The past few months have brought a lot of high-profile, last-minute shake-ups. Pollsters were wrong about the presidential elections. If you left the room two minutes before the end of the Superbowl, you would have missed an astonishing and unexpected win. If you missed the very last award of the Oscars last week, you didn't see a group of people on stage with their jaws wide open when the right winner was announced and the retinue of the wrong ones had to get off the stage. Oy.
What makes each event so dramatic is that our expectations are upended very late in the game. We move mentally in the groove that's been set, but as it travels it may change rapidly and leave us all emotionally and physically unprepared. That's why I hate surprises. But many people love them for this very reason. They make life feel unpredictable. They give people who lost hope, a magical injection of hope on steroids, and they let us know that we need to pay more attention. Every once in a while, if we're paying careful attention, we will enjoy the reward. We all want, maybe even need, to believe that the impossible happens sometimes.
We just welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, which comes with its own holiday of surprises. Purim celebrates the impossible, and perhaps we have so many rituals connected to the holiday to immerse us in the belief that the impossible sometimes happens. Because it happened in an ancient walled city thousands of years ago, who's to say that it cannot happen again to us? The chapter that arguably surfaces the most surprises is chapter six, when through a series of "coincidences," King Ahashversoh finally sees two influential ministers for who they really are. We will read a swath of the megillah to see how this plays out.
"That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Ahashverosh. 'What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?' the king asked. 'Nothing has been done for him,' his attendants answered. The king said, 'Who is in the court?' Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him. His attendants answered, 'Haman is standing in the court.' 'Bring him in," the king ordered. When Haman entered, the king asked him, 'What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?' Now Haman thought to himself, Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?'" (Esther 6:1-7)
The king's sleep is described in Hebrew as interrupted. He is unable to rest, Rashi says, because he suspects that Haman is up to no good with his new beautiful bride Esther. Historical chronicles are brought, as Rashi notes, to help him go back to sleep. Others are of the view that history is so interesting that once the king was awake, he should spend his time on something worthwhile: history. When reading his empire's chronicles, the king realizes that a loyal servant who blocked an assassination attempt had not been rewarded. Perhaps the assassination attempt itself had not reached the king's ears and reading it for the first time, he felt insecure. Insecurity coupled with suspicion helps explain the king's sudden and startling question, "Who is in the courtyard?"
Just as the king is thinking about rewarding Mordechai, Haman enters the scene readying the gallows for Mordechai's death. The king takes advantage of this moment to test Haman and see how close this minister wants to get to Ahashverosh's throne. The answer: very close.
This escalation of tension is built one surprise and a time. Each surprise leads to another that culminates in the biggest surprise, the gift the Jews are given to defend themselves when under attack. The underdog wins yet again because these surprises reveal something powerful about two antagonists. The king is finally able to see Mordechai for he is and Haman for who he is. Only after the acts of seeing in chapter six, does the plot truly thicken. One man's insomnia leads to the redemption of an entire people. Who would have thought?
Esther is a story that gives us hope, one surprise at a time. The oppression of its early beginnings, as the wheels of injustice are set in place, give way to a longer view that justice will eventually reign. We are only prepared for this big surprise through a series of small surprises strung together. It is this necklace of hope that leaves us with the scroll's most powerful teaching. Celebrate each small surprise, and the great surprises will eventually become a cause for great celebration. Hope thrives on the element of surprise.
When is the last time you were truly surprised?