"On that night, the sleep of the king was disturbed and he said to bring the Book of Memories, the Chronicles of the Days, and that they should be read before the king. And it was found written that Mordechai had informed on Bigtan and Teresh, the two eunuchs of the king who had attempted to assassinate King Achashverosh. And the king said: 'What appreciation and grandeur has been Mordechai's for this?' And the young attendants of the king said: 'Nothing was done for him.' " Scroll of Esther 6:1-3
Before we had kids, I used to read my wife to sleep. I have a soothing voice and it was a nice way to unwind together at the end of a long day. Inevitably, she used to fall asleep before the end of the chapter. At first, I would continue reading aloud until the end and then put it down. Then, I stopped reading aloud once I could tell that she was asleep. Finally, I started to cheat and read ahead. Pretty soon, I was done with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and she still didn't even know about the Marauder's map.
When King Achashverosh couldn't sleep, he also called for a bed-time story, the Book of Memories. Presumably, this was propaganda about the bravery and valor of the king or perhaps a deathly boring account of the kingdom's goings-on, kind of like reading the Congressional Record. Either way, the hope was that it would soothe the poor king back to sleep. This is the way that Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th c. France) first interprets the story.
But Rashi also brings a second explanation for why the king can't sleep. Imagine lying there in your bed, anxious and stiff as a board, sure that you had forgotten to do something that was of critical importance. Is there a major appointment tomorrow that I forgot to put in my iPhone? Did I leave the sprinklers on? Did I forget to pick up the kids at school? What was that proof of the Pythagorean theorem? Sometimes, you can't get back to sleep until you figure out what's eating at you. Perhaps this is why Achashverosh's sleep is disturbed. The muddled monarch knew that he had forgotten something really important, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.
What was it that the king had forgotten?
According to Rashi, the king felt sure that he had forgotten to thank someone. But he couldn't quite put his finger on who. Or why. So the king called for the Book of Memories. According to one interpretation (Malbim), the Book of Memories was an independent private account of important things for the king to remember. Thus, it was more than good bed-time reading; it was the perfect trigger for a king who was sure he had forgotten something. Lo and behold, the king finds out that Mordechai had saved his life many years ago and never been properly honored or thanked. The reason that the king has 'forgotten' this is because Haman had falsified the public record, replacing Mordechai's name with… his own! Nor is this some insignificant detail, for it is this act of falsified heroism that earned Haman his stripes on his steep political climb to second-in-command of the Persian Empire!
At that very moment (or so the Megilla makes it seem) Haman is on his way over to the king's palace. It seems that he also can't sleep, because he has been scheming about how to get royal permission to hang Mordechai on the private gallows he has erected in his backyard. (What kind of a guy has a private gallows?!) Also, hiding in the back of the king's mind is that the only other person besides the king that the queen has invited to her two special feasts is Haman. Is Haman friend or foe?…
When Haman arrives, the king asks a leading question: how would you honor someone who the king thinks is very special? Once again, Haman inserts his name instead of Mordechai's and betrays his true intentions: to be the king! He suggests:
"For a man whom the king desires to show his worth: let the royal clothes be brought (those which the king wears!) and a horse that the king rides upon and upon which the crown of kingship is placed upon his head. And let a man from the Presidential Guard be given the clothes and the horse and let him dress the man who the king desires to show his worth with the clothes and ride him on the horse through the streets of the city…."
The king humbles Haman – of whom he has now become suspicious -- by instructing him to do exactly this to his arch-nemesis Mordechai. In doing so, he also gives Mordechai his long-overdue reward for saving the king's life.
The sleeplessness of the king is a turning point, one in which many disparate elements of the Purim story suddenly cascade together. It may even be the central (hidden) miracle of the holiday. After all, who was it that whispered to the king to wake him up if not God and His angels? In the words of Rashi (to the Talmud, Megillah 15b):
"the angels were frightening him all night, saying to him (accusingly) 'You
are an ingrate! Pay back the good that has been done to you!' "
According to this, the message of the angels to the king – and to us – is that lack of gratitude is something to lose sleep over. We should show appreciation, honor and friendship to those who show it to us. We should send them gifts, say packages of fine food and drink (mishloach manot) and invite them to lavish meals at our homes (the Purim feast.)
Let me add one final observation:
The name of God is not mentioned in the Megillah, not even once. But there is an ancient tradition that says that whenever "the King" is mentioned (as opposed to "the king Achashverosh") it can be read as a hidden reference to the King of Kings. (The tradition makes no mention of Elvis) Thus, when the Megillah says "the king's sleep was disturbed," the Talmud suggests "it was the sleep of the King of the Universe that was disturbed."
Even though there is no real sleeplessness or forgetfulness before God, God too was restless on this night. He had hidden His face from His people, allowing the wicked Haman to bring them to the brink of destruction, but now the time had come to 'wake up' and redeem them.
Let me humbly suggest that this too was an act of gratitude. The accusing angels could point to Mordechai, a righteous believer who put his own life and those of his people in jeopardy for the sake of his beliefs. They could point to Esther, who had submitted to the indignity of being a madman's queen and risked her life in order to rescue her people. They could point to the Jewish people, who fasted three days and turned their eyes up to their father in Heaven. They could say to God 'How can you not re-pay the righteousness of this people in this time of their suffering?'
In conclusion, then, the restlessness of the king's sleep – whether God or, l'havdil (mutatis mutandis), flesh and blood – is a restlessness born out of a need to acknowledge gratitude and to re-pay it. This Purim holiday, let us not forget to thank God for all that She has given to us and let us be confident that He will not overlook the kindnesses we have done for Her/Him.
Written by Rabbi Avi Heller, director of Jewish education at Boston University Hillel.