Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oh, for the Love of Esther

The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour.
The Book of Esther 8:16

As a person who hates being in the kitchen, I love Purim. It’s a short holiday with only one meal (as opposed to two on Shabbat or 4-6 on Rosh HaShana), you don’t have to turn the kitchen upsidedown (Pesach), or eat outside (Yom HaAzmaut). And mostly, it’s ok to eat junk ALL DAY LONG!! And the junk comes in present form. I don’t even have to buy it. 

The best part of Purim, of course, is that the story features women. No blurring names or faces here, 
no putting these women on the back of the bus, or behind a wall! The women in the story are front and center, named, described, and centuries later, dozens, if not hundreds, of little girls dress up as them (though there are more Queens of the Strawberries than Esthers). 

At first glance and first reading of Megillat Esther, the two women seem strikingly similar. Both are beautiful, both are of royal lineage, both stand up to a wicked drunken king.

The first of the two women to appear is Vashti. The Book of Esther opens at a party, and King Achashverosh orders his wife Vashti to appear and dance before the celebrants. It is understood that this is not just a simple dance, but that she is to appear in the nude. Vashti refuses. In what appears to be a noble and dignified gesture, Vashti refuses her husband's command to perform. She will not sacrifice her dignity on a stupid and drunken request. And so she sacrifices her life, as the king orders her executed[1].

But before we think of her as brave and tragic, let's take a quick but deeper look at Vashti.

We know that Vashti is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar (of destruction of the Temple fame) and daughter of Belshazzar. Her father and family and household had been killed by Darius – father of Achashverosh. Vashti is the only survivor of the massacre (which is described in the Book of Daniel) and she was captured and given to the young Achashverosh as a prize.

The Talmud tells us that despite her capture and forced marriage, Vashti lives up to her grandfather's cruelty. She enslaves Jewish girls, stripping them and forcing them to work on Shabbat. When Achashverosh commands her to appear naked at his party, she was busy having a party of her own, probably with the Chippendales. She answered him "you were but a stable boy when my father was king of all Babylon!" (Esther Rabbah 3:14) It wasn't that Vashti wasn't willing to sacrifice her dignity and not dance; she was not willing to sacrifice her ego. She was a queen, and the daughter and granddaughter of conquerors. She didn't dance for some stable boy. 

The Midrash tells us that Vashti was stricken with one of two ailments. Either she had Tzora'at (badly translated as leprosy), which is a physical manifestation of Lashon Harah. Lashon Harah is committed when one thinks one is superior to others. Or, says the Midrash, Vashti had a tail. That would symbolize her bestiality, her inhumanity. Whatever the reason, Vashti refused to dance and was desposed, thus ending the line of Nebuchadnezzar and its wickedness.

We can now turn to Esther.

Esther is also of royal lineage. Her family was taken into captivity in the first exile (at the time of the above-mentioned Nebuchadnezzar)—that of the aristocracy.

However, unlike Vashti – who taunted Achashverosh at every opportunity at the difference in their status – Esther tells no one of her family, her heritage, or her history.

A question that has often come to my mind when I read the tragic story of Esther is why did she submit to her fate? Why did Esther allow herself to be so degraded by being imprisoned in the palace; being forced into a beauty contest, and ultimately being forced to marry an immoral, uncultured, drunken egomaniac? Wouldn't it have been better to have even killed herself rather than endure what must have been torture? Considering that the Holy Temple had just been destroyed because of rampant acts of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, Esther's rebellion would have been heralded as a small rectification for the destruction.

Yet, her cousin/uncle/guardian Mordecai does not allow her to take this course of action. Instead, he tells her to go with the king’s men when they come for her and submit, but to keep her identity a secret, both from the king and from her own people.

So, orphaned, separated from her people, Esther begins her lonely existence in the palace, forsaken it seems even by G-d, for no miracle comes to save her.

According to Jewish law, Mordecai is right in telling Esther to keep her origins a secret.

When Esther becomes queen, she becomes a public persona, a target of the press, a symbol to the people, a person always in the public eye. Everything she does is scrutinized. Every chair she buys is appraised, and every bottle she returns to the store is counted. Every move she makes is judged. 

If Esther's nationality and religion are known, then, as a public figure, any minor desecration would become a chilul HaShem – a desecration of the name of G-d. Publicly marrying a non-Jew – no matter the circumstances – would be a horrific desecration.

However, as a passive and unknown victim to the king's advances, Esther would not be considered guilty of sexual immorality.

It is for this reason that Mordecai insists that she keep her identity a secret. And so Esther, unlike Vashti, suppresses her own needs, her own ego, her own identity so that she should not ever be guilty of sexual immorality or any other sort of chilul HaShem.

Later in the story, when Haman's plan for the extermination of the Jews becomes known, Mordecai tells Esther to go to the king. At this point, she asks Mordecai to have the people fast and pray for her, thus having her identity disclosed. Why now? Why publicize her heritage now?

Because now, by going to the king of her accord, Esther is no longer a "passive victim" to the king's advances. By seducing the king, she will now be guilty of immorality. It doesn't matter anymore if she is a public figure or private citizen.

Sexual immorality is one of the three cardinal sins for which one loses his/her place in the next world.

When Esther hesitates before going to Achashverosh, when she asks her people to fast and pray for her, it was not because she was afraid for her physical life, but because she was about to sacrifice her soul.

What made Esther act in such a way? There was no need. No one knew who she was. She would have survived Haman's extermination program. She would not have to commit immorality and sacrifice her place in the next world. Mordecai even told her that if she didn't step up, deliverance would come from another place.

It is written that we must love G-d with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might. And this is what Esther does. Out of love for G-d and her people, Esther gives up all. Showing total chesed, total Ahavat Chinam (loving freely without judgment), Esther is willing to sacrifice her soul for her people. In the end, not only does Esther save her people, but her Ahavat Chinam paves the way for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.[2]
And therefore it's no wonder that the Beit HaMikdash, built on the basis of Ahavat Chinam cannot exist in a time of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred)[3].

Unlike Vashti, Esther transcends her own personal tragedy – which continues on even after her people are saved – and gives her heart and her soul and her might to G-d and to the Jewish people.

May we be blessed this Purim and may our People be united with the Ahavat Chinam of Esther, that the way should be paved for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the coming of the Masiach, bimheray be'yamenuh.


[1] The text here is rather vague. The Megillah says ‘That Vashti come no more before King Ahasverosh’ and not ‘off with her head’ or anything like that. But it has been interpreted that she was, in fact, killed, the Hollywood movie with Patrick Dempsey notwithstanding.

[2] It is her grandson Koresh, King of Persia, who allows the Jews, under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, to return to the Land of Israel and rebuilt the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

[3] Our sages give the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple as baseless hatred. 
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