Esther's Moral Development - And Ours

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha delivered on Purim 5744

Summarized by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by Kaeren Fish and Ronnie Ziegler


Purim is compared to Yom HaKippurim - indeed, there are many parallels between these two occasions. Both are days of public assembly and soul-searching. My remarks today should be seen in this context.

The megilla is known to all of us as "Megillat Esther." The title indicates more than just the identity of a central character around whom the plot revolves. Chazal teach us (Megilla 7a): "Rav Shemuel ben Yehuda said: Esther sent [a message] to the Sages, demanding, 'Inscribe me (my story) for all generations.' (Or, according to an alternate reading, 'Establish me for all generations.')"

Hence, the obligation of recording and reading the megilla would seem to arise from a direct request by Esther that HER STORY be inscribed, or set down, for generations: "Inscribe ME, establish ME." But the megilla in fact recounts a story which unfolds in the public arena. Is it the story of Esther alone? Surely it is the story of an entire nation, dispersed throughout Achashverosh's 127 provinces, and faced with the threat of genocide. The story also involves other heroes - Mordekhai among them.

Nevertheless, throughout history this book has been known not as "Megillat Ha-yehudim," or even "Megillat Mordekhai," but rather as "Megillat Esther."

This being the case, an accurate and thorough reading of the megilla requires that we pay special attention not only to the public, national aspect of the story - the threat of destruction and the salvation - but also to Esther's personal story. Reading and understanding the megilla requires that we understand what happened to ESTHER, and take note of the various stages of her development. What is the actual story of the megilla from this point of view?

I believe that Esther's development finds expression on two interrelated levels: strength of character and moral awareness. The Esther depicted in the closing chapters is entirely different from the Esther of the opening chapters. Let us first study her psychological development and then her moral progress.

Who is the Esther who appears on the scene in the second chapter? A beautiful and comely girl, but powerless. She is devoid of initiative and independence. She is under Mordekhai's patronage; he treats her as his daughter. Even if we adopt the opinion that she was his wife, we are clearly dealing with a woman who lives completely under her husband's wing. "And whatever Mordekhai said, Esther would do - just as when she was still in his home" (2:20). There is a certain lack of sophistication about her, a simplicity and innocence. This point is emphasized not only in her character but also in her outer appearance. All other maidens come to the royal palace with every type of adornment: "Six months [of anointment] with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women's cosmetics..." (2:12). But "when it was the turn of Esther ... to come to the king, SHE ASKED FOR NOTHING" (2:15). She wears no makeup; she is completely natural, a simple, innocent and honest girl.

At the same time, what is equally apparent is her passivity. She does whatever Mordekhai asks her to, because she lives in his home. And when she lives in the royal palace - no longer under the patronage of Mordekhai but rather under the patronage of the royal entourage - she does only "what she is told by Hegai, the king's officer, appointed over the women." She does everything according to orders, completely devoid of individual will.

The portrait of Esther which we have before us, then, is the image of a fading wallflower. Although there was public significance to her entry into the royal palace, there is really nothing that gives her spiritual or national prominence. "Where does the Torah hint at Esther? From the words, 'I shall surely hide My face.'" (This plays on the similarity of the words "haster astir" to the name Esther.) At the beginning of the megilla it is not only the Divine Presence which is hidden - Esther herself is hidden from us. "Esther did not mention her birthplace or her nationality" (2:20). There is no Esther; she is a "tabula rasa." There are no identifiable characteristics, no national identity, no moral identification, no roots and no background. Rather, she presents the type of natural, cosmopolitan image of one who hails from some unknown part of the 127 provinces and arrives at the royal palace. No one knows whether she is a Mede or a Persian, from the north or from the south. Only one thing is known: she is beautiful and charming. But what is her identity? What is her character? What philosophy hides behind this image?

Such is the Esther of the opening chapters. A glance further on reveals how this innocent girl suddenly displays initiative that we would never have expected of her. She takes on Achashverosh and Haman at their own game; she displays cunning: "Let him come today... let him come tomorrow." She leads them by the nose. She leads Haman into a trap, simultaneously arousing the anger and desire of Achashverosh. Together with her personal initiative, her inner, spiritual, national and moral identities are also realized and come to the fore.

The anonymous Esther, the Esther devoid of roots, hailing from the "127 provinces," reveals herself and is transformed into a specific, singular Esther, belonging to a special nation. What characterizes her from that point onwards is not shrinking back into a haze, but on the contrary - an emphasis on her uniqueness, her belonging to a unique people, a nation whose "ways are different."

From here onwards Esther not only displays initiative in the sphere of political manipulations, but, brimming with self-confidence, faces up to Haman. Here Esther takes her place as a worthy member of the royalty, as a leader. Her leadership is so outstanding towards the end of the Megilla that to some degree it overshadows even that of Mordekhai.

Once upon a time, "whatever Mordekhai said, Esther would do." He was the one pulling the strings. Suddenly Mordekhai's own achievements come only in the wake of Esther's initiative. How does Mordekhai come to possess Haman's home? Through Esther. Who writes the megilla? While Mordekhai is still debating, "Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote" (9:29), and only afterwards did Mordekhai join her.

Now it is Esther who is prepared not only to stand before Achashverosh, but also to send a letter to the Sages and demand, "Write me down! Remember me for all generations!" Is this really the same innocent girl who "did what Mordekhai told her," "whatever she was told by Hegai, the king's officer, appointed over the women?"

The answer - the difference between the end and the beginning - must be sought elsewhere: in the middle of the story, in particular, in four verses in which the change occurs. These verses represent the key to the entire Megilla.

After the royal decree to exterminate all the Jews is issued in Shushan, messengers are dispatched throughout the kingdom to publicize it. Upon hearing the terrible report from her maidens and eunuchs, she begins to awaken somewhat from her inactivity and passivity. "The queen was greatly distressed" (4:4). Esther, who indeed has the power to avert the evil decree, who lives in the royal palace, who could pull the necessary strings, does nothing. She thinks to herself: "The decree has been issued - what can I do? I'm a young and simple girl; I can't move mountains."

What eventually gets her to act? Mordekhai disturbs her. The entire nation of Israel faces mortal danger, and this she is able to bear. But then she hears that Mordekhai, her beloved uncle, has removed his regular clothing and is wearing sackcloth instead. "And she sent clothing to clothe Mordekhai and to remove the sackcloth from upon him, but he did not accept it" (4:4). Instead of trying to have the rdecree canceled, instead of expressing solidarity with her people, instead of joining Mordekhai in protest and mourning, she begs: "Go and make him stop this nonsense; let him accept the decree as it is, let him put on his clothing again."

And despite everything, this still represents progress. She no longer displays complete passivity and helplessness. Something has started to move, and once there is concern for the individual Mordekhai, once the mire of passivity has been abandoned and some action is being taken, things start to happen.

Mordekhai refuses to take Esther's advice, and replies: "Thank you very much, but how am I to wear respectable clothing when the sword hangs over the entire nation?" Esther sends messengers to Mordekhai a second time, "to learn what this was and why this was" (4:5). What can be done?

Mordekhai sends back a very clear message: a copy of the royal decree. True, it is not clear from the megilla - and this is a critical question in itself - whether Esther knew of the impending decree before it was issued. Even if we suppose - as I am inclined to - that she had heard mention of it, there is still a vast difference between vague rumors which reach her by various means and a copy of the actual decree sent to her directly by Mordekhai. Esther starts to react to his influence, but in a limited way.

Mordekhai persists in his appeal to her. "Know, my dearest, that the entire nation of Israel - young and old - is in danger. Everyone. This is the appointed date. Go and do something, in your position as wife in the royal palace: Shout! Appeal! Beg! Pray!"

All around the swords are being sharpened, the ammunition is being gathered, but Esther remains unmoved. She tells Mordekhai that she cannot approach the king - it is against palace regulations. "All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman comes to the king, to the inner courtyard, without being called, there is a standard penalty - he is put to death!" (4:11). Of course, there are exceptions: "unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter, then he shall live" - but I? "I have not been called to come to the king for thirty days." For a whole month we have not seen each other, and so approaching him will be a problem.

Such was Esther's response even after "the queen was greatly distressed," even after Mordekhai has sent her a copy of the king's decree. Suddenly, Esther might be exposed to personal danger. The entire nation of Israel stands on one side of the scale, and she stands alone on the other. What decides the issue? Obviously, her own problems. If there is a personal interest and a public interest at stake, which is more likely to prevail?!

At this point, Mordekhai sends her a message which, if we read it correctly, is quite terrible. I myself tremble anew each time I reach this verse (4:13): "AND MORDEKHAI SAID TO REPLY TO ESTHER: DO NOT IMAGINE THAT YOU WILL ESCAPE IN THE KING'S PALACE FROM [AMONG] ALL THE JEWS."

What a biting accusation! It would seem that he should have told her, "You don't want to do anything? Then don't. You're cowardly and lacking in any initiative! You haven't been called to the king in thirty days? So what?" This would have put Esther in a more positive light. It's terrible that you aren't prepared to risk yourself, even at the expense of the entire nation, but still - it's a result of your inherent weakness.

But Mordekhai doesn't put her reaction down to weakness. He takes his gamble all the way, appealing to the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul. He accuses Esther of refusing to go to the king not because she lacks courage, not out of weakness, but rather as a calculated choice: "Let the entire Jewish nation be destroyed. Let them all perish - young and old, men and women. I will remain secure in the royal palace." This is how Mordekhai interprets her response, and this what he addresses: not weakness, not a lack of courage, but rather what he fears may lie behind everything. Behind the apparent timidity lies apathy. If you really cared, if you considered your own soul to be at stake, would you be able to say, "For a whole month I have not been called to the king"? Is this how someone talks when she believes that her nation is in danger? Is this the response of someone who cares?

Someone who really cares, someone whose consciousness is deeply rooted in the collective experience of Am Yisrael, someone whose destiny is bound up with that of the nation, disregards any consideration of danger or possible anger on the part of the king. In fact, such a person doesn't even have to disregard these thoughts - they don't even enter her mind. Such considerations arise, whether consciously or subconsciously, out of a perception that everyone else may perish, but I will manage to save my own skin.

This, as we have mentioned, is a most serious accusation. What does Mordekhai want from her? He knows her, after all. She has been in his care for a long time, a young and innocent girl, passive and naive. Why is he attacking her with this terrible accusation? Give her the benefit of the doubt! Understand her weakness! How do you expect this unfortunate girl, an orphan who has spent years in the care of others, to courageously enter the royal courtyard?

Mordekhai will not compromise. He understands that if one knows what the situation is, and if one is truly concerned, then no considerations are admissible and no rules are relevant. Rather, one must be prepared for self-sacrifice, taking care that not personal interests but rather national interests will dictate one's plans and actions.

"Do not imagine that you will escape in the royal palace from all the Jews!"

Mordekhai adds a further note: "For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will arise for the Jews from somewhere else, and you and your father's house will perish. Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time like this you came to join the royalty?" (4:14). He is telling Esther: Know that your calculations are mistaken. Not only does your response exhibit moral and ethical rottenness, but you are mistaken in a practical sense as well. Do you believe that everyone will perish and you will remain there, in the royal palace, just because you have succeeded in entering the king's bedroom? Is that how you think God runs His world? Someone who avoids any responsibility, who doesn't care, who isn't prepared to risk himself, who gives his personal ambitions priority over the interests of the nation - is that the person you think will survive? Will he be the one to succeed? Will all values just disappear? "You and your father's house will perish."

"For if you remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will arise for the Jews from somewhere else." Salvation will come. I don't know how or from where, but it will come! Those who pay heed to sundry considerations and circumstances, the doubters and cowards of many types, those who put themselves first - all of these will perish! "Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time like this you came to join the royalty?" Now is zero hour. This is the test.

At any rate, this is also the turning point. For the doubtful, hesitating, fearful Esther at whom Mordekhai directs this terrible accusation, pushing her back to the wall and demanding that she stop making excuses and abandon her calculations - these are the real calculations: "Look deep into your soul and see what lies behind your hesitation. Do not try to trick either me or yourself. Do not try to trick God. There are no calculations or considerations, no fears or hesitations, no orders or rules. What lies behind all your excuses is APATHY. What you have to decide is, DO I CARE OR DON'T I?"

The excuses fall away; Mordekhai rejects, one by one, all of her claims and considerations. Morally laid bare, Esther must make her fateful choice: Do I care or don't I?

It is now that the young, passive, powerless Esther faces her moment of truth, and she prevails. She passes the test. And it is now that she rises to her full height and reveals h- not just in title, but in essence - as Queen Esther.

At this moment Esther realizes that what is at stake is not just another private matter involving Mordekhai. She realizes the dimensions of the threat, the potential tragedy looming over the whole of Am Yisrael, including herself. She is no longer the anonymous Esther; she is prepared to reveal herself, to identify herself openly. She is ready to cooperate, and to stand together with her nation. This Esther understands that her fate and destiny are not her private, personal matter, but rather bound up with those of the nation as a whole. And when the danger and the mission are public, then the course of action, too, will of necessity be a public one: "Go and gather all the Jews" (4:16).

Well aware of her true destiny, Esther presents herself before Achashverosh. She discards personal considerations in favor of public ones. Only after she has passed the test is she capable of standing before Achashverosh, appearing before the people, leading the camp, initiating action, demanding and even deciding events.

The key to the question of where we find the transition from the retiring Esther of chapter 2 to the regal and commanding Esther of chapter 9 is to be found in the Esther of chapter 4. In the zero-hour of chapter 4, the fateful showdown between Mordekhai and Esther decided between apathy and empathy, selfishness and selflessness.

As mentioned earlier, the megilla is a story of development on two levels: one in terms of strength of character, initiative and courage, and the other in terms of moral awareness, of reassessing priorities. The two processes go hand in hand: when Esther finds the WILL to achieve an important end, she finds the ABILITY to do so as well. This is the essence of Mordekhai's message to her - if there is a will, there is a way. But first, you must truly will it.

And this is indeed what happens. Once Esther cares enough, she thinks hard and arrives at a solution. Her two-pronged plan consists of prayer - "Gather all the Jews," a call to the Almighty - and donning her royal garb in order to find favor in the eyes of a very human king. There is fasting and crying and tearing the heavens, together with an easy smile and moving to action. When the will prevails, suddenly it becomes apparent that one possesses the means to accomplish. Those potential character traits which until now have been concealed burst outward. Deeply hidden treasures that have lain dormant in the recesses of the soul reveal themselves in the wake of the will and initiative, and prove themselves capable of overturning worlds, canceling decrees, changing the fate of an entire nation.


We are all, to some degree, Esther. Each of us, for whatever reason, has doubts as to his ability to accomplish. We, too, are hesitant: "What, we're going to achieve all that? We're going to save Am Yisrael? I'm going to put a stop to assimilation? Little me? I'm just a youngster; I can achieve only little: a little bit in my neighborhood, a little bit in a youth group, a little bit in the family. But to start a revolution? To determine the future of a nation? To avert an evil decree? Little me?"

Here comes the demand. I don't want to use Mordekhai's words, but I do want to at least pose the question: how much of our resignation is motivated by supposed "inability" and how much is a result of the fact that our concern simply doesn't run deep enough?

Esther's concern doesn't run deep enough for two reasons, both extremely serious. On one hand, perhaps she doesn't act because of a lack of knowledge. True, she was told about the decree, she heard something, but with only half an ear - she didn't pay much attention. What penetrated the depths of her soul was only the family issue.

The question is obvious: how can this be? The whole of Shushan is shouting it out, there are posters on every corner, children in the streets are sharpening swords, everyone knows. Can it be that only Esther, who is right in the middle of all of it, in the palace, doesn't see?

Today too, everyone knows that Am Yisrael is in grave danger. There is danger of assimilation, danger of mixed marriages, danger of people losing their way, danger of being cut off from roots and values. Can it be that only you can't see it? As if this information is hidden somewhere? Is there any difficulty involved in obtaining the statistics on Jewish education in Israel and in the diaspora? Someone who cares enough can get his hands on the figures: sixty percent of Jews in the diaspora are being lost! And the situation here in Israel is nothing to be excited about. A person is quite capable of finding out, if he's interested enough, the number of students who "drop out" of the national-religious system!

But even more serious are Mordekhai's words to Esther. At a certain stage there is an effort to give her the benefit of the doubt: "Well, it certainly sounds very strange: the whole of Shushan knows, except the queen?" Still - maybe they told her it was just a possibility, a thought, and she may have thought that the danger wasn't imminent. But after copies of the decree of annihilation were distributed, and Mordekhai brought them to her attention, can Esther still say, "What do you want from me?"

Herein lies the ultimate question. It is directed to each and every one of us. Let each person do as Esther did: stand before himself, stand before God, and once the situation is quite clear to him, ask himself, "Where am I, who am I, what comes first, what is vital and what is secondary?" This does not imply that what is secondary is necessarily unimportant: Esther's plans of being queen and ruling over 127 provinces certainly represented serious career considerations. The question is not whether one's personal plans are inherently improper. Rather, a person must ask himself not only whether what he is doing is good and worthy, but whether it is the best and most worthy thing that he could do. He has to keep asking himself, "Is this really what the circumstances require? Is this the best that I can do at this time?"

Chazal teach that God once criticized no less than the ministering angels themselves. When God saved the Israelites at the Red Sea by drowning the Egyptians, the angels requested to do what would appear to be their rightful job, to fulfill themselves, to express their innermost souls - they wished to break out into a joyous song of praise to God. God said to them: Indeed, song is beautiful and wonderful; it gives expression to the soul. But there are times when even song itself is not worthy of the ministering angels. "My creatures are drowning in the sea, and yet you sing my praise?!"

The angels' song itself is not necessarily wrong; it is just inappropriate at that given time. The question is one of priorities. It is good and worthy to sing, but is that all that needs to be done at this particular time?

"My creatures are drowning in the sea" - a sea of assimilation, a sea of ignorance, a sea of alienation from Knesset Yisrael, a sea of disconnection from roots. And you - who are capable of moving the carriage out of the mud, you who could lend a hand, you who could uplift the nation, you who could be inculcating values - you offer song?!

This is the real question. If you understand the situation - and there is no reason or excuse not to - then you hear the cry that emanates from every part of the country, from every corner of the globe, expressed in the spiritual dangers surrounding us and threatening us on every side. Someone who cares knows what is going on, and once he knows he must ask himself: What significance does this knowledge have for me? To what extent does it cause me pain? To what extent do I identify with world Jewry, in fasting and prayer? To what extent is my spiritual world structured such that Knesset Yisrael and its dangers are on one side and I, with my considerations and private plans, am on the other?

Like Esther, we will all have to ask ourselves the question when the time comes: We could have saved; did we? What will be our answer then? More importantly, what is our answer today?