In broader perspective, the Purim story is the story of the historic countdown to the rebuilding of the second Bais Hamikdash. In a certain sense, had this countdown gone the way Hashem wanted, the Purim saga would never have happened at all.
YEAR ZERO: THE CHURBAN
After the Churban in 3338/423 BCE, everyone waited anxiously to see when it would be rebuilt, the Jews with joyous anticipation, and kings and rulers with fear and dread.
The Megilla points this out clearly. When Achashverosh offers Esther everything she wants there is a string attached — ad chatzi hamalchus, until half the kingdom. Rashi explains that this restriction had a deeper meaning: “Something that is half way and in the middle of the kingdom. This is the Bais Hamikdash that they began building in the days of Koresh and he changed his mind and commanded to cease the work, and Achashverosh who came after him also stopped the work.”
At this stage, Achashverosh did not even know that Esther was Jewish. Yet he was so fearful that she might ask for what he feared most that he put this restriction at the top of his list. What was he so worried about? The prophecies of the past centuries were a packaged deal, including not only the fate of Eretz Yisroel but also the future of its surrounding kingdoms. They spoke of an inter-connected universe where the fate of one affects the fate of all. As the Jews rise and fall, so empires would spring up, flourish, and collapse.
Because of this, kings and leaders were terrified at the prospect of the idea of a rebuilt Bais Hamikdash since if the prediction of its rebuilding proved correct, this would signify that the prophets were also accurate in predicting the inevitable crumbling of their kingdoms. Therefore, contemporary kings had an intense disdain for the Jewish redemption. Every time the deadline seemed to have passed was cause for insane celebration.
51 YEARS POST CHURBAN: BELSHATZAR’S FEAST
The first such occasion occurred 51 years after the Churban in 3389/372 BCE, when Belshatzar, Nevuchadnetzar’s grandson, repelled the attempt of Daryavesh I and his son-in-law Koresh (the kings of Media and Persia) to capture Bavel. During his huge celebratory banquet attended by a thousand lords, Belshatzar had the gold and silver vessels brought out that Nevuchadnetzar his grandfather had taken from the Bais Hamikdash in Yerushalayim, and drank wine from them (Daniel 5:1).
Until then no one had dared to desecrate the holy vessels, but now He was confident it would never be rebuilt since Yirmiyahu had predicted (29:10), So said Hashem, once seventy years of Bavel are completed, I will remember you and fulfill upon you my good word to return you to this place.
Now, since Nevuchadnetzar had mounted his throne 71 years earlier in 3318/442 BCE, did this not indicate that the 70 years had passed and that Yirmiyahu’s prophecy was moot? Hashem showed Belshatzar otherwise. During the feast, a mysterious hand inscribed the famous writing on the wall warning: Your kingdom is broken up and given to Media and Persia (Daniel 5:26-28). That very night, Daryavesh and Koresh conquered Bavel and Belshatzar perished.
52 YEARS POST CHURBAN: KORESH’S DECLARATION
Fifty-two years after the Churban arrived a moment when Moshiach could have arrived and redeemed us forever. After Daryavesh died in battle, Koresh took over and one of his first acts was to encourage the Jews to return to Eretz Yisroel and rebuild the Temple. However, due to his failure to follow Hashem’s instructions to the letter things went awry. Let’s examine what happened. Sefer Ezra tells us:
In the first year of Koresh king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of Yirmiyahu from Hashem’s mouth, Hashem aroused the spirit of Koresh king of Persia and he made a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also in writing saying: So said Koresh king of Persia. Hashem G-d of the heavens has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has commanded me to build Him a house in Yerushalayim that is in Yehuda. Whosoever of you of all His nation, may his G-d be with him and let him go up to Yerushalayim that is in Yehuda and build the house of Hashem G-d of Yisroel, He is the G-d in Yerushalayim (Ezra 1:1,2).
Encouraging as these verses sound, Chazal read them in a totally different light, pointing out that that Koresh had just destroyed the chance to bring about eternal redemption: “The Holy One said to the Moshiach – I have a complaint to tell you against Koresh. I told him that he should build My house and gather My exiles, but he said, Whosoever of you of all His nation, let him go up” (Megilla 12a).
Instead of leading the Jews to the Promised Land, Koresh left them to their own devices, and a disappointingly low number of Jews heeded his call. Only 42,360 Jews emigrated (Ezra 2:64,65) and millions more remained behind in Bavel. The few who went managed to build an altar and began rebuilding the Bais Hamikdash until the local Kusim put a spoke in the wheel after the Jews rebuffed their offers of assistance. They urged Koresh to withdraw his sanction and he began to have second thoughts, which crystallized after he discovered that the Jewish brain drain was damaging his economy.
During the last months of his two year reign, Koresh went for a survey of his land and asked why parts of it were desolate. “Where are the gold coins, where are the silver coins?” he asked. The locals said to him, “Was it not you who decreed and said, ‘Let all the Jews go out and build the Bais Hamikdash’? The gold coins and silver coins are of those who left to build the Bais Hamikdash.
Shocked that the Jewish emigration was damaging his economy, he decreed, ‘Whoever has passed the Euphrates has passed. Whoever has not passed may not pass!’” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 5:4). Faced with this discouragement, the Jews of Eretz Yisroel stopped building the Bais Hamikdash.
At this stage you might ask two questions. First, how can Chazal say that Koresh almost sparked off the redemption? Wouldn’t this have resulted in only 52 years of exile instead of 70? The answer is that similar to the exile of Egypt and the exile of our times, the timetable had some degree of flexibility.
Although only 52 years had passed since the Churban, seventy years had passed since Nevuchadnetzar’s conquest of Yehuda, and the exile could have been counted from that point (See Nedarim 12a).
In addition, you might ask why Hashem only complained about Koresh not taking a more active part in building the Bais Hamikdash. Why not also complain about the Jews’ inadequate response to this great opportunity? Perhaps there was no absolute obligation to leave the thriving Torah community of Bavel for Eretz Yisroel, which was still ruined and desolate. However, their inaction at this stage probably compounded their later sin of enjoying Achashverosh’s feast, during which he used the Temple’s vessels to serve wine.
57 YEARS POST CHURBAN – ACHASHVEROSH’S FEAST
After Koresh, came Achashverosh, who hated the Jews even more than Haman (Esther Rabba 7:20). So when Achashverosh received a letter from the non-Jews in Eretz Yisroel warning that once the Jews built Yerushalayim’s walls they would rebel against him and no longer pay taxes, he decreed that the building cease (Ezra ch. 4).
Vashti, Nevuchadnetzar’s granddaughter, also did her bit for the cause. The Medrash (Esther Rabba 5:2) relates that she received her terrible punishment for her part in ensuring that Achashverosh never rescind his evil decree: “Why did this [her execution] happen to her? Because she would not allow Achashverosh to grant permission to build the Bais Hamikdash and said to him, ‘That which my fathers destroyed you want to build?’”
In the third year of his reign, Achashverosh made the same mistake as Belshatzar by calculating the seventy years from Nevuchadnetzar’s exile of King Yechaniah of Yehuda with its leading talmidei chachamim. Figuring that the seventy years were over he celebrated the occasion with the giant banquet discussed in the beginning of the Megillah and drank wine from the vessels of the Bais Hamikdash (Megillah 11b).
Punishment for participating in the feast hit the Jews about ten years later when Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews in the empire.
70 YEARS POST CHURBAN Three years after the foiling of Haman’s plot, the prophet Chagai ordered the Jews to resume building the Bais Hamikdash (Chagai 1:1 & 7):
In the second year of King Daryavesh… the word of Hashem came by the hand of Chagai the prophet to Zerubavel ben Shaltiel the governor of Yehudah, and to Yehoshua ben Yehotzadak the Kohein Gadol saying…Go up to the mountain and bring wood and build the house of Hashem and I will have pleasure in it and be glorifi ed, said Hashem.
Simultaneously, from the bitter came forth sweetness. With Esther, the evil Achashverosh begot Daryavesh II (Esther Rabba 8:3), who decreed to resume the holy task of rebuilding after discovering Koresh’s decree in the archives (Ezra 6): Then King Daryavesh made a decree and they searched the archives…and there was found a scroll in which was written as follows…In the first year of King Koresh, King Koresh made a decree concerning Hashem’s house in Yerushalayim, let the house be built…[Daryavesh therefore commanded], Let the governor of the Jews and elders of the Jews build the house of Hashem in its place.
This new beginning occurred seventy years after the Temple’s destruction and the building was completed three years later in 3412/349 BCE.
In commemoration of his part in the Temple’s construction, Daryavesh II ordered that the Jews install an engraving of Shushan in the Bais Hamikdash. This engraving was placed on the eastern gate, known as Shushan Gate (Midos 1:3), which was used during the burning of the Parah Adumah, an event that has occurred only nine times in history. We will celebrate it for the tenth time after the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu.