The Gemara tells us that the terrible decree to destroy the Jewish people in the Purim story was a punishment for the Jews’ partaking of the banquet of Achashverosh. Throughout the period of the first Beis HaMikdash, the prophets rebuked the Jewish people for terrible sins, including idolatry, yet the nation never sentenced to universal destruction. Why such a drastic punishment for the seemingly minor offense of eating at the king’s banquet?
To answer this question, let us first discuss Achashverosh’s intentions in throwing such a lavish party. Chazal tell us that the drinks were served in the vessels used in the Beis HaMikdash. The king even donned the clothes of the Kohen Gadol. What was Achashverosh trying to achieve? Rav Chaim Halpern, shlita, explains that until this point, Achashverosh had been worried about the prophecy of Yirmeyahu that the Jewish people would return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash seventy years after its destruction. The king calculated that seventy years had now passed without any sign of the prophecy’s fulfillment. Consequently, he held the feast on the exact day that he had calculated was the “deadline.” He was telling the Jews to give up on the Beis HaMikdash and focus on an alternative source of happiness: his kingdom. Therefore, he dressed up as the Kohen Gadol to show that he was their new leader, and he gave them the Temple vessels to show that there was no point in waiting any longer for the Beis HaMikdash to be rebuilt.
Unfortunately, the Jewish people accepted the king’s message and joined in the banquet, even drinking from the holy vessels. The Jews lost hope. They abandoned their desire for a second Beis HaMikdash and turned to a new future, as loyal subjects of the king and his empire. In effect, they gave up on their unique role as the Chosen People, the “light unto the nations.” They forsook any hope of returning to Eretz Yisrael and the Beis HaMikdash. They did not realize that the Jewish people’s very right to existence is based on its unique role in the world. Hashem cherishes this nation because of its willingness to serve as an am segulah, teaching the world about Him. Having rejected this role, the Jews automatically lost their reason to be. Measure for measure, they were sentenced to destruction.
How did the Jewish people overturn this decree? The Gemara tells us of the conversation that took place when Haman came to inform Mordechai of how the king wanted to honor him. Haman found Mordechai learning Torah. Haman asked, “What are you learning?” Mordechai answered, “When the Beis HaMikdash existed, a person who gave a minchah offering would bring a handful of flour, and it would atone for him.” Upon hearing this, Haman replied, “Your handful of flour will come and overturn my ten thousand silver shekalim.” The Gemara is very difficult to understand here. What was the significance of what Mordechai was learning, and why did it make Haman realize he would be defeated? The Ponevezher Rav explains that Haman knew his hope of success lay in the defeatism expressed by the Jewish people at the banquet. When he saw Mordechai teaching about the Beis HaMikdash, Haman realized that the Jews had repented and rekindled their desire for a new Temple. They still hoped to continue being the “light unto the nations.” And if the Jews had not given up on Hashem, He would not give up on them.
The nisayon of the Jews in the time of Purim was to maintain hope during trying times. This challenge continues to this very day, and when we fail, our enemies conclude that they can defeat us. The story is told of an infamous Arab terrorist serving time in an Israeli prison. While there, he considered renouncing terrorism, feeling that he could never succeed in destroying Israel. However, one Pesach, he saw an Israeli guard eating a pitah. Knowing that chametz was forbidden on Pesach, he asked why the Jew was not observing this law. The guard replied that such laws were no longer important. The terrorist then decided that a people that had given up its heritage could indeed be defeated.
In stark contrast, Napoleon was amazed to discover that the Jews still mourned the Beis HaMikdash on Tishah b’Av though it had been destroyed nearly 2,000 years earlier. A people so connected to its heritage would never be destroyed, he exclaimed.
We live in a time when despair threatens on many levels. For nonobservant Jews, the test is obvious: not to abandon their heritage by assimilating into secular culture. But the challenge applies to everyone in some form. First, one may be tempted to give up on the millions of secular Jews, arguing that they are irretrievably lost to assimilation. This attitude is of course incorrect, and experience has proven that secular Jewry can be quite easily reconnected to Judaism. Second, observance does not preclude despair. Indeed, the Jews who partook of the king’s banquet ate kosher food. A person can keep mitzvos and still wonder if there will ever be a third Beis HaMikdash and if Mashiach will really come. Moreover, despair can plague our personal lives, persuading us that we will never achieve greatness. Purim teaches us never to give up, both on the Jewish people and on ourselves. As long as we seek to remain part of Hashem’s nation, He will protect us from all our enemies.