Story-ideas-1011172

What it took for Esther to find her courage

  • RabbiKagan
An attentive listener to the Megillah reading on Purim may notice a transformation in the character of Esther, for whom the story is named. She emerges from her protective palatial cocoon, where her natural beauty won the eyes of the Persian king, to become a powerful and courageous queen.
by RABBI SHMULI KAGAN | Mar 14, 2019

Our first exposure to her is as a young woman who grew up parentless in the home of Mordechai, the great Jewish leader. Once she is captured to participate in the beauty pageant of King Achashverosh, Megillat Esther describes her lack of independence: “And whatever Mordechai said, Esther would do – just as when she was still in his home.” She asks for no makeup or cosmetics. No one knows from where she comes, or her ancestry. Esther prefers to remain under the radar, but somehow she still stands out, passively becoming queen against her will.

Esther’s hesitation to take action is highlighted by her response to the news that Mordechai has donned sackcloth, as she sends him new clothes. It is unclear whether the queen at this point knew about the news of Haman’s decree to wipe out the Jews. Nevertheless, once she is asked to intercede, she refuses. Her apparent claim is that approaching the king without his initial request could be fatal, but Mordechai accuses her of apathy towards her people: “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews.”

He finally empowers her: “Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join the royalty?” Her unlikely response is one of leadership, and a call to action: “Go and gather all the Jews.”

Queen Esther of Persia inspires her people, the Jews, to fast and pray. She manoeuvres politically, cornering Haman, while unabashedly revealing she is a member of the nation Haman describes as one “whose ways are different”.

As the scroll nears its end, the once-anonymous Esther writes to the sages to record her story for generations. Megillat Esther tells of the miraculous survival of the Jewish people, but it is named for her.

What activated such a transformation? There were a number of factors, such as someone whom she trusted who believed in her, and the realisation that the threat was as much a personal as a national one. Just as Esther recognised that the message to her people was to be taken personally, we too can learn from the ancient story of Purim a relevant lesson that affects each of us today.

There is a joke about the difference between ignorance and apathy. The answer is, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” As Jews, we cannot hide our head in the sand, ignoring the tremendous challenges our people are facing. Whether they are physical threats of anti-Semitism or the spiritual decay of assimilation, we must enlighten ourselves to their reality and their effect.

Queen Esther may have been able to claim ignorance of the situation unfolding beyond the palace walls, but today social media and the internet penetrate even our pockets.

We should feel a shared personal identity and fate with the Jewish people. Just as Haman did not differentiate between types of Jews, Hitler viewed each of us as individuals who are no different from each other. Mordechai urges Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish.” A person’s apathy is removed when they realise they are personally threatened. Perhaps Esther may have survived, but the Jewish value of collective responsibility that she inherited from her father’s home would have vanished.

We are not only personally responsible because we share a common fate, but each of us is endowed with our own unique mission. We find ourselves with singular talents and circumstances, just as Esther found herself in the palace. We need mentors who believe in us, and we must share that belief in others.

Most significantly, G-d has faith in us. It was Rav Nachman of Breslov who stated: “The day you were born is the day G-d decided the world could not exist without you.”

Soon university campuses around the world will be hosting Israel Apartheid Week. Fortunately, there are many students and activists, Jewish and non-Jewish, who do not hide behind the false protection of ignorance and apathy. They attempt to educate and stand up against the lies and threats of those who could not care about democracy, or are unwilling to find out the truth for themselves.

The Talmud finds a hint to the existence of Esther in the Torah from the words “I shall surely hide my face”. Megillat Esther tells of how a woman revealed her hidden drive and wisdom, influencing the transformation of a nation from death to life.

As we are reminded of this shared story, let us reveal the Esther in ourselves, for our own sake and for our people. Purim Sameach!

  • Rabbi Shmuli Kagan is the rabbi of Bnei Akiva South Africa and teaches Kodesh at Yeshiva College High School.

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