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Chaotic Good

The Book of Esther opens with a long prologue, introducing a detailed and vivid snapshot of life in Persia. It tells us about a six-month festival honoring the mighty Persian Empire, culminating in a seven-day feast for noble aristocrats and foreign diplomats at King Achaverosh’s royal palace. The story includes a long exposition on the materials of the columns, couches, drapes, pavements, cups, decanters, and food. We then learn that in his drunken state, the king summoned the queen to present herself in front of all his guests, but she refused. Insulted by her refusal, and on the advice of his entire cabinet, he ordered her execution. The story then goes into lengthy detail about the meticulous search process for a suitable replacement and how the royal retainers trained the potential candidates in etiquette and protocol before establishing that Esther’s beauty and grace won everyone’s admiration, and she was named queen.

This is not the typical introductory structure of the stories we are familiar with. Consider that the Exodus, our most consequential story, is very short on extraneous 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 only very briefly, allowing the main story to take center stage and unfold.

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

The Chasam Sofer suggests that the main story is all too familiar to us – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. The main story’s abstract is that 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.

Yet what’s makes this particular version different is precisely that long prologue.

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

We should also recognize that the festival and party the story opens with were a national victory celebration of conquest; the Persian Empire had just conquered Israel and exiled the Jews, and many of those very Jews participated and partook in this party! While we might reasonably expect God to have some compassion for contrite Jews desperately praying to be saved, could we so reasonably expect God to be delighted with Jews joining a celebration of their own downfall and the loss of the Holy Land? And yet, this story so clearly tells us that God was watching in those moments as well, long before the Jews turned to Him and long before there was a threat or any semblance of structure to the story 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 a 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 Purim story’s clear morals is that chaos and chance are forces within God’s ambit and purview.

In a sense, it’s actually the very first thing we know about God from the very dawn of creation; that God exists amid a formless void and then organizes that chaos into the order of creation – וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. It’s the mistake Haman made, and it’s the heresy of Amalek; Amalek’s observation that the world looks coincidental and random is not wrong, but the conclusion is. Things may look a certain way, but things aren’t truly how they appear – which happens to be exactly what the custom of dressing up expresses.

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, that 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 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 He’s there if we’re looking.

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