Esther comes from the Hebrew word hester (הסתר), which means ‘hidden.’ Megilla (מגילה), ‘scroll,’ is related to the word ligalot (לגלות), which means ‘to reveal.’ The challenge of reading Megillat Esther is to reveal the hidden messages veiled within the exciting plot. At first glance, the story seems to be one of royal intrigue, power, wealth and politics. Superficially, the events of the Megilla seem to be the result of the whims of an intoxicated king. The name of God does not appear even once in the entire story, making Megillat Esther the only book of the Tanakh that does not mention His holy name. The reader’s job, therefore, is to uncover Hashem’s hidden hand guiding what appears to be a string of coincidences.
Megillat Esther contains an account of events that took place when the Jewish people were living in Persia. Following the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash at the hands of the Babylonians, the Jews were exiled to Babylon. Not long afterwards, the Babylonians were defeated by Cyrus, king of Persia, and the Jewish residents of Babylon found themselves under Persian rule. The story of Esther takes place against this backdrop of Persian exile.
Cyrus the Great was the first Persian king to control Babylon. In the first year of his reign he made a famous decree, granting permission for the Jews to return to Yerushalayim and rebuild their Temple (Ezra 1:1-3). Unfortunately, not many heeded the call. Though construction of the Beit Hamikdash begins soon after this first, small, wave of exiles return, it is quickly halted. It is not until the second year of King Darius’s reign that construction of the Temple resumes, and it is finally completed in Darius’s sixth year. Jewish tradition places King Ahasuerus between Cyrus and Darius. The Sages even suggest that Darius was the son of Ahasuerus and Esther. In their opinion, the story of Esther takes place after the Cyrus declaration, but before the reconstruction of the Beit Hamikdash and so the Jews of the story are the very ones who disregard the decree of Cyrus and choose to remain in exile rather than returning to Eretz Yisrael to participate in the reconstruction of the Temple and Yerushalayim.
According to the Sages (Megilla 11a), Ahasuerus halted the reconstruction of the Beit Hamikdash, and he throws a feast when he believes that the Jews have been forsaken and will never return to Yerushalayim. He deliberately offers Esther only “half the kingdom,” (Esther 5:3) refusing to restart the construction of the Beit Hamikdash. Mordechai, a former citizen of Yerushalayim living in Shushan, the capital of the Persian empire, is teaching about the Beit Hamikdash and putting aside money for its construction. At the same time, however, the Jews of the Persian Empire have weakened their connection to Eretz Yisrael. They could have immigrated to Israel years before during Cyrus’ rule, but instead opted to remain in exile. The opening of Megillat Esther even finds them at Ahasuerus’s feast where the Temple vessels are on display. It has been suggested that the events of the story, and the evil decree of Haman, were Divine retribution for forsaking the Land of Israel and the Beit Hamikdash.
The miracle of the story of Esther carries an important message to the people of that time, and for all ages. Living in exile, the Jews felt physically distanced from their land, and spiritually distanced from their God. They no longer deserved the open miracles they had experienced in the past in their homeland. Nevertheless, the story of Esther teaches that Hashem has not, and will not, abandon His people. Although He is hidden in exile, He is very much present, pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The God who created the world and who split the sea is the same God who deposed Vashti, chose Esther and hanged Haman.
In a subtle way, Megillat Esther reminds exiled Jews throughout the ages of some very fundamental ideas. First, they must never forsake Yerushalayim, but must remember her no matter where they find themselves. Second, even outside of Israel, where Hashem’s presence is less obvious, they must discover and reveal the hidden God, and must see Him in all aspects of day-to-day life, not just in open miracles. And finally, they must always remember that Hashem will never forsake His promise to return the children of Israel to the land of Israel.