Learning from Esther

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Yitzchak Barth

Translated by Dov Karoll


Many have noted that the megilla we read on Purim is named neither for Mordekhai nor for Achashverosh, but rather for Queen Esther. It seems that the megilla is not called "Megillat Esther" because Esther wrote it, but rather because Esther is the main character in the megilla, and the story of the Jews' salvation is, to a great extent, parallel to the story of her personal development. The megilla describes how a girl who was shy and passive becomes active and initiatory, rescuing an entire nation.

It is quite clear that there is no other character in the megilla who undergoes personality development that is even comparably dramatic. For example, Mordekhai's character does not develop in the course of the megilla: the same initiative which is apparent in the final verse of the megilla (10:3), where he is described as, "Ranked next to King Achashverosh, highly regarded among the Jews," is apparent at the beginning of the megilla as well, when he informs the king of Bigtan and Teresh's plot (2:21-22). Esther, on the other hand, almost seems to be a different person at the end of the megilla than she was at the beginning.

We are first introduced to Esther via her cousin Mordekhai, who "took her in as a daughter" following her parents' passing (Esther 2:7). From here on, Esther is described as a passive maiden, who does not veer from Mordekhai's instructions one iota. The megilla emphasizes Esther's passivity at every opportunity. Each of the many maidens requested her own perfumes and all her requests were granted; Esther, on the other hand, "requested nothing but what Hegay, the king's chamberlain, the keeper of women, advised" (2:15). Beyond that, Esther did not inform anyone of her national identity, "for Mordekhai had told her not to reveal it" (2:10), and even after she had been taken into the king's home, Mordekhai "walked every day before the court of the women's house, to know how Esther did, and what became of her" (2:11).

Even after Esther was chosen from all the women to be Achashverosh's queen, and one would expect that she would mature and break out of the mold of the orphan raised in her cousin's home, the megilla testifies about her: "For Esther carried out the bidding of Mordekhai, just as when she was brought up with him" (2:20). Her appointment as the Queen of Persia and Medea, a key position, which enables, if not demands, independence and activism, does not cause Esther to transcend her childish and passive personality.

Were it not for the upheaval that Esther underwent in the course of her life, it is reasonable to assume that she would have continued on her childish path. Careful study of the megilla reveals that through the events and her struggle with them, Esther "changed the color of her skin" and became a mature and responsible character, who took her fate into her own hands. The megilla dramatically describes to us the turning point in Esther's development, in response to Mordekhai's heated claim:

"Do not think in your heart that you shall escape in the king's house any more than all of the other Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance shall arise to the Jews from elsewhere, while you and your father's house perish; and who knows, perhaps you have attained royal position for just such a crisis." (4:13-14)

As the queen, Esther has the opportunity to take the initiative, and accordingly she also bears the responsibility to do so. The time of crisis demands her intervention; she can no longer continue to embody the childish, shy girl, swept up in the current of her surroundings. She needs to do everything she can to change the course of events, to channel their course to her desired goal.

Surprisingly, Mordekhai's words have an effect. From this point onward, one can discern a total re-orientation in Esther's personality. By the end of that chapter, the megilla testifies, "So Mordekhai did just as Esther had commanded him" (17). This comes in stark contrast to the scenario that had prevailed until that moment, when Mordekhai had commanded and Esther had carried out his word.

For the remainder of the megilla, Mordekhai becomes secondary to Esther, and nearly disappears from the scene. Esther invites the king to the feast, confronts Haman, and falls before the king, pleading with him to repeal the decree. Even in the one place where Mordekhai appears in the story of the salvation, when he is led through the streets upon a royal horse, he plays a passive role. In sum, one can claim that the story of the megilla is also the personal story of Esther, who develops, in a short time, into a mature character, one who takes command and responsibility, and shapes her own destiny.

The story of Esther is not merely of historical significance. This story serves as a model of a process that every person must undergo in the course of maturation. Through the character of Esther, the megilla gives us a real-life lesson in developing inner strength, and in forming a mature personality out of the raw material of childishness.

Under circumstances entirely different from those faced by Esther, this challenge confronts each of us. Every person is born with great potential, and the challenge of life is to make the most of that potential, to develop one's abilities and actualize those latent faculties.

A person must never think that he is free of commitment. Any religious outlook, and certainly a Jewish one, asserts that a person's body and soul are deposits from God, and a person is obligated to guard them from any damage. Not only this, but a person cannot suffice with passively watching over this prized deposit, but, rather, is obligated to develop it, to actualize the powers contained within it. This obligation breeds responsibility, for "Everything which I am obligated to guard, I am responsible for its damage" (Mishna, Bava Kama 9b). A sharecropper who was negligent and did not work the field in accordance with the conditions set down by the landowner "is liable just like one who destroyed actively" (Rambam, Hil. Sekhirut 2:3). So too, if a person was negligent and did not bring his personality and capabilities to fruition, he is as liable as if he had actively destroyed them.

Developing one's personality and actualizing one's capabilities are independently valuable, unrelated to the use made of those capabilities. Nonetheless, when we come before God on Judgment Day, we will not suffice with the fact that we have developed our capabilities to their fullest potential; we also must answer the question of toward what goals and objectives we utilized them.

Man's superiority over animals is manifest in his capacity of free choice. This capacity constitutes the tzelem E-lokim, the Divine element of man, for it is the capacity through which man is superior to the animals as well as the angels. When he develops his inner abilities, man expands his capacity for free will, and can reach heights that he could not even imagine previously.

Only by developing one's personality can a person fully actualize his free will. However, while universal humanism sets the goal as developing one's capacity alone, religious humanism adds the striving for utilizing those capacities for appropriate goals.

Precisely for that reason, this very capacity for growth carries a potential for destruction. Along with the opportunity for personal advancement, it bears within it grave dangers. The person who builds up his personality and develops his strengths can choose to follow a negative path, to channel his strengths in undesirable directions. This danger increases the more a person develops his capacity for free will. A person's responsibility to choose correctly increases the more he develops, for new opportunities are available to him that were not previously.

"It is a delicacy wia thorn in it" (Rosh Ha-shana 17a). It turns out that the more a person develops, the more difficult it is for him to fulfill his basic destiny. As a person gains new strengths and develops his personality, it becomes that much more difficult for him to accept the yoke of Heaven on an existential level, to fulfill the mandate of "Nullify your will before His will" (Avot 2:4).

We are all aware of the fact that Yeshayahu's rhetorical question, "Shall the ax boast itself against him that hews with it?" (10:15), is answered today in the affirmative. The more the ax is perfected and developed, the more it considers itself great, and the less willing it is to accept the mastery of its Creator. "I have reared children and brought them up, and they have rebelled against Me" (Yeshayahu 1:2). It is not that the children rebelled despite having been reared; it is precisely because they were reared and elevated that they rebelled.

The Torah sees the model for this problem in the dor ha-pelaga, the builders of the Tower of Babel. It was precisely when they had reached the apex of technological development that they sought to construct a tower that reached to the heavens, to rebel against God.

The desired path is precisely opposite this approach. The mishna (Berakhot 54a) explains that the verse, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart" (Devarim 6:5), means that one should worship God "with both your inclinations, the good and the bad." The Rav zt"l explained that the mishna means that one's obligation to serve God applies even to the qualities which naturally tend toward negative directions. The ideal is to develop even these forces, such as aggressiveness, jealousy and egocentrism, in order to direct them toward wholehearted service of God.

The danger in developing one's capacities is that it can lead one to inappropriate conclusions. Some claim that since a person begins to serve God out of smallness and narrowness, and when he develops he rebels and worships himself rather than God, it is therefore preferable to remain with the personality as it is created. According to this view, one should neither build nor develop himself, so that he not rebel against his Creator. This danger is inherent to self-development, and the more a person develops, the more the danger grows.

However, while the danger is great, there is no avoiding it. It is true that a shallow personality that worships God is preferable to a developed personality that does not accept His authority. Yet giving up personal development entirely is to give in to the difficulties, thus exemplifying a lack of resolve and ability to cope with them. This too would be tragic.

Our aspiration is to develop the treasured deposit we have received, rather than leaving it the way we received it, notwithstanding the risks and dangers involved. If it turns out that we are faced with a choice between a dwarf who worships God and a giant from dor ha-pelaga, then, with a heavy heart, we will choose to be dwarves. However, it must be made clear that we do not believe that these are the only two possibilities that face modern man. We strive to maximize the tzelem E-lokim within us, to build our personality to the fullest potential latent within it, and to develop our capabilities as much as we can. Alongside that, we vigilantly remain aware of our position relative to the Creator of the World, so that our efforts do not bear sour fruits. If we indeed reach the conclusion that this delicate balance is impossible, we will abandon our path, with a heavy heart; but the day we would reach that conclusion, Heaven forbid, would be a black and painful day.

The Sages were aware of the difficult issue described here. The Mishna (Avot 3:9) quotes the statement of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, "He whose fear of sin takes precedence over his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom takes precedence over his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure." Take note: he whose wisdom takes precedence over his fear does not only lack fear, but also loses his wisdom.

The precedence of which Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa speaks is not necessarily chronological, but rather psychological and axiological. In this statement, Rabbi Chanina sets out a value system that centers on the worship of God, on "fear," which provides direction for the other aspects of one's personality, for the "wisdom." A person must not rely on the fact that he was educated as to the fear of God when he was only eight, while he only started to study philosophy at the age of eighteen. He must develop his fear of God throughout his life, parallel to all other aspects of his personality, and make sure that his "fear" always takes precedence over his "wisdom."

This educational plan is not only meant for the individual, for every person striving to take full advantage of the potential within him, but also, and particularly, for educational institutions, which should guide their students in this direction. Our Yeshiva places great emphasis on building one's personality, on developing one's talents and maximizing the capabilities within each person. Our ideal is for each student not to suffice with moderate gains, following the path set out by others, but chart his life in an active and creative manner. Yet it is crucial to emphasize that the responsibility of the system does not lie merely with encouraging the student to develop his strengths and build his personality. The Yeshiva must also educate the student to channel his strengths to the proper paths, such that he not be haughty in his relationship with God, and so that he know to nullify his own will before God's will.

The obligation to accept the yoke of Heaven is not binding only on simple, innocent people, who will return their deposit to God just as they received it. Rather, it is especially binding on those who strive for growth and achievement.

This is a task for one's entire life. On the one hand, a person must continuously develop the strengths that God planted within him. Concomitantly, one must not allow these strengths to cause him to stray from maintaining an appropriate relationship with his Creator. This is a difficult path, full of obstacles, but it leads to a level of faith and personal development which are worth all the difficulties involved.

(This sicha was delivered on Ta'anit Esther, 5761 [2001].)