Michael Oberlander

Emotion and Diplomacy in the Book of Esther

As we look to celebrate the holiday of Purim while we are fighting a war for our homeland, we can and should look to our sacred texts for guidance. And, not just moral and religious guidance.  We can, if we look closely, also find lessons in diplomacy and how to act in a community of different nations.  

 One way to read the Book of Esther is as a lesson for Jews living in diasporic communities, navigating the politics of living as the “other” in a society not quite their own.  We can also understand how Jewish leaders can act.  

We know that the Book of Esther is full of twists and turns.  The world of Persia and the life of the Jews is often flipped on its head.  Haman, looking for glory, asked the king for the ultimate way to honor someone who the king wants to honor.  He then must lead the parade in honor of his enemy, Mordechai.  The gallows that were built for Mordechai, became the gallows upon which Haman himself was hung.  The language is full of parallels, and double/triple meanings.  

While reading Megillat Esther this year, I was struck by an incident later in the story.  We are past the parties, the intrigue at court, the assassination plot and Haman’s death.  In another example of reversal, at the beginning of Chapter 8, King Achashverus transfers the control of Haman’s estate (political position?) to Esther.  How does she respond?  

Esther falls to her husband’s feet weeping (Esther 8:3), echoing back to what Mordechai told her to do way back in Chapter 4 (verse 8).  She begged Achashveros to avert the evil plotted by Haman.  How many times over the last 5-plus months have we – figuratively and literally – fallen down weeping?  Overcome by emotions, Esther and we have fallen.  We have weeped.  We have pleaded to avert the evil that we are facing.  Our reactions are natural and understandable.  

The king responded to Esther by extending his scepter, and she rose and stood before the king.  Picture the scene:  a wife, overcome by emotion, falls at her husband’s feet begging and crying.  As a husband all I would want to do is reach out and embrace my wife and do anything in my power to relieve her suffering.  But, Esther was not just a wife.  She was the Queen.  And he was the King.  Achashveros extended his scepter to remind Esther of her role and where she was.  As a Jew, as a wife, as a person, she of course was permitted, even empowered, to have her own emotional reaction.  But, when she approached the king with an official request, Achasverosh reminded her that the rules are a bit different. 

Esther understands this.  She then addressed the King, saying (using the JPS translation):  “If it please Your Majesty … and if I have won your favor and the proposal seems right to Your Majesty, and if I am pleasing to you – let dispatches be written countermanding those which were written by Haman … embodying his plot to annihilate the Jews throughout the king’s provinces” (8:5).  She continues, “for how can I bear to see the disaster that will befall my people!  And how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred!” (8:6).  

While the request is the same – save my people – the delivery is completely different.  One was an emotional cry while prostrating.  The other was while standing straight in conformity with court etiquette, using flowery (even pompous) language to appeal to the king.  While the husband may have responded to the first, the king could only respond to the second.

We and our leaders can and should continue to learn from our sacred texts.  As Kohelet tells us, there is a time for everything – a time for emotionality and a time for acting diplomatically.  Unfortunately, our current leaders are not as intuitive as Queen Esther.  They continue to react emotionally on the international scene.  Even though our cause is just, they continue to demonstrate that they are not up to the challenge of phrasing our case in the language that is appropriate for their positions.  This is not a question of compromising our principles or revising our positions, but tempering how we speak in public.  Netanyahu, Smotrich, Ben Gvir and their ilk continue to speak to their own narrow constituencies, ignoring or oblivious to the impact their words have on the nation as a whole and on our allies.  I hope that they can reflect on the Book of Esther.  Emotion and Diplomacy in the Book of Esther

About the Author
Michael Oberlander made aliyah in 2019 from St. Louis, MO, where he lived for over 25 years and was a volunteer and then professional leader in the Jewish community. He lives in Ra'anana with his wife and 2 dogs, as the kids are busy getting married, studying or serving in the army. He is the General Counsel of a hi-tech company based in Jerusalem.