“There is a cemetery not far from my house, with graves that date back to the nineteenth century. I have never seen anyone come there to lay a flower. Most people just wander through, read the engravings and say, ‘Wow. Look how old.’ “That cemetery came to mind as I sat in the rabbi’s office, after he quoted a poem both beautiful and heartbreaking. Written by Thomas Hardy, it told of a man among tombstones, conversing with the dead below. The recently buried souls lamented the older souls that had already been forgotten:
They count as quite forgot
They are as men that have existed not
Theirs is a loss past loss of pitiful breath
It is the second death.
“The second death. The unvisited in the nursing homes. The homeless found frozen in the alleys. Who mourned their passing? Who marked their time on earth?
“Once on a trip to Russia,” the rabbi recalled, “we found an old Orthodox synagogue. Inside, there was an elderly man, standing alone, saying the mourner’s kaddish. Being polite, we asked for whom he was saying it. He looked up and answered, ‘I am saying it for myself.’”
“The second death. To think that you died and no one would remember you. I wondered if this is why we tried so hard to make our mark in America. To be known. Think of how important celebrity has become… It’s as if we are screaming: Notice me! Remember me! Yet the notoriety barely lasts. Names quickly blur and in times are forgotten.”
“And it came to pass in the days of Achashveirosh… in those days when King Achashveirosh sat on his royal throne which was in Shushan the capital. In the third year of his reign, he made a feast…”
The Gemara explains that Achashveirosh made his grand feast in the third year of his reign when he felt that his monarchy was secure. The world was respectfully aware that Yirmiyahu HaNavi had prophesized that the Babylonian exile would only last seventy years, after which the Bais HaMikdash would be rebuilt.
Achashveirosh was frightened that when the Bais HaMikdash would be rebuilt his kingdom would be disbanded. But in the third year of his reign, the seventy years passed, and the Temple had not been rebuilt. He was sure that the prophecy was incorrect and his monarchy was secure.
The Gemara explains that Achashveirosh was so confident that at the party he donned the Holy vestments of the Kohen Gadol which had been looted from the Bais HaMikdash prior to its destruction.
Seven years earlier the wicked Babylonian king, Balshatzar, was also convinced that Yirmiyahu’s prophecy had been flawed. To celebrate, he arranged a tremendous feast during which he donned the Bigdei Kehuna. It was an act of brazen sacrilege that no one had dared to do before. His retribution came swiftly. By morning he was dead, and his kingdom immediately invaded and conquered, relegating the mighty Babylonian Empire to the history books.
Achashveirosh, too, did not go unpunished for his brazenness. By the day’s end his beloved Queen Vashti – his only legitimate connection to royalty — was dead,a consequence of his own inebriated fury.
It seems from the Gemara’s discussion that Achashveirosh and Balshatzar were only blameworthy because they had miscalculated the seventy years. However, had they been correct in their calculation they would not have been worthy of punishment. Why should the status of the Bigdei Kehuna be based on whether the seventy years were over or not?