Purim: Correcting the Mistake of the Jews of Shushan
The Gemara teaches that the Jews of the time of the Purim story were initially deserving of annihilation "because they enjoyed the feast of that wicked person." The Jews of Shushan participated in the lavish feast which Ahashverosh hosted, the feast described at the beginning of the Megilla, and for this they were condemned to death, until they repented and annulled the decree.
What exactly was the Jews’ sin? Why was their participation considered such a grave infraction that they deserved annihilation?
In a different passage, the Gemara teaches that at this feast, Ahashverosh wore the special garments that the Kohen Gadol would wear in the Bet Ha’mikdash. This is the clothing that the king decided to wear at this feast. The Gemara reaches this conclusion based on the Megilla’s description of Ahashverosh displaying at his feast "Yekar Tiferet Gedulato" ("the glorious splendor of his greatness" – 1:4), and the priestly garments are described as being worn "Le’kavod U’le’tifaret" ("for honor and splendor" – Shemot 28:2).
For what reason did Ahashverosh decide to wear specifically these clothes at the party? What message was he trying to convey to the Jews?
The lesson of the Bigdeh Kehuna (priestly garments) is that we are to take the delights and beauty of our physical world and elevate them, by using them for sacred purposes. The Kohen Gadol’s garments were magnificent, made with golden thread and the finest dyes, and they were used for Kedusha, for holiness, to serve G-d. One of our most important jobs as observant Jews is to sanctify the mundane, to elevate the physical world by utilizing it in the service of G-d. Adam and Hava sinned in Gan Eden by partaking of the physical world in violation of G-d’s command, and we correct their sin by partaking of the physical world in serving G-d and bringing Him honor. This is the symbolism of the priestly garments.
Significantly, the Gemara does not say that the Jews deserved annihilation because they ate at Ahashverosh’s party. Rather, it says that they were deserving of annihilation because they "enjoyed" the feast. They lost sight of their sacred mission to elevate the mundane, and they indulged for the sake of indulgence, purely for their physical enjoyment. When Ahashverosh saw the Jews betraying one of their most important and cherished values, he donned the Bigdeh Kehuna, as though telling them, "You’re no better than us. You’re no more special than us. You indulge just like we do. You don’t deserve the priestly garments any more than we do."
This was Ahashverosh’s message: that the Jews no longer deserved the priestly garments, because they no longer lived according to the ideal that these special garments represented – the ideal of sanctifying the mundane.
And thus the Megilla relates that when Ester prepared to approach Ahashverosh, "Va’tilbash Ester Malchut" – "Ester donned royalty" (5:1). She wore her garments for the sake of "Malchut" – referring to the Kingship of G-d. In order to correct the Jews’ vanity and indulgence, she wore her royal garb for the sake of Hashem, and not for vain purposes.
With this in mind, we can perhaps understand the otherwise perplexing custom cited by the Mishna Berura (695:2) that one wears Shabbat clothes on Purim, and he comes home from the synagogue to lit candles and a set table, prepared for a festive meal. According to this custom, Purim evening is like Shabbat – one wears Shabbat clothing, and the candles are lit and the table is set, just like on Friday night. The explanation might be that Shabbat, too, represents the notion of elevating the physical pleasures of the world. On Shabbat, we enjoy fine delicacies and wear our finest clothing – but in an atmosphere of Kedusha, for the sake of spirituality and as part of our effort to uplift ourselves. This is precisely the message that was lost on the Jews of Shushan, and the message which we need to reinforce through our Purim celebration.
At no point on the Jewish calendar do we indulge like we indulge on Purim. We do so in order to correct the mistake of our ancestors in Persia, to remind ourselves that the delights and pleasures of this world are given to us in order for us to elevate them and make them sacred, by utilizing them in the service of Hashem. There is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the comforts and delights of the world – but only if we are mindful at all times of the purpose for which we have been brought into this world, that we are here not to indulge, but to serve our Creator.