generation after generation decided that they had eternal relevance; the Book of Esther captures a mood that is real in the story and real for us. For we who have never seen prophets or prophecy, these books are all we have to hold onto. The Book of Esther tells us that the breadcrumbs in that story are also present in our lives, even if our stories appear chaotic and disorganized.

If Purim was an event that happened through a natural course of events, then the same force that existed for them persists and is transferable. It can and does reveal itself repeatedly; in the fullness of time, chaos produces nothing but order.

The lesson the Book of Esther has to teach us is in the details of the long prologue – the chance and the trivial are all in play for God’s masterplan; us knowing readers get to recognize how all the stars aligned to set the story up for its ending long before the story had even begun. God may appear distant, but the breadcrumbs are there if we’re looking.

But, as we learn from the long prologue, the breadcrumbs are there even when we’re looking away.