fairy tale 88.
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In many Jewish communities, the Purim story of Queen Esther is spun as that of a Jewish Cinderella. An orphaned girl of lowly birth with supreme charm and beauty is chosen over all the maidens in the kingdom to marry into the royal family. Both Cinderella and Esther have wise parental figures, overcome vile, stereotypical adversaries, and appear to live happily ever after in royal bliss.
But as a Jew, Esther did not live happily ever after.
There are many divergent details in the two stories, but one salient difference that distinguishes our heroines is what each leaves behind so that she may embrace her new life. Cinderella gladly and rightly forsakes her childhood of suffering for "happily ever after." There is neither need nor justification for ethical or cultural compromise. Esther, on the other hand, is a more complex character in a more complex situation.
Whereas Cinderella redeems herself after personal suffering, Esther redeems others. Unlike Cinderella, who abandons a past she is understandably eager to forget, Esther infiltrates a foreign culture with the intention of preserving her own. Esther and her uncle, Mordechai, use their status in the Persian government to influence the King and Persian society. The fact that Esther and Mordechai straddled both Persian and Jewish worlds provides a complicated but ultimately helpful example for today's integrated Jew.
ESTHER'S STORY is a paradigm for merging the religious and secular, while it also demonstrates the potential pitfalls. Esther intermarries, becoming absorbed in Persian royalty, and is unable to raise a Jewish family of her own. According to Rabbinic interpretations, Esther and Achashverosh had a son, King Darius, who is good to the Jews and allows them to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem, but in no way considers himself Jewish.
The Megila subtly alludes to a similar fate that befalls Mordechai. At the end of the narrative, Mordechai is promoted to a position second to only that of the King, with great political power and responsibility. As a result, he has less time for the Jewish courts and systems which he used to dominate. The Megila concludes with the statement, "[Mordechai] was loved by most of his brothers." Most, but not all. Many of the Jewish leaders felt abandoned by Mordechai.
Yet, Esther and Mordechai had no choice but to stay in their non-Jewish roles, for fear that the king would change his mind and put the Jews back in danger. However, their sacrifices should not go unnoticed. Esther intermarried, and Mordechai lost his Jewish leadership. Therefore, they did not continue the prominent Jewish line from which they came.
FORTUNATELY Esther and Mordechai do have Jewish children - the boys and girls who choose to dress up like them every Purim and who are inspired by their courage and commitment to their people. Maybe they did not personally live happily ever after, but their immortal story enabled the Jewish people as a whole to live better and wiser by their examples.
Today, Jewish contributions to and knowledge of the outside world, in the tradition of Esther and Mordechai, protect and enrich our Jewish lives. Our accomplishments in politics and finance defend against anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiments. Our comprehension of science and humanities enlighten our understanding of God's universe and of the sanctified human spirit. At the same time, our commitments to and convictions about our Jewish beliefs enable us to improve the larger world spiritually. We can use our understanding of our experience in Egypt to fight oppression around the globe.
For those of us living in the Diaspora, the integration of our Jewish and secular heritages fosters a more deeply enriched existence. Inevitably, however, such integration comes with a price, just as it did for Esther and Mordechai. Involvement in the secular world brings benefits and costs. The benefits make isolation a non-starter, but we should be aware of and reflective about the risks.
Esther is an inspiration, but she is also a tragic heroine whose sacrifices and compromises remind us to evaluate whether our own compromises are justified. She stayed married to wealth and power to protect her people.
Why do we marry wealth and power? When we run for political office or aim to make money, do we do it to help those in need, or do we squash the less fortunate to get ahead? When we study evolutionary biology to comprehend the world, do we forget about the existence of God? When we fight for causes, do we neglect our own families?
When we excel, we will be called to sacrifice along the way.
Esther is not a happily ever after fairy tale. We must be mindful of the sacrifices we make in order to succeed in the outside world and have the courage, unlike Esther, to back away when the sacrifices become too great.
The writer is visiting assistant professor in Mathematics at University of California at Berkeley. The essay was disseminated by Edah, the advocacy movement for a modern and relevant Orthodox Judaism.