Chapter 7 of Megillas Esther is the climax of the story, where Esther reveals to Achashveirosh what Haman is plotting. Chapter 8 starts with Esther sharing her relationship to Mordechai with Achashveirosh, and Achashveirosh turning over Haman's estate and possessions to them. The Megillah then continues and tells us that Esther made another request of the King (8:5):
וַ֠תֹּ֠אמֶר אִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ ט֜וֹב וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו וְכָשֵׁ֤ר הַדָּבָר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו יִכָּתֵ֞ב לְהָשִׁ֣יב אֶת־הַסְּפָרִ֗ים מַחֲשֶׁ֜בֶת הָמָ֤ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֙תָא֙ הָאֲגָגִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּתַ֗ב לְאַבֵּד֙ אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּכׇל־מְדִינ֥וֹת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ
It's now out in the open (as opposed to earlier, where Achashveirosh could claim plausible deniability) that Haman was plotting genocide against the Jews, his beloved Queen's people. It's out in the open that Mordechai, the leader of the Jews, had saved Achashveirosh from assassination, proving his fidelity and service to the King. At this point, you would think that Esther has a right to say to Achashveirosh, "Come on -- you owe us one." But even were that not the case, even were there no relationship between Achashveirosh and Esther, or no relationship between Esther and Mordechai, how could Achashveirosh possibly let those letters of Haman stand? We're talking about a call for an unprovoked attack against and innocent people. Even the cruelest dictator tries to invent some pretext to justify his cruelty, if only to avoid the cognitive dissonance of thinking oneself a civilized person while committing atrocities.
Esther shouldn't even have had to ask, but look at the language she uses:
וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו ... וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו
The words ־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן imply that this is a special favor, something Achashveirosh maybe will do out of love for Esther, out of special consideration for her.
Not only does she have to ask, she has to beg.
Esther understood something that seems to still not have sunk into the heads of many people.
I saw an interview quoting someone in the Ukraine who said, "People did not believe in their wildest dreams that such a thing would happen. That in 2022, we are going to talk about a full invasion and an all-out bombardment of citizens. This is literally coming out of 1941..."
You know what they said in 1941? They said, "People did not believe in their wildest dreams that such a thing would happen. This is literally out of 1916."
The shock and surprise come because we delude ourselves into thinking that now, this year, this time around, things have changed, that we live in a liberal, humane society with morals and norms that protect the innocent from harm, that promote fairness and justice, that ensure good triumphs and evil is defeated.
Esther was under no such delusions. וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן. That's the only currency that really matters in the end. Appealing to Achashveirosh's spirit of tolerance, his ethics, his humanity, are not enough. It sadly just boils down to whim and caprice, to finding favor today, and who knows what tomorrow may bring.
I was recently reading Dara Horn's book People Love Dead Jews and one fact she throws out caught my eye: there are thousands of chasidei umot ha'olam recognized by Yad vaShem, which seems like a large number, but it actually is not even a drop in the bucket compared with the millions who sat on the sidelines and did nothing, or even worse, assisted. Liberal values, tolerance, shared humanity -- kumbaya -- it was all meaningless in the end. וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן, and if not, there is sadly nothing to talk about.
This is a sobering, sad, pessimistic view of human nature (I think I saw this pshat in Ohr Yahel from R' Leib Chasman, but I couldn't find it there when I looked again) that is not the sort of thing you want to think about on Purim. No one ever really wants to think about it, and so we blind ourselves to the precariousness of our situation.
Let me give you something a little more optimistic to munch on. Why did Esther call that first party for Haman and Achashveirosh? Nothing really happened other than her inviting them back for a second party?
R' Tzadok haKohen writes in Pri Tzadik (2):
ונראה שלא ידעה אסתר באיזו אופן יהיה הנס ואולי תפעול על ידי הסעודה שהמן ישלים אתה וידבר טוב על ישראל והיינו שסברה שישוב המן בתשובה. ועל פי זה נבין מ"ש במדרש (משלי ט׳:ב׳) טבחה טבחה מסכה יינה זו אסתר המלכה כו' התקינה סעודה לאחשורוש ולהמן הרשע כו' וראש הפרשה חכמות בנתה ביתה וגו' ומשמע דמדבר מחכמת התורה וכן נדרש במדרש (שם) זו התורה שבנתה כל העולמות ע"ש. רק המכוון שרצתה לעורר בו בהמן השורש קדושה שהיה בו בהעלם ניצוצות קדושות דנשמת ר"ש בר שילת וזהו מסכה יינה יינא דאורייתא דבעל פה עד"ש (זח"ג רעא ב) וסברה שאולי על ידי זה ישוב בתשובה וידבר טוב על ישראל. וזה שנאמר ויצא המן ביום ההוא שמח וטוב לב ובכ"מ מורה טוב לב שנתיישר הלב לטוב להיות לב א' לאביו שבשמים והיאך יתכן לכתוב כן על המן הרשע. ובמ"ר ע"ף כטוב לב המלך בין איתא או"ה אין להם טובה כו' בטוב לב אין כ' כאן אלא כטוב לב המלך טובה ואינה טובה ואיך אה"כ על המן שמח וטוב לב. אך לפי האמור יש לומר דאז לפי שעה יצא ממשתה אסתר שמח וטוב לב כרגע שעוררה בו אסתר הניצוצות קדושות מנשמת ר"ש בר שילת שהוא מקדושת תורה שבעל פה.
The descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak. There was some spark of goodness, of Torah, buried deep within even Haman. Esther thought she could bring it out and be mekareiv him. That's why she asked him to dine with her.
Most of us can't even imagine ourselves standing on a street corner like a chabad chassid and asking someone, a Jew, to put on tefillin. Can you imagine what it must be to even have a hava amina that you could be mekareiv Haman?
And Esther succeeded! For a moment at least, Haman was 'sameich v'tov lev,' he turned a corner. The only problem is that he bumped into Mordechai and immediately reverted back to old form.
The Ben Ish Chai points out (see Alshich, Malbim, others) that in the pasuk we started with there are four distinct phrases packed into Esther's request:
1. אִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ ט֜וֹב
2. אִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו
3. כָשֵׁ֤ר הַדָּבָר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ
4. וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו
Why four? These, he says, correspond to the four levels of limud haTorah, of pshat, remez, derush, v'sod.
It's the koach haTorah that can turn around a Haman. It's the koach haTorah that somehow -- and I cannot explain how -- can turn the heart of Achashveirosh into one that finds the חֵ֣ן in Esther and does the right thing. Purim is not about how the citizens of Shushan suddenly discovered the liberal values they shared with us and therefore spared our lives and got rid of Haman. It's about kiymu k'kiblu, about kabbalas haTorah 2.0, because those are the only values that ensure our survival.