The Book of Esther

by Lisa Leibow

Kings crown placed onto a pawn in the center of a chess board

Our annual day of drunken excess
Traces back two and a half thousand years,
To Shushan Kingdom, which stretched
Across one hundred lands from India
Over to Ethiopia.
The story starts with a sumptuous feast.
A six-month-long party at King’s castle,
Feet strolled on tile of onyx and garnets.
Where tapestries hung from purple tassels,
Wine flowed down gullets from golden goblets.

“These treasures pale near hot Vashti, my queen,”
I told them. “To prove it, I’ll force her to
Flaunt for you, my friends—to dance and to preen.”

I am very strong of opinion and mind.
I refuse to bare all for the masses.
I don’t care how many times my king whined.
Before giving in, I’d rather go blind.

Anger buried me as if avalanched.
My brow furrowed, lips trembled, and cheeks blanched.

We warned you about your queen’s defiance.
Vashti’s “no” to you breeds noncompliance
By all wives of Persia and of Shushan.
Vashti’s royal estate must be withdrawn.
You must tell your queen, “Get out. Be gone!”
Replace her with someone better than she,
So Persian wives will obey us with glee.

But I miss my Vashti, now that she’s gone.
So servants, send for each sweet young daughter.

For six months we cleansed with oil of myrrh.
While lodging at the Women’s House.
We cleansed in balms so fragrant.
For six months more, we drank fresh water.
The prize: be crowned the king’s new spouse.

I, a Jew, work at the palace,
Adopted orphaned cousin Esther fair.
I guided her to the maids over there.
I warned Esther, please beware of malice
If they discover that you are a Jew.
Too, don’t reveal I’m related to you.

I asked my assistant about Esther.
She said kind eyes and smooth skin impressed her.
So, Esther advanced to the king’s contest.

Though King loved me more than the rest,
Once crowned queen, I kept mum lest cousin detest.
The king celebrated with me, his mate
And magnificent new queen. He threw a
Wild party for servants and heads of state.

While the rest made merry, I, Mordecai,
Sat in the green garden at the king’s gate
And exposed a shameful scheme unforeseen,
Overheard two guards plot an evil thing.
They’d worked out the details to kill the king.
I hurried to tell Esther the empress.

Without delay, I alerted the king,
Noting Mordecai’s role in preventing
My change to black cypress mourning dress.

Because he stopped the evil guards’ machine,
Scribes, record Mordecai’s deed for your king.
The traitors hanged from two nooses on trees.
The act left my court with vacancies.
That’s when I hired Haman as chief prince,
Who commanded all to bow in reverence.

We king’s gate servants noticed something weird.
Mordecai looked away when Haman neared.
One asked Mordecai, “Refuse to bow? Why?”
Looking quite puzzled and stroking his beard,
Mordecai responded, “Jews aren’t allowed.”
We then checked to see if Haman minded.
About religious exceptions, he was
Blinkered (I mean, super narrow-minded).
Haman roared with immense indignation,
“Destroy every Jew across the nation!
Kill young and old on the very same day.
Cause Jews to perish. Take their spoils for prey.
A reward of silver to each who brings
End to Jews who place their laws above King’s.”

I granted the silver. “Do as you wish.”
I promptly handed Haman my gold ring.
And scribes penned what my main man would publish.

When the pronouncement reached Shushan Palace
And the garden, where I hid in waiting,
I tore clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes
At King’s gate, despite risk of whiplashes.

I scolded the maids for acting callous,
For gossiping about Mordecai’s cry,
Which was boisterous, bitter, and baffling.
I sent him clothing, a “What?” and a “Why?”
The response: “Petition the king to save
Your community, your people. Please try!”
I contemplated. I shook and I shivered.
I then swallowed courage from a chalice.

To enter the king’s inner court uncalled
Means certain death that can only be stalled
If King lifts his golden scepter this high.
The kill Jews decree can pierce these walls.
If I’m silent now, I may save myself.
A waste, if my entire family falls.
I must go to my husband unannounced
And take my chances. If I die, I die.

After three days shunning water and food,
I draped myself with emeralds and velvet.
I hoped to catch the king in a good mood.
At first there was silence as our eyes met.
The great king sat upon his royal throne,
Gleaming gold scepter resting by his side.
My right to exist the king would decide.
I moved very slow, finding him alone.

I then lifted my grand golden scepter,
Inviting my darling wife to draw near
With a glint in my eye and warm smile
My hand on scepter, Esther’s hand between.
“Even if you want half of my kingdom,
I would grant it to you, my precious queen.”

Relieved and suddenly famished, I then
Joined the king in feast of figs and fine wine.
And I asked him to join me tomorrow,
Requesting that Haman also come dine.

I answered, “Any words you wish to tell
Me are words that I desire to hear.”
Then, once again, I said to Queen Esther,
“Even if you want half of my kingdom,
I would grant it to you, my precious queen.
So a banquet is no problem, my dear.”

My Haman unsealed the invitation.
His glad heart swelled with immeasurable pride.
He smiled through his day, chest out, shoulders back.
He was thrilled with his newly earned station.
That is, until he bumped into Mordecai,
Who refused to bow down or step aside.

Haman held his hot rage, and hurried home
To faithful friends and me, his wife Zeresh.
He boasted, “I earned a huge promotion
Above the king’s princes and courtiers.”
He bragged, “Tomorrow I’m guest of honor
At Queen Esther’s banquet before the king.
Yet, good fortune is decidedly foiled
By my foe’s failure to defer to me.
I’m so frustrated. All else is spoiled!”
I said to him, “Now that you are master
Of princes, this should be easy to fix.”

I chimed in. “I have a great idea.
Build a gallows of fifty cubits high.”
(That means, seventy-five feet toward the sky.)
I urged, “Tomorrow, ask the king to hang Mordecai.”
Haman considered for a long moment,
While he fiddled with his three-cornered hat.
“Excellent plan. I’ll hang him tomorrow
And then banquet with the queen just like that.”
Haman and we minions manufactured,
Constructed crossbeams and scaffolds galore.
Before sunrise completed the gallows
Marked for the “Mission Mordecai No More.”

Late that same night, I tossed and turned in bed.
I counted sheep, yet this king failed to sleep.
I called my servant to read a report
Because boring books cure insomnia.
I charged, “Chamberlain, read the chronicles.
Recount all the gory details they keep.”
The servant obliged and recited court
Matters of magnitude and minutia.
When the chamberlain got to the record
Of Mordecai informing on the guards’
Plot to kill me, I stopped him and implored,
“How have we rewarded this Mordecai?”
Chamberlain replied, “With nothing, sire, why?”

Clattering outside the door made me ask,
“Who is in the court?”

Little did he know,
That’s when I arrived to make my request
To hang Mordecai on the gigantic
Gallows I erected for the poor schmo.
The servant announced, “Haman at the door.”
Achashverosh answered, “Let him come in”
And asked, “Haman, what way is best
For a ruler to honor a great man?”
I started shaking. I was ecstatic.

I was thinking, The king wants to honor me!
I said, “For the man you wish to honor,
Gift royal robes used by the king himself,
The horse that knows the king as its jockey,
And the crown that sits upon the king’s head.
Convey these robes, horse, and jewels to the gent
By one of the king’s most noble princes.”
I paced, gesturing and imagining
Wearing the royal crown. On I went.
“The king’s prince should decorate this great man,
And lead him through the streets of the city,
Shouting, ‘This is what happens to a great
Man who receives the king’s greatest honor!’”

The king applauded. “That idea’s pretty!
Hurry, take the apparel and the horse.
Honor Mordecai the Jew at my gate.
Do all you planned. Spare no nitty-gritty.”

I stopped in my tracks, utterly speechless.
A bomb exploded inside of my brain.
The king’s honor for Mordecai, not me?
Profound resentment was causing me pain.
Alas, I then swallowed my jagged pill.
I had no choice but to obey the king.
I took robe, crown, and horse to Mordecai.
Obligated to give my foe a thrill.

I led him on horseback through city streets.
“This is what happens to a great man who
Receives the king’s greatest honor!” A Jew?!

After the parade, we two men parted.
I returned to work at the king’s palace,
Finishing the day’s chores I had started.

Haman raced home, hiding his face in shame,
Feeling humiliation and self-blame.
The man complained about his awful day
To me, his wife, to his faithful flunkies,
And to anyone else who might have cared.
We were on the verge of making a plan,
Abba dabba dabbing like mad monkeys.
Interrupted by the arrival of
The king’s chariot to hurry Haman
To the banquet that Esther had prepared.

I sipped sweet wine with my Esther so dear.
I leaned in whispering into her ear.
“Even if you want half of my kingdom,
I would grant it to you, my precious queen.”
Esther nibbled my neck, which I enjoyed.
She whispered something that made me think some.
“Please, love, protect my life and my people’s.
For we are sold to be slain and destroyed.”
Quite shocked, I scoffed. “What do you mean?
Who would dare such a thing?” I threw an apple.
With voice as strong as twisted hemp, Esther
Revealed, “The villain is wicked Haman.”

Stink of fear beaded up on Haman’s brow
As he kowtowed before Esther, my queen.
I stormed out from the banquet in anger.

Haman’s begging became forceful and mean.
His rage the most scary I’d ever seen.
He tore my fine silk, poising to plunder
At the moment King returned to the place.
“Force, too, my queen in my palace, you beast!”
Could I have fended him off? I wonder.
King’s soldiers swooped in, seizing vile Haman
And pulling a dark mask over his face.
One shouted loud, “King, look, to the sky.
He’s built a gallows out there in the east.
It’s for the man who saved you—Mordecai.”
Pointing east, the king ruled, “Hang him there now.”

The king repossessed his ring from Haman.
The king confiscated the villain’s home.
Then forced him to climb the rickety steps
Up and up and up fifty cubits high.
The man scaled the support of his last day.
Face shrouded, noose around neck, and steady
On a scaffold awaiting his shalom.
We guards hoisted wicked Haman to sway
From the gallows he’d built for Mordecai.

“Mordecai is like a father to me,”
At last, I revealed to my spouse the king.
And upon hearing this surprising news
The king rewarded Mordecai’s station
By bestowing Haman’s house and the ring.
It was a start but not yet sufficient.
I fell at the king’s feet. I cried and begged.
“Please, stop Haman’s mad plan against the Jews.”
The king extended the golden scepter
Ordering me to rise. I pleaded
And argued my case with style efficient.
“How can I survive if I see this sin?
Or if I witness the ruin of my kin?
Write to reverse Haman’s laws to kill Jews—
Revise the orders to every nation.”

Then I said to Esther and Mordecai,
“Look, I already gave you the man’s house
Already hanged him upon the gallows.
History will recall him as a louse.
Isn’t that enough? What more do you want?”
Queen looked to her uncle and confidant.
The twosome consulted and insisted,
“We want a drafted decree for the Jews,
Signed the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring,
So no person can reverse the decree.”

So, I called my scribes and promptly proclaimed
Mordecai the commander of the Jews.
He granted consent for Jews to gather,
To stand for their lives, protect, and defend
Against aggressors who kill, maim, and bruise.
He declared a day to retaliate.
Any Jewish man who reclaimed his fate
By any means needed would not be blamed.

Riders carried the law via horses,
Mules, and camels—one hump as well as two.
Over mountains, across rivers, through sands
From India to Ethiopia,
All the way through Shushan’s one hundred lands.

So proud, I strutted from Shushan Palace
Dressed in satin like cirrus and the sky.
I wore on my head a great golden crown.
On shoulders a shawl of amethyst sheen.
Shushan the city rejoiced and was glad
As I marched through the streets beside Esther.
In every province, in every city,
The moment that the king’s command arrived,
Shouts jet to heavens: “Hooray!” and “egad!”
The Jews found honor and integrity.

When the day of the king’s decree drew near,
Frightened of what our neighbors had in store
Jews gathered in cities throughout the land
To defend against all who raised a hand
Against them. In the king’s deputies and
Lieutenants and majors they found backers.
With this support the Jews’ sureness buoyed.
Enemies rose against allied forces.
Mordecai’s people fought the attackers,
Destroying instead of being destroyed.
They killed three hundred men in Shushan and
Fended off five thousand seventy more.
That day was feared, mourned in lamentation.
But nightfall brought joy and celebration.

Since that moment, we mark the day yearly.
Esther’s story is recounted dearly
While Haman’s name brings on noise to excess.
With costumes, carnivals, Hamantashen
We drink so much we forget our address.

Category: Featured, Poetry