1) WHY WERE THE JEWS DESERVING OF PUNISHMENT?
QUESTIONS: The students of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai suggested that the Jewish people were threatened with annihilation in the times of Haman because they sinned by partaking of the banquet of Achashverosh. Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai asked that if this was the cause for being punished with such a threat, why were the people outside of Shushan -- who did not partake of the banquet -- also threatened with annihilation? Rather, Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai explained that the Jewish people were punished because they bowed down to an idol during the reign of Nevuchadnetzar. His students countered that if that was their sin, why did they deserve to be saved through a miracle in the times of Purim? Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai answered that since they did not actually worship the idol but merely made it look as though they were worshipping it (in order to avoid harsh repercussions), Hash-m punished them by merely making it look as though they were going to be destroyed.
Why did the students ask this question only on the explanation of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai? Even according to their own explanation (that the people sinned by partaking of the banquet of Achashverosh), the Jews did not deserve to be saved.
Moreover, what was the basis for their question in the first place? Perhaps the Jewish people repented and that is why they deserved to be saved. Genuine Teshuvah saves the sinner even if he actually sinned, and certainly when he merely gave the appearance of sinning.
(a) RAV TZVI ELIMELECH of Dinov (in REI'ACH DUDA'IM) explains that when a person sins his form of repentance must correspond to the sin he committed. In the case of Purim, the Jewish people repented by fasting for three days. If their sin was that they participated in the feast of Achashverosh, it is logical that they repented by fasting for three days. They were saved as a result of their repentance. However, if they sinned by bowing down to an idol, repentance by fasting would not have corresponded to their sin and would not have been a proper form of Teshuvah, and the people would not have deserved to be saved. For this reason, the students of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai did not accept his explanation of how the people sinned.
(b) Another answer may be suggested based on the commentary of the VILNA GA'ON and others (see ABARBANEL, YOSEF OMETZ, MALBIM) on the verses in Esther (3:12-14) which describe the messages that Haman sent to all parts of the empire. The first verse (v. 12) relates that Haman sent letters to the Achashdarpenim (satraps) of the king and to the Pachos (governors) of each province. In this letter, Haman wrote that they should destroy all of the Jews on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (v. 13). The verse (v. 14) then repeats that a "synopsis of the writing was to be given out as a decree in every province, [it was to be] revealed to all the peoples that they should be ready for that day."
The verses imply that Haman sent two different letters -- one to the rulers and another one to all of the people. What were the contents of these two different letters?
The commentators explain that Haman was afraid to send an open letter -- for all to read -- with a proclamation that the Jews should be killed on the thirteenth of Adar, because such a public announcement would warn the Jews to his intentions and enable them to find some way to thwart his plan. He therefore sent a detailed letter only to the rulers of each province, telling them that the Jews were to be killed on the thirteenth of Adar, and that the plan should be kept secret until that day. However, he also needed to notify the population at large to prepare for battle, since they could not be notified at the last minute in a kingdom as large as Persia. He therefore sent out a public letter, warning all of the people to be prepared for battle on the thirteenth of Adar and to attack whomever the leaders tell them to attack. The Megilah calls the first letter the "Devar ha'Melech" ("the [private] word of the king"), and it calls the second letter the "Das ha'Melech" ("the decree of the king").
This explains why the verse later (4:3) says that "in every province -- wherever the word of the king and his decree reached -- there was great mourning for the Jews." Why does the verse say, "in every province -- wherever the word of the king... reached"? It should say, "in all provinces, there was great mourning for the Jews." The answer is that in many provinces of the empire, the Jews were not in mourning because they did not know what the confidential "Devar ha'Melech" said, and they had no idea who was going to be attacked. Only in specific provinces, where Jews held positions of prominence and were privy to the classified information contained in the "Devar ha'Melech," did the Jews mourn because they knew about the terrifying contents of the "Devar ha'Melech" as well as the "Das ha'Melech." When Esther begged the king to rescind the decree, he allowed her to send out a new proclamation to replace the first letter; the new proclamation declared that the people should battle and destroy not the Jewish people, but the people of Amalek.
According to this explanation, the Jews outside of Shushan were not aware of the edict to kill the Jews, and thus they obviously did not know that they needed to repent for any sin. The people in Shushan, however, found out about the contents of the edict through Mordechai, and thus they embarked on a major campaign of Teshuvah.
This was the question of the students of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai: if the Jews were being punished because they participated in the banquet of Achashverosh, then only the Jews in Shushan deserved to be killed. They were spared because they repented. Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai asked that the sin of participating in the banquet could not have been the cause for the threat to the Jews outside of Shushan (who were also threatened with destruction), for they did not participate in the banquet. It must be that the threat of destruction was a punishment for all of the Jews from all of the provinces for their sin of bowing down to the idol in the times of Nevuchadnetzar. However, since they committed that sin only out of fear and not with genuine intent to worship the idol, Hash-m punished them by merely frightening them; He never intended to carry out the threat and let them be killed.
2) AGADAH: "MEMUCHAN" IS HAMAN WHO IS "PREPARED FOR PUNISHMENT"
QUESTIONS: The Gemara says that the name "Memuchan" in Megilas Esther refers to Haman who was "Muchan l'Pur'anos" (prepared, or destined, for punishments).
(a) How does the name "Memuchan" imply punishments?
(b) If Haman was "prepared for punishments," he should have been called "Muchan" and not "Memuchan." What is the point of the extra letter "Mem"?
(a) The Gemara in Chagigah (12b) relates that there are seven firmaments, each of which serves a different purpose. The sixth firmament is called "Mechon" and contains the elements of destructive weather which Hash-m sends to the world when necessary. RASHI there explains that the word "Mechon" means "prepared for punishment," as the verse says, "Nachonu la'Letzim Shefatim" -- "Punishments are prepared for the scoffers" (Mishlei 19:29). This verse is evidently the source for the Gemara here which says that "Memuchan" implies punishments.
(b) RABEINU BACHYE (Bereishis 36:12) writes that the Name of Hash-m which has the power to defeat Amalek is the Name of forty letters. Thus, Haman was called "Memuchan" -- "Muchan" because he was prepared for punishment, and "Memuchan" because it is the Holy Name of forty letters (the Gematriya of Mem is forty) which would bring about that punishment.
The number forty is mentioned in several places in the context of Haman's defeat. The Midrash states that the pole upon which Haman was hanged was fifty Amos high, but ten Amos were embedded into the ground, and thus Haman's body was suspended forty Amos above the ground. The Targum (Esther 9:14) says that the bodies of Haman and his sons, who were hanged one after the other, occupied forty cubits of the fifty-cubit pole. In that sense Haman indeed was "punished" by the number forty (the forty cubits of the pole).
In addition, the Targum Sheni (an Aramaic Midrash on Megilas Esther; 2:5) says that Mordechai was exactly the fortieth generation after Yakov Avinu. Hence, Mordechai and his generation were the "forty" that struck Haman. (M. KORNFELD)
3) AGADAH: MORDECHAI'S POWER OF PRAYER
The Gemara teaches that all of the words which the Megilah uses to describe Mordechai (Esther 2:5) refer to his power of prayer. He was called "Ben Ya'ir" because he was the son (Ben) who lit up (Ya'ir) the eyes of the Jews with his prayers. He was called "Ben Shim'i" because he was the son (Ben) to whom Hash-m listened (Shama) when he prayed. He was called "Ben Kish" because he knocked (Hikish) on the gates of mercy with his prayers and they opened for him.
This attribute of Mordechai -- the quality of his prayer -- is evident even in his commonly-used name, "Mordechai." The Gemara (10b) teaches that the name "Mordechai" alludes to "the choicest of the spices" in the verse, "You shall take for yourself choice spices: Mor Dror..." (Shemos 30:23), which Targum Onkelus translates as "Meira Dachya" ("pure myrrh"), from which the word "Mordechai" is derived.
The "Meira Dachya" in the Ketores, the incense offering, served to forge a bond between Hash-m and the Jewish people. Similarly, Mordechai, through his power of prayer, brought the Jewish people close to Hash-m. Prayer accomplishes the same thing as the Ketores, as the verse says, "Let my prayer stand as incense before You" (Tehilim 141:2; see also Kerisus 6b). Mordechai was vested with the power of the Ketores ("Meira Dachya") to bring the Jewish people close to Hash-m, and thus he excelled in Tefilah.
This particular attribute of Mordechai was the most suitable one to use in the battle against Haman. Haman was descended from Amalek, the nation which embodies the power of the Tum'ah of Esav as represented by his heavenly counterpart, the Satan (RASHI to Sukah 29a, DH Elokeha). The Gemara in Bava Basra (16a) says that the Satan and the Mal'ach ha'Maves are one and the same. Accordingly, Amalek, whose heavenly counterpart is the Mal'ach ha'Maves, is the embodiment of Misah, death, and thus Haman's lineage suited him well for his plan to annihilate the Jewish people. (Similarly, the Gemara in Chulin (139b) says that Haman's name is hinted to in the verse, "ha'Min ha'Etz..." (Bereishis 3:11), in which Hash-m rebukes Adam ha'Rishon for eating from the Tree of Life and bringing death into the world. Moreover, the Midrash compares Haman to the Nachash (Vayikra Rabah 15:9; Esther Rabah, introduction #5), the animal which persuaded Chavah to eat from the Tree of Life and thereby bring death into the world.)
The Gemara in Shabbos (89a) relates that the Mal'ach ha'Maves taught Moshe Rabeinu that Ketores has the power to stop the devastation of a plague (Magefah) sent by the Mal'ach ha'Maves. Mordechai was able to prevent Haman from carrying out his plan to destroy the Jewish people because Mordechai embodied the attribute of the Ketores. He successfully endeared the Jewish people to Hash-m through his Tefilah and thereby thwarted the plans of Haman. (M. KORNFELD; see also DERUSHIM NECHEMADIM of the MAHARAM SHIF, printed after Maseches Chulin.)
It is interesting to note that the word "Amalek" appears as an acronym (either as Roshei Teivos, the first letters of four consecutive words, or as Sofei Teivos, the last letters of four consecutive words) only once in all of Tanach, in the verse, "Al Mizbechi L'Haktir Ketores" -- "... to ascend upon my altar to burn Ketores" (Shmuel I 2:28)! In addition, the letters of the word "Amalek" appear as the first letters of four consecutive words in a different order in the verse, "Zos Asu Kechu Lachem Machtos" (Bamidbar 16:6), which refers to the Ketores offering of Korach. (SEFER NIFLA'OS MI'TORASECHA by Rav Mordechai Aran)
(For more on the allusions contained within the names of the central personalities in the events of Purim, see Insights to Chulin 139:4