A light in the darkness
By Dovid Samuels
What is the most important part of the megillah? Would it be the final judgement on Haman, when he and his sons were hanged on the gallows? Perhaps when Queen Esther went in to see King Achashverosh and pleaded for the lives of the Jewish people? Maybe it was before then, when the king chose her from everyone else in the world to be his new wife after killing Vashti? The question is an unfair one, as every single part of the story publicises the great miracles that were done for us at that time. But, our Sages emphasise certain parts more than others, providing us with important insights into the reoccurring Jewish story of persecution and, more importantly, the ultimate promise of redemption.
We are taught that when Esther was going in to meet Achashverosh, before revealing her Jewish identity, she felt the Divine Presence leave her and she asked, “My G-d, my G-d, why have You forsaken me?” In that Psalm, King David mentions the Ayeles HaShachar as the theme of the song. The Ayeles HaShachar is a star that appears just before daybreak. But why did Queen Esther sing the song of the morning star, and what connection does this star have with the Purim story? Our Sages teach us that just as the morning is the end of the night, so too Esther was the end of the miracles. Simply put, Purim was the last miracle before the final exile, like a star before sunrise. But, if we think about this comparison, it’s really not as simple as it sounds!
After the night, we have the brightness of the day, and the morning is the beginning of a long period of light. But, if Purim was the final miracle, it seems to precede night time, not day! A miracle is a clear reminder that Hashem is still with us, a light in the darkness. If Esther is singing the song of the morning, then why is Purim followed by the absence of this light? Instead, shouldn’t Esther rather have been singing the song of the beginning of the night?
Darkness before the light
A Midrash teaches us that the Ayeles HaShachar appears at a time when the night is at its darkest. All through the night, the moon and the stars provide a degree of light which brightens the sky somewhat. It should be a source of strength for us as a people knowing that, as we tread through the darkness in our history, there is always some light being shed to allow us to hold on to our faith. Just before daybreak, however, the moon and the stars shed less light onto the world, and the rays of the sun are still invisible behind the earth. This is, in fact, the darkest moment of the night. Similarly, just before the light of redemption, the world experiences the most extreme darkness imaginable. But, at that very moment, there is a light that shines for the Jewish people: the Ayeles HaShachar. The morning star is a prelude to the rays of the sun that light up the entire world, vanquishing the pain and confusion of the darkness.
Under the rule of Achashverosh and the evil schemes of Haman, the Jews were in the midst of the deepest darkness imaginable. With our Holy Temple destroyed, the hope of redemption vague, and a decree calling for the genocide of every single Jew, we were in the worst possible situation. But, at the moment when things are at their darkest, as we have learned, the Ayeles HaShachar starts to shine, heralding an end to the night. The question is, what was the ‘Ayeles HaShachar’ for the Jews at Purim? Where was the light in the darkness?
The invisible light
Our ge’ula (redemption) is not an immediate event. It happens slowly, gradually getting more and more obvious. So too, during the redemption of the Jews from Haman, we see a progression from Mordechai sitting by the gates of the king, then Mordechai leaving the presence of the king wearing royal garments, and finally there was light and joy for the Jewish people, as they were saved from Haman’s evil plans.
The first link in the chain of our salvation is symbolised by Mordechai sitting at the gates of the king. He was sitting by the gates to be close to Esther as she started her mission of saving the Jews from inside the king’s palace. But what happened at that very place and at that very moment? Two guards, Bigsan and Seresh, were plotting to kill the king. They spoke in a foreign language, but Mordechai, being a member of the Sanhedrin (and thus knowing all 70 languages), understood every single word they said to each other. Not keeping the matter a secret, Mordechai informed the king of the threat to his life, the claim was verified, and Bigsan and Seresh were dealt with. Mordechai’s graciousness towards the king was then recorded in the book of chronicles.
At this moment in history, the Jews had nothing to worry about. Haman had not yet been raised to power, there was no decree against the lives of the Jewish people, and, in fact, they had a sister in the palace. What could possibly go wrong? While everything was still peaceful, Hashem designed a perfect scenario, of the right man who happened to be sitting in the right place at the right time, fluent in the right language, and motivated by the right intentions to inform the king of what he’d just heard. And what about the rest of the Jewish people? They would know nothing of this event. It was written down in the king’s history book and forgotten about just as quickly, even by the king himself.
But, before the integral role of that event became evident, things got worse for the Jews. After Mordechai saved Achashverosh’s life, Haman was instated and given control of the ‘Jewish problem’. The king himself revealed his true colours of being a vile anti-Semite, and Haman’s ‘final solution’ was approved. There wasn’t even a glimmer of hope for the Jews at this time. Even Mordechai, one of their greatest rabbis, was responsible for enraging Haman against them by not bowing down to him. If they’d known that he was also responsible for saving Achashverosh’s life, who knows what they would have done! They were hopeless. This was their darkest hour.
But, in hindsight, the forgotten story of Mordechai’s loyalty to the king proved to be a pivotal event in Jewish history. It ended up being the main catalyst for our salvation, as later on, when the king couldn’t sleep, he asked for his history book to be read to him and, lo and behold, Mordechai’s kindness was remembered, spurring the events which followed, resulting in Haman’s eventual demise.
Just before the rising of the sun, while the world experiences the deepest darkness, the morning star pops out. Hashem acts with mercy towards His people and always creates the remedy before the ailment. As Mordechai sat by the gates of the king, who would have known that he was preparing our lifeline from the horrors that would follow? And as the night got darker and darker, there was always a light in that darkness, the Ayeles HaShachar.
Seeing the light
With this understanding, we are given a wonderful symbol of hope, even when everything around us seems hopeless. The Ayeles HaShachar is a sign that the reality of darkness is not absolute. There is no absence of Hashem, there is only hiddenness. There is no punishment for the sake of punishment. There is no pain for the sake of pain. There is no such thing as an endless night, an endless exile. There is always a morning that follows, and even when things are at their most desperate, Hashem causes the morning star to shine. We might not realise where it’s shining from, and we might not even be able to see it’s light just yet, but it is there, in the simple act of Mordechai the Tzaddik sitting by the gates of the king. It shows us that the night is actually part of the day; that the night is not the goal, it is merely there to contrast and emphasise the day that follows it. So too, our suffering, our pain, and our exile all exist as a prelude to the magnificent and splendid light that will shine with our ge’ula.
For this reason, we give this festival the name Purim, because of the lottery that Haman threw to decide which day to kill the Jews. The worst day! The darkest hour for the Jewish people holds the message of what Purim is really about; not only that the morning will come, and the pain will fade, but that, in the midst of the thickest shadow, in pitch black, during the suffering, the light of our salvation is shining, and it gives us hope and strength until the rays of morning burn away the night. The story of Esther is not, as we may have thought, the beginning of darkness – of a long period without miracles. Instead, it is the message of the coming of a great light, just around the corner. This is a message not only for the Jewish people as a whole, but for every single Jew; that no matter what pain they might be going though, lo aleinu, there is an Ayeles HaShachar shining. It might be hidden, but it will bring ‘light and joy’ for us all.
- Psalms 22 ↑
- For the reason why Chanukah is not seen as the last miracle, even though it happened after Purim, see the Gemara in Yuma, 29a, that Purim was to be written down, but Chanukah wasn’t, making Purim the last miracle that was written about. ↑
- This question is asked by both the Maharsha and Rav Yehonasan Eibeschutz. ↑
- Shocher Tov 18 ↑
- See Megillah 12, where even Daniel was unsure about the timing of prophecy. ↑
- Esther 2:21 ↑
- Ibid 8:15 ↑
- Ibid 15:16 ↑
- Yerushalmi Brochos 1:1 ↑