Truth and Transformation in Megillat Esther

BY SHAYNA GOLDBERG

Esther undergoes a magnificent transformation in the megillah that carries her name. In the early chapters of the megillah, she is a passive character, an orphan adopted and raised by her cousin, Mordechai. Esther looks to him for guidance in how to conduct herself, and when taken to the palace, she follows Mordechai’s instructions to remain silent about her identity and her upbringing. Even in Esther’s first recorded conversation with Achashverosh, when she tells him that his servants Bigtan and Teresh are plotting to assassinate him, the text emphasizes that she says it all “in the name of Mordechai” (2:22). 

But beginning in chapter 5 of the megillah we encounter a new Esther. Suddenly, she is proactive and assertive. There is an abundance of verbs describing everything she is busy doing. She meets with the king, invites him to parties, comes up with ideas and calls all the shots. Esther has a game plan for how to save the Jews from Haman’s evil decree, and courageously risks her life by approaching the king without an invitation. Even after Haman is hanged, she continues to take initiative, asking for the decree to be canceled, for the Jews to be given days to fight their enemies, for Haman’s sons to be hanged and for the megillah to be written down. 

The turning point in Esther’s personal development is clearly her exchange with Mordechai in chapter 4. Mordechai says: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (4:13–14). Esther immediately replies by telling Mordechai: “Go assemble all of the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf” (4:16).

What about this conversation has the power to effectuate such a significant change in Esther’s core personality and approach? What shakes her out of her passivity and positions her to save her people? There are several possible explanations. It could be that Esther didn’t realize how desperate the situation was, and so receiving the information directly from Mordechai motivates her to take action. Alternatively, perhaps she was aware of the decree, but it was Mordechai’s belief in her that empowers her and gives her the confidence that she has the potential to make a difference in a way she hadn’t internalized before. It could also be that Mordechai gave Esther a sense of mission and purpose, which gives her life meaning and direction. Until this point, she had been alone in the palace, pondering why she had been put in such a difficult situation. Suddenly, she understands her own personal significance and her unique role in Jewish history and destiny. 

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein brings another perspective. He suggests that Esther was neither oblivious to the situation nor lacking self-confidence or a sense of purpose, but rather apathetic and complacent. Sheltered in the palace, she was not inclined to put her life on the line when the king had not called for her. And so Mordechai responds: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace,” telling her, in essence, to stop making excuses. Either she cares enough to take action, or she doesn’t. The Jews will be saved. The question that faces her is, ‘What role do you want to play?’ 

Esther faces a moment of truth, and is forced to look deep inside herself and to decide what really matters. She realizes she has to stop hiding, take responsibility and make decisions that will shape Jewish history. 

The Gemara in Chullin 139b explains that the name Esther appears in Devarim 31:18: “וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, And I (Hashem) will hide My face on that day.” G-d is hidden in Megillat Esther. But Esther, as we all do sometimes, also hides from herself. 

Esther teaches us to stop hiding and to embrace duty, however it comes. When we are ready to face the truth as Esther did, we are capable of significant transformations. 

 

Shayna Goldberg is the author of the book What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear at Life’s Crossroads and in Everyday Living (Maggid, 2021) and a mashgicha ruchanit in the SKA Beit Midrah for Women of Yeshivat Har Etzion (Migdal Oz).

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