“The Story of Esther–Making Choices for Jewish Destiny”
(updated and revised from Kee Tisah 5762-2002)


by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Because the joyous festival of Purim will be celebrated throughout the world this Monday evening, the 6th of March, and Tuesday, the 7th of March (except for Jerusalem and other ancient walled cities where Purim is celebrated one day later), we will focus on the story of Purim, rather than comment on this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah.

A few years back, in the weekly message on parashat Tetzaveh 5780-2020, I elaborated on what I called, “The True Story of Purim.” I explained, that while many are of the opinion that the reason for Ahasuerus’ huge celebrations (in the year 529 BCE) was to acknowledge that after three years as king, Ahasuerus now felt secure in the monarchy, the real reason was Ahasuerus’ desire to revel over the fact that the predictions of the Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah and Daniel, that the Temple would be restored 70 years after its destruction, had not come true.

Although the parties that Ahasuerus threw were, in effect, celebrating the destruction of the Jewish people, the Jews of Ahasuerus’ empire could not resist attending these fashionable happenings. The Jews not only attended, they actually rejoiced with much enthusiasm and great gusto.

Ahasuerus had miscalculated the 70 years. In fact, only a few years later, in 517 BCE, Darius II, the son of Queen Esther and Ahasuerus, 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, the main advisor to the Persian King Ahasuerus, is filled with rage over Mordechai-the-Jew’s refusal to bow down to him. By paying an enormous bribe, Haman convinces Ahasuerus 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 people, so that the citizens of the Persian Empire could be ready for action on that day. Esther 3:15, confirms that the couriers went forth hurriedly by order of the King, and that the edict was distributed in Shushan the capital. As if a heavy burden had been lifted from their hearts–the King and Haman sat down to drink.

Through his intimate connections within the government, Mordechai learned of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews. He tore his clothes, put on sackcloth with ashes, and went into 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 disrespectfully. As Jews all over the kingdom learned of the impending calamity, they started fasting, weeping and wailing, donning sackcloth and ashes, as well.

The Book of Esther 4:4, reports that Esther’s maids and chamberlains told the Queen about Mordechai’s disheveled condition, and about the great mourning and wailing that was going on in the streets. Scripture (Esther 4:4) reports: וַתִּתְחַלְחַל הַמַּלְכָּה מְאֹד , Esther was thrown into a great panic. We might assume that the Queen was in a panic because she had learned 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 of Persia and Media for five years, and even though she was originally reluctant to serve as Queen, now that she was Queen, she had probably grown accustomed to the extraordinary privileges of the royal lifestyle–the stretch limousines, the vast number of attendants, butlers and maids!

Instead of reciting Tehillim (psalms) or conferring with her advisors, Esther’s did not even try to find out what was bothering Mordechai. Her 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 trying to determine the cause of Mordechai’s grief. Instead, Esther’s reaction to Mordechai was apparently, “Take the clothes Mordechai, and stop embarrassing us. Stop making a scene!” Only when Mordechai refused to accept the new clothes, did Esther summon Hatach, one of her trusted chamberlains, and sent him to find out what was bothering Mordechai.

Mordechai tells Hatach about the vast 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 present to Esther, and bid her go the King to appeal the decree and plead with Ahasuerus 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 she cannot confer with the King, since no one may approach the King without an official appointment, and, that since she has not been summoned, it is likely that she will be summarily executed for the breach of royal protocol, unless the King extends to her his gold scepter allowing her to enter. “Do you expect me to risk all that I have achieved? Do you expect me to risk my life?” Esther, in effect, demands of Mordechai.

Mordechai’s reply is memorable.

Says Mordechai to Esther, Esther 4:13-14, אַל תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל הַיְּהוּדִים. “Do not imagine for a moment, my darling Esther, that you’ll be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews,” כִּי אִם הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת, רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, “for if you persist in keeping silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place,” וְאַתְּ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ, “and you and your father’s house will perish!” And in a final dramatic put-down, Mordechai says: וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת, “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 monumental 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, melodramatically, asks Mordechai to instruct the Jews to fast three days for her. In Esther 4:16, the Queen says, וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא כַדָּת, וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי, “and so I will go into 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 Jewish historical oblivion.

It should be noted, that Mordechai’s reply is not only directed at Esther, but to all Jews throughout the ages who begin to spiritually assimilate, and no longer feel an intimate connection with their Jewish roots, and to the growing number of Jews who fail to realize that they are part of an inescapable Jewish destiny.

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) to come to the aid of our people, the Al-mighty G-d always emerges to rescue our people through some other means, and those presumed “important Jews” and their lame excuses will join the historical annals of those Jews who failed to respond in times of our national needs.

We write these lines, as our people are, once again, caught in a most challenging predicament. At the time of this writing, there seems to be no apparent solution that will end the constant terror attacks in Israel, which are taking their bloody toll on our people, including most recently, the two beautiful Paley boys and the Yaniv brothers. But on one thing is certain, Jews, whether they support the policies of the current government of Israel or not, need to stand up for our People. We must write letters to the Presidents, Prime Ministers and elected officials, we must send clear and forceful messages to the media, we must train ourselves to effectively defend the State of Israel in public discussions and debates. But most importantly, we must at least visit Israel as frequently as possible in this time of great peril and need.

Let not the future authors of history write about us in their chronicles, that we failed to respond to the needs of the hour. Let not the dreadful admonition of Mordechai to Esther be written about us, (Esther 4:14): “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.”

Contact your political representatives now!

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

Purim is observed this year on Monday night and Tuesday, March 6-7, 2023.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.