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March 20, 2016 11:12 pm

Esther Teaches Us Never to Judge a Jew By His — or — Her Appearance

avatar by Yoram Hazony

Queen Esther accuses Haman at the banquet. Oil on canvas.

Queen Esther accuses Haman at the banquet. Oil on canvas.

So where do gutsy, brave, Jewish women who are willing to lay down their lives for their people, and do things that are frequently unpopular and unfashionable, actually come from?

The biblical book of Esther has a surprising answer to this question. In this story, a young woman named Hadassah changes the very Jewish-sounding name her parents gave her to a Persian name: Esther, meaning “star.” She does this in a bid to marry the Persian king, Ahashverosh. And this aggressive effort at social-climbing pays off: Esther wins the love of the king, who does not know she is a Jew. And she becomes Queen of Persia.

But then something terrifying happens: Fearing for his life after a botched assassination attempt, the king appoints a Hitler-like adviser, Haman, to be vizier, and orders all of Persia to prostrate itself before his absolute rule. One Jewish official, Esther’s cousin Mordechai, refuses to accept this decision, and so Haman persuades the king to exterminate the Jews of the empire.

When the decree to murder the Jews is announced, Esther has to make a bone-chilling decision: Should she suddenly “go Jewish,” risking her life to demand that the king repeal this bloodthirsty antisemitic policy? Or should she take the final step, turning her back on her people and remaining silent while the fate of the Jews is played out without her?

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At first, Esther is sure she should remain silent: Not because she is a disloyal person but because she is afraid: Haman is all-powerful in Persia. Will he have her humiliated? Deposed? Executed? And in any case, Haman’s grip on the king is total. What’s the chance that Ahashverosh will change his mind just because Esther asks him to? Just about zero.

But her cousin Mordechai points out the truth: If she is silent at this time, then the Jews may be saved some other way. But she, having remained silent while her people stood to be destroyed, will be lost for sure. And who knows, perhaps it was for just such a time as this that she became queen?

Remarkably, the dire condition of the Jews works a change deep inside Esther. She has always wanted to win favor, and that is what propelled her to the top. But now she must risk all the favor she has ever won in order to do what is right. And that is what turns your soul into the soul of a Jew, isn’t it? Being willing to risk it all because it’s the right thing to do?

Esther fasts and prays. But mostly she plots her moves for the political struggle to come. What is needed, she realizes, is to do so much damage to Haman’s standing with the king that Ahashverosh will start thinking he had better get his policy advice from someone else. To do this, Esther will try to get the king to think there is something going on between her and the vizier. She wants him thinking: Could there be a sexual interest between Haman and Esther? Could another plot against him be coming together before his eyes?

She drops a hint, and then a second. He’s no genius, this Ahashverosh. But eventually the king takes the bait, and during a sleepless night, he begins to ask himself whether he’s put too much faith in this monster, Haman. Once Esther sees that the king really has gone wobbly on his vizier, she moves to press her advantage: She succeeds in having Haman deposed, installs Mordechai as vizier in Haman’s place, gets an edict of her own issued so the Jews can defend themselves, and then organizes Jewish military power so the Jews emerge victorious on the day that they were all supposed to have been massacred.

The story of Esther is a story about a time much like ours. A time when God’s voice seems to have grown still and the Jews wander far from the world of obviously Jewish things. Esther, too, strays far from the normal life of a Jewish woman — from being Hadassah. Looking at the outward appearances, many of us would have concluded that she’s assimilated, intermarried, lost.

But the story of Esther teaches us that the truest dramas of life are played out in a much deeper and more personal place: When her people truly need her, will she be there for them? Will she be willing to risk the comfort of her respectable, successful, quiet life, to break with the existing order of things and take a stand to bring what is truly right into the world? Will she be willing to take the risk that makes a Jewish soul?

In the biblical story, celebrated each year on the holiday of Purim, we learn that true Jewish leadership does not happen in a straight line, and according to an accepted formula. Even the most distant Jew is often waiting for the moment of decision, the moment of risk. For such a time as this.

Yoram Hazony is author of God and Politics in Esther.    

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