Class 23 - THE ESSENCE OF ESTHER
A CHARACTER STUDY OF JUDAISM IN EXILE
Rebbetzin Leah Kohn
With Purim come and gone, Women in Judaism reflects on its essence, by taking
a deeper look at Queen Esther. Our sometimes misconstrued image of her -
often instilled in us as children - is of a beautiful woman, lucky enough to
be chosen as queen of the vast Persian empire, who later becomes heroine of
her own Jewish Nation. In fact, much of this picture is inaccurate. The
Book of Esther substantiates the fact that, from the moment Esther was taken
into the palace and for several years prior, her life was terribly difficult.
The following study explores what really happened to Esther. It portrays a
chapter in the life of a Jewish woman who endured great hardship, yet
ultimately turned a catastrophic situation for herself and her people into an
astounding story of personal growth and national salvation.
According to the Book of Esther and its commentaries Achashverosh, kingof
Persia, announces his search for a new queen in the third year of his reign,
after having done away with his previous queen, Vashti. The search is, in
effect, a call for participation in a lurid beauty contest open to any girl
in the kingdom. Esther does not come forward. She in fact goes into hiding,
hoping to insure she will not be summoned to the palace. When after four
years - in the seventh year of his reign - Achashverosh still has not found a
wife, he sends agents to every province in the kingdom, to root out the
eligible women who have not voluntarily appeared at court. Esther is
discovered and forcibly enlisted as candidate for queen ("...Esther was taken
to the palace, under the charge of Hegai, guardian of the women" (2:8)). As
with any other candidate, she is drafted into the king's harem, receiving a
full year of officially proscribed beauty treatments before her appointment
to appear in front of Achashverosh. Whereas many other hopefuls might take
full advantage of the cosmetic benefits the palace offers, Esther requests
nothing beyond the minimum treatments thrust upon her (2:15). In other
words, Esther does everything in her power to avoid being selected as queen
and forced to live with a king who is not Jewish and who openly hates the
Jewish people. Nonetheless, this is precisely what happens. Achashverosh
chooses Esther. Her integrity, substance and modesty, obvious to him from
the start, must have contributed to her exquisite beauty inside and out.
A RELUCTANT, RIGHTEOUS QUEEN
As a Jewess struggling in exile, Esther understandably rejects the luxury and
power of life in the very palace that oppresses her people. Judaism is the
essence of Esther and she has no desire to live under further duress by
having to maintain her Jewish observance in secret, as wife of Achashverosh.
In addition, according to one opinion Esther is already married to Mordechai,
himself a righteous Jew, a prophet and the leader of his generation. Had
Esther been marriageable, Achashverosh would nonetheless not have been her
choice. Besides the fact that he is not Jewish, Achashverosh is a despot - a
man of poor character who hates the Jews, more than does Haman. As a
politician he is impetuous, impressionable and not to be trusted.
Corroborating this perspective on his character, commentaries tell us that
Achashverosh either purchased the throne or obtained it through Queen Vashti.
The Book of Esther reflects this idea, by referring to Vashti as "queen"
Vashti (1:11) and to Achashverosh, simply as "Achasheverosh," omitting the
title of "king" (1:1).
As queen, Esther hides her religious identity and maintains her Jewish
practices - keeping kosher and observing the laws of Shabbat and family
purity - in secret. As a person deeply connected to God she wonders, as does
Mordechai, why she has been placed in such a difficult situation. Once
Haman's decree against the Jews is publicized (3:-15), however, it becomes
clear that Esther is to be instrumental in saving her people.
ESTHER BEGS TO DIFFER
Upon hearing of Haman's decree, Mordechai puts on sackcloth and publicly
mourns the plight of the Jews (4:1). Esther learns of Mordechai's actions
and surmises that something has happened to the Jews on a national level.
She arrives at this conclusion, because Mordechai would otherwise mourn in
private, in response to some personal misfortune. Esther sends him clothes,
suggesting to Mordechai that he cease his public demonstration and allow her
time to advocate for the Jews from within the palace. When Mordechai rejects
the clothing (4:4), Esther sends her confidante, Hasach, to him to find out
why. Hasach returns to her with full details of Haman's plot, in addition to
a request from Mordechai that Esther appear immediately in front of
Achashverosh to plead for her nation.
Esther disagrees with Mordechai's strategy on several levels. First, she
assumes that the Jews are safe for the time being, since the document
containing the verdict against them is not scheduled to take effect for
nearly a year. Second, her hesitation to appear uninvited is based on a well
known rule that an individual arriving unbidden at court risks being put to
death, ("All the King's servants and the people of the King's provinces are
well aware that if anyone, man or woman, approaches the King in the inner
court without being summoned, there is but one law for him: that he be put to
death; except for the person to whom the King shall extend his gold scepter
so that he may live (4:11). Esther's reticence is not a result of cowardice
or self-preservation. Rather, she feels that by abiding by court rules and
waiting until Achashverosh asks for her, she will gain a diplomatic edge and,
thus, a stronger chance of saving her people.
Mordechai and Esther both understand that the Jews face a spiritual crisis
(otherwise God would not have Haman to have moved ahead with his plans), but
their understanding of its exact nature differs, given that Mordechai has
more information about the situation at hand. While Esther advocates quiet
diplomacy, Mordechai recommends the Jewish people respond to their plight on
a national level. Esther has been cloistered in the palace and only later
has access to details from Mordechai, ("... Esther summoned Hasach, one of
the King's chamberlains whom he had appointed to attend her, and ordered him
to go to Mordechai, to learn what this was about and why." (4:5)). Mordechai
understands that the verdict against the Jews is God's response to a mistake
they made - a spiritual stumble - when, back in the third year of the king's
reign, the Jews attended his royal banquet, in spite of seeing that the party
included a display of Jewish vessels plundered from their destroyed Temple.
In addition, the licentious atmosphere expected at the banquet rendered it
inappropriate for Jews. Nonetheless, the Jews attended along with every
other nation under the auspices of Achashverosh, out of fear that it would
have been dangerous to decline.
Mordechai understands that, being the Jews of his generation are on a very
high spiritual level, God expected them to come forward in defense of their
values, rather than join the banquet. God's response is Haman, a descendant
of Amalek, a nation focused to this day on the destruction of the Jews.
Amalek is threatened by the Jewish belief in God, since its own belief system
is based on arbitrariness, purposelessness and chance. Thus, Amalek sustains
an eternal hatred for and a desire to undermine Jewish faith by wiping out
the entire Nation. Amalek's tactic is to permanently detach the Jewish people
from God by destroying them physically, even at the risk of destroying itself
in the process. Amalek stands for the type of person who will defend his
negative values, even to his own detriment. This idea of self-sacrifice is
where the Jews fell short, when they attended the king's banquet. Mordechai
knows that the presence of Amalek, in the persona of Haman, is God's call to
His people for repentance through fasting, prayer and acts of faith.
In keeping with his understanding, Mordechai encourages Esther to risk
appearing unbidden at court to plead for the Jews (4:8), thereby
demonstrating her total faith in God's protection. It is precisely this type
of action - and not quiet diplomacy - that would deliver the Jewish people.
Further, if the Jews were saved diplomatically, they might never recognize
the hand of God as a singular force in their salvation. This failure to
recognize Divine Plan would give Amalek the upper hand as the Jews' physical
foe and spiritual nemesis.
A SPIRITUAL BREAKTHROUGH
Esther heeds Mordechai's advice, contrives a plan that undoes Haman and
ultimately becomes a heroine of the Jewish people. While Esther's story is
impressive on the level of intrigue, bravery and adventure, it is made
eternal by her self-sacrifice and unmitigated faith. Esther remains a role
model not because of her external beauty and not because she was queen of a
powerful empire, but because of her inner fortitude and devotion. Her example
stands before us as we confront today's exile-specific dilemmas between faith
and reason; Judaism and assimilation; personal comfort and self-sacrifice.
How would you, our cyberspace student body, counsel an individual who finds
herself in an environment with a set of values different from her own? Our
next Women in Judaism class will be a compilation of your thoughts. Please
respond to Lkohn@torah.org. We look forward to hearing from you.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.