When Sweetness is Bitter

The Megillah begins,1 “And it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh.” On this verse the Talmud2 comments, “We have a tradition that wherever [the Tanach] says Vayehi — ‘And it came to pass...,’ [it is referring to]...a time of trouble.”

Given that Haman had not yet risen to power, why should the beginning of the reign of Achashverosh be considered a time of trouble for the Jewish people? They were affluent and held prestigious positions. Mordechai, head of the Jewish community, “sat at the king’s gate”3 and was one of the foremost courtiers, consulted on major issues by the king him­self.4 He and his fellow Jews enjoyed the freedom to study the Torah and observe its mitzvos. Why, then, does the Talmud view this period as a time of trouble?

In truth, however, the very fact that the period in which they lived is described as “the days of Achashverosh” meant trouble for the Jewish people. For a Jew, exile is always a time of difficulty. A Jew’s host country may grant him freedom and comfort and opportunities for success and prosperity. Until Mashiach comes, however, any exile is restrictive. By defini­tion, exile means banishment from our native land and way of life. As long as we are in exile, we cannot experience Jewish life fully.

Confusing Darkness and Light

The most destructive aspect of exile is the lack of awareness it induces. A person who realizes that he is physically ill will search for a doctor. The type of sickness that is most dangerous is one that cannot easily be recognized. By the same token, the most dangerous aspect of exile is our com­placent acceptance of it. We feel comfortable, at home. We do not realize that we have been placed in an unnatural situ­ation, forced to depart from our native way of life.

Of course we must be thankful for our freedom and ap­preciate the prosperity we have been granted. We must, how­ever, realize that living a life of material prosperity is not our ultimate goal. The reason for our existence is to live a life of complete connection to G‑d; in doing so do we feel our great­est sense of fulfillment. In the fullest sense, this purpose will be realized in the Era of the Redemption. Until that time, we are living an unnatural existence in which we cannot truly fulfill ourselves.

Social Involvement vs. Academic Detachment

Understanding this state of affairs need not isolate us so that we shun involvement in the affairs of our country of residence. On the contrary, such involvement is positive. Since, in the Previous Rebbe’s words,5 “We did not go into exile willingly, but were sent there by the decree of G‑d,” G‑d surely had a purpose in this.

By sending us into exile, G‑d intended that we carry out a specific mission, namely, to refine and elevate the countries where we live. To fulfill this mission, we must participate in the societies around us. As our Sages teach,6 “When you enter a city, follow its customs.” This implies working within the context of society at large until it is transformed into an in­strument for the furtherance of the values of Torah and its principles of goodness and justice.

In light of this we can understand why Mordechai, a member of the Sanhedrin,7 was willing to forego much of the time he had spent studying and teaching Torah in order to serve in the court of Achashverosh.8 Mordechai realized that the Persian Empire was the instrument G‑d had chosen to bring about the return of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael and the building of the second Beis HaMikdash. Compelled by such a realization, he was willing to invest time and effort in the service of Persia’s king.

Pride in One’s Jewish Identity

Mordechai’s conduct during that time is instructive. “There was a Jewish man in Shushan, the capital, and his name was Mordechai.”9 Before the Megillah even tells us Mordechai’s name, it states that he proudly identified as a Jew. His prestigious position in the Persian court was not an end in itself, but a means for safeguarding the interests of his brethren. Serving in the royal court marked a departure only in the external form of his divine service, but not in its inner spirit.

Mordechai’s divine service was thus a synthesis of op­po­sites. He was both involved in Persian life and removed from it. Though he served at court, he rejected its values. He ac­cepted the fact of living in exile, but only in material affairs. In spiritual matters, he knew that10 “our souls have not gone into exile,” and that even in exile, we are actively connected with G‑d.

Significantly, the opposing poles of his service did not contradict each other. Success in one area actually enhanced his efforts in the other. Mordechai did not advance to his influential position through natural means alone, but thanks to Divine blessings. Because of his merit and the needs of the Jewish people, G‑d selected him as the instrument for their salvation. And the position to which G‑d had raised him, enabled him to use the power of the Persian Empire for the sake of Torah.


Mordechai’s reaction to Haman’s decree clearly expressed the interrelationship between his material success and his di­vine service. Mordechai did not rely only on political power to try to annul the decree. He responded by “putting on sackcloth and ashes,”11 by calling upon the Jewish people to turn to G‑d in teshuvah, and by gathering 22,000 Jewish chil­dren and teaching them Torah.12 His attempt to annul the decree focused first on the spiritual service necessary to evoke G‑d’s mercy. Only thereafter did he ask Esther to ap­proach the king.

Esther’s priorities were the same. She asked Mordechai to “Gather all the Jews... and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days.”13 Furthermore, she promised, “I and my maidens will also fast.”14

At first glance, undertaking a fast would appear to endan­ger her life and the success of her mission. Esther had not been called to appear before Achashverosh for a month, an obvious sign of disfavor. By appearing without being sum­moned, she ran the risk of death. Since her only hope was that her beauty would arouse the king’s favor, a three-day fast would surely lower the probability of success.15

Esther realized, however, that the decree “had not come by chance,” but rather, as a result of “their (the Jewish people’s) evil deeds.”16 Seeing the royal decree as only a physical manifestation of a G‑dly decree,17 Esther felt that, before ap­pealing to Achashverosh, it would be necessary to remove the reason for the decree through teshuvah. Once the repentance of the Jewish people had utterly nullified the spiritual reasons for the king’s decree, Esther felt confident in approaching Achashverosh and asking him to annul it on the physical plane.

Just as Mordechai and Esther were not tempted by the pleasures of the Persian court, they did not consider its power the sole medium of salvation in a time of danger. The Purim story reveals their fundamental commitment to Jewish iden­tity and their deep awareness of G‑d as the Master of their fate.

From Exile to Redemption

This attitude brought about a wondrous miracle. The entire situation was transformed. All the powers that had been mobilized against the Jewish people were utilized for their benefit. Thus, Purim serves as an eternal example of how a Jew should relate to exile and how, through his commitment, he can transform exile into a positive force.

These lessons are surely relevant at present, in the last remaining moments of exile. In the very near future, Mashiach will appear and lead us to Eretz Yisrael. In the interim, however, we must follow the example given us by Mordechai and Esther, and spread good, justice, and Torah in the societies in the midst of which we live. This, in turn, will hasten the coming of the ultimate Redemption, a redemption which will never be followed by exile.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, Purim; Sichos Purim, 5729