“The Story of Esther–Making Choices for Jewish Destiny”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Because the festival of Purim will be celebrated throughout the world this Monday evening, the 25th of February, and Tuesday, the 26th of February (except for Jerusalem and other walled cities which is a day later), I have chosen to focus on the story of Purim, rather than comment on this week’s parasha, parashat Ki Tisah.

In last year’s D’var Torah on parashat T’tzaveh, I elaborated on what I called “The True Story of Purim.” I explained that the reason for Achashveirosh’s huge celebrations was not so much due to the fact that after three years in the monarchy Achashveirosh now felt secure, but rather to rejoice over the fact that the predictions of the Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah and Daniel, that the Temple would be restored 70 years after the destruction, had not come true. And although the parties that Achashveirosh threw were in effect celebrating the destruction of the Jewish people, the Jews of Achashveirosh’s kingdom could not resist attending these great fashionable “happenings.” The Jews not only attended, they actually rejoiced with much gusto.

Achashveirosh had miscalculated the 70 years. In fact, only a few years later, in 517 BCE, Darius II, the son of Queen Esther and Achashveirosh allowed the Jews to rebuild the second Temple, exactly 70 years after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE.

As the story unfolds in the Book of Esther, Haman is filled with rage over Mordechai-the-Jew’s refusal to bow down to him, and by paying an enormous bribe, Haman convinces Achashveirosh to issue a decree condemning all the Jews to death on a day that Haman picked by lottery, the 13th of Adar. The end of Chapter 3 of the Book of Esther reports that the copies of the death decree were publicized and sent to all the peoples, so that the citizens could be ready for action on that day. Esther 3:15 reports that the couriers went forth hurriedly by order of the King, and that the edict was distributed in Shushan the capitol. As if a load had been removed from their hearts–the King and Haman sat down to drink.

Through his intimate connections with government, Mordechai learned of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews. He tore his clothes, put on sackcloth with ashes, and went in to the middle of the city where he cried loudly and bitterly. In desperation, Mordechai approached the front of the King’s gate, but did not enter the King’s palace for it was forbidden to enter the King’s palace dressed so disrespectfully. As Jews all over the kingdom learned of the impending calamity, they started fasting, weeping and wailing, most of them donning sackcloth and ashes as well.

The Book of Esther 4:4 reports that Esther’s maids and chamberlains told the Queen about the great mourning and wailing going on. Scripture (4:4) reports: “Va’tit’chal’chal ha’malkah m’od,” Esther was thrown into a great panic. We might assume that the Queen was in a panic because she had learnt that the Jews were about to be exterminated. But apparently that was not at all the cause of her distress. Let us recall that Esther had already been Queen for five years, and even though she originally did not want to be Queen, now that she was Queen she had probably grown accustomed to the stretch limousines, the attendants, the butlers and the maids!

Instead of reciting Tehillim (psalms) or conferring with her advisers on how to rescind the decree against the Jews, Esther’s response to Mordechai’s distress was to send him garments so that he not make a spectacle of himself publicly and bring disgrace upon her. But Mordechai refused to accept the clothes. It is clear that Esther’s primary concern was to avoid the public humiliation, since there is no record of Esther ever trying to determine the cause of Mordechai’s grief. Esther’s reaction to Mordechai was simply “Take the clothes Mordechai and stop embarrassing me. Stop making a scene!” Only when Mordechai refused to accept the new clothes, did Esther summon Hatach, one of her trusted chamberlains, to find out what was bothering Mordechai.

Mordechai tells Hatach about the sum of money that Haman had promised to pay to the royal treasuries in return for permission to annihilate the Jews. He also gave Hatach a copy of the text of the decree, so that he might have prima facie evidence to show Esther, and bid her go to the King to appeal the decree and plead with Achashveirosh for the lives of the Jewish people.

In this time of grave national danger, Esther does not rise to the challenge. Instead, she sends Hatach back to Mordechai with a message, containing some lame excuse that no one may approach the King without an appointment. And that since she has not been summoned, it is likely that she will be summarily executed, unless the King extends to her his gold scepter. “Do you expect me to risk it all? Do you expect me to risk my life?” demands Esther of Mordechai.

Mordechai’s reply is memorable. But Mordechai’s reply is not only directed at Esther, but to all Jews who have assimilated or begun to assimilate, and fail to realize that they are part of the inescapable Jewish destiny. Mordechai says to Esther (Esther 4:13): “Al t’dah’mee b’naf’shaich l’hee’mah’lait beit ha’melech mee’kol hay’hudim.” Do not imagine for a moment that you’ll be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews, “Kee im ha’chah’raish tah’chah’ree’shee ba’ait ha’zot, reh’vach v’hatzalah ya’amod lay’hudim mee’makom ah’cher,” for if you persist in keeping silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, “V’at u’veit ah’veech to’vai’doo,” and you and your father’s house will perish. And in a final dramatic put down, Mordechai says: “U’mee yo’day’ah, im lah’ait kah’zoht hee’gat la’malchut,” and who knows whether it was just for a time such as this that you became the Queen–and now you’ve blown it. You, Esther, had a chance to take an historic stand to defend your people, instead you were concerned with your own position, your own personal creature comforts, about being Queen? You had a chance to be a part of the Jewish destiny, but you’ve frittered it away.

Apparently, Mordechai’s response hits a sensitive chord in Esther, and although she is not happy about risking her life, Esther decides to go forth and approach the King. But not before she asks the Jews melodramatically to fast three days for her. In Esther 4:16 the Queen says, “U’v’chain ah’vo el ha’melech asher lo kah’dat, v’chah’asher ah’vah’d’tee ah’vad’d’tee,” and so I will go in to the King, though it is unlawful–and if I perish, I perish!

Despite, Esther’s initial reluctance, she fulfills her mission brilliantly and redeems herself, and goes on to become one of the great heroic figures of Jewish history. But, as great as she becomes, we need to bear in mind that Esther, the great Queen Esther, was only inches away from being cast into the ash heap of oblivion.

Unfortunately, we Jews have had our fill of important and influential Jews who could have made a dramatic difference in Jewish history, but failed to stand up for their people in their time of need. Despite the failings of the Henry Kissingers and the Bruno Kreiskys (the Austrian Prime Minister) of our people, G-d always emerged to rescue our people through some other means, and those would be important Jews and their stories will join the documents of those Jews who failed to respond.

As we write these lines, our people is caught in a most horrible predicament. Most listeners who hear these words, or read them, have chosen for one reason or another not to join in the destiny of the People of Israel by living in Israel. At the time of this writing, there seems to be no solution in sight that will end the constant terror which is taking its bloody toll on our people. But one thing is certain, we Jews need to stand up for our People–we must write letters to the Presidents and Prime Ministers, we must write letters to the media, we must train ourselves to effectively defend the State of Israel in public debates. But most importantly, we must at least visit Israel in this time of great need. Let not the author of history write about us in his chronicle the dreadful admonition of Mordechai to Esther: “For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, while you and your father’s house will perish.” (Esther 4:14)

May you be blessed.