YOUNGSTERS BROWSE at a costume shop on the capital’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On Purim, we celebrate the miracle of the Jewish nation being saved from the genocide planned against it approximately 2,300 years ago. The story of the Purim miracle occurred during the period when the nation returned to the Land of Israel after the first exile, which had lasted for 70 years. Haman, who was an important minister in the Persian Empire and an advisor to King Achashverosh, was angry at the Jew Mordechai, who was a leader of the Jewish nation at that time, for the latter’s refusal to bow down before him. Following this, Haman searched for a way to take revenge on the entire Jewish nation, and got permission from the king to act against the Jews as he saw fit. He schemed to kill all the Jews in one day, sending emissaries all over the Persian Empire with the royal decree to kill all the Jews living across the Empire.
Due to a surprising series of coincidences, Esther, Mordechai’s niece, is anointed queen of Persia and she wisely manages to thwart Haman’s plot. Haman and his sons are hung on a tree that they prepared for hanging Mordechai; Mordechai is appointed a minister in the Persian kingdom, and the Jews get permission from King Achashverosh to defend themselves from their enemies. The pair of words taken from Megillat Esther – “ve’nahafoch hu” (and it shall be overturned) – symbolizes the turnabout in the status of the Jews from those whose lives are for the taking to those entitled to protect themselves from their enemies.
This summary condenses the essence of the story which the Jewish nation has been reading on Purim, in the evening and in the morning, for more than 2,000 years. But besides the story itself, the Book of Esther contains an interesting section which is relevant to everyone and which is worth examining.
When Mordechai finds out about the impending tragedy, he takes unusual steps: he tears his clothing, puts on sackcloth and puts ashes on his head, goes out into the city streets and screams and cries bitterly. The servants of Queen Esther, who as you recall was Mordechai’s niece, tell her what her beloved and admired uncle is doing. She, of course, sends him new clothes but he refuses to put them on, and informs her of the terrible disaster about to befall her nation.
Esther’s reaction might surprise anyone who remembers the story’s “happy ending.”
At first, Esther refuses to turn to King Achashverosh to ask him to cancel the decree. She is afraid of endangering herself by approaching the king without being invited. Mordechai hears of Esther’s refusal and fears, and sends her the following sharply-worded message: “Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish; and who knows whether it was for a moment such as this that you came to royalty” (Esther 4, 13-14).
After receiving Mordechai’s harsh message, Esther is persuaded that indeed, she must take on the responsibility of saving the Jewish nation. She gathers courage, approaches the king, and comes up with a smart and complicated plan for bringing about Haman’s downfall and saving the Jewish people.
What, in actuality, did Mordechai say to her that caused her to change her mind? At the beginning we see her frightened, trying to evade responsibility. Then suddenly she takes on a leadership role, takes initiative, gives out orders to Mordechai and, with great diplomatic shrewdness, manages to change the narrative.
We gather that the words said to her shook her to her core, but what was so earth-shattering about them? Esther, an innocent Jewish young woman, experienced a difficult trauma when she was forcibly taken to Achashverosh’s house.
Instead of living a Jewish life among her people, she became a queen, married to a despotic and evil king who did not hesitate to kill his wives if they dared to cross him.
Her personal status is miserable from any vantage point. From this weak position, she refuses to act. She is nervous, her inner light extinguished.
But Mordechai explains the events to her and sheds a different light on them. He tells her: Why did you become Queen? In order to save the entire Jewish nation! You are not miserable, even if your personal fate is difficult. You were given a mission and an important role. You have been given the ability to change reality, to save your nation from destruction.
Changing her miserable fate into a significant destiny is what changed Esther’s emotional state and enabled her to take initiative, lead, plan and influence, at the end of which she also saved the Jewish nation. To this very day, we are grateful to Queen Esther for the courage and wisdom she displayed by her actions.
This moral is a message for all generations.
It happens to all of us that we occasionally feel that fate has led us to depressing and desperate situations. But if we are wise enough to turn the picture around and grab onto the role given us in these difficult situations – then we will be able to lead ourselves, our families, and perhaps even our whole society to a better place.The author is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.