Esther is in the palace in Shushan. As she walks around the luxurious rooms and exquisite gardens, she finds favour (“chen”) in the eyes of all who see her. Is it because she is charming and pretty? The Sages deny this possibility — they insist she was of a greenish hue.
Perhaps, rather, it is because she is deeply present and connected, bringing her full self to every encounter, in line with the definition of
the word “chen” presented by hasidic thinking.
I imagine Esther as radiant with her full humanity, the bearer of a connection to something transcendent that is transmitted in her facial expressions, vibrates in her voice, and moves and elevates all those who speak with her, whether conscious of it or not.
Yet this same Esther, who is so charming, so present and full — is she not experiencing profound alienation at this very moment? Ripped away from her people, her home and her only relative Mordechai, having to keep her true identity a secret, not to overtly keep any Jewish customs so as not to arouse suspicion, she is truly “in the closet.” Searing loneliness is her lot; anxiety and confusion as to her fate, when she has not been called to the king for weeks and seems to have been forgotten. Is she nothing but a plaything, enjoyed at first, then cast into a corner? For this she has thrown away her life and her hopes of raising a Jewish family? Is there even one ally in the palace to whom she can speak about her hopes and fears? Can she even confide in Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who helped her become queen in the first place?
We do not know. We suspect not. Yet with all this, she is able to find a “chen” inside her, a place of faith, a listening and compassion to others that warms their hearts and draws them to her.
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This post is a salute to all those individuals who have to hide their true feelings and true selves, and yet who are able to be in their radiance and presence, their “chen.” Putting on a smile that is not fake, but genuine and sincere; opening a heart, though scarred by the years; stepping outside their own painful story to dwell in the web of interconnection of all beings and all stories.
I salute you who create inside yourself, despite the trauma or because of it, a sanctuary for the Divine, and thus, too, a place for the Shehinah to dwell between you and every person encountered.
You are heroes and heroines of great courage. I see the work you do not to fall into bitterness and despair; to constantly reboot and refresh, and get up once again from the place in which you have fallen; to love and care about someone other than yourself, though your problems threaten to overwhelm and suck you down into the abyss. I see how, after privately crying out your grief, you set out, head held high, dressed to the nines, to kick up your heels at a celebration of others receiving precisely that which you so yearn to have for yourself. How you truly bless them in your heart, banishing resentment and envy as best you can.
You are warriors of the spirit and I bow to you. I bow to you as Mordechai did not bow to Haman, he who represents the opposite of everything above. The epitome of the ingrate, who, though he had a wife, 10 sons, friends, riches and status — lacking for nothing at all – whines: “None of this means anything to me while Mordechai the Jew still sits at the King’s gate!” Haman the unappreciative, the unmindful, the untranscendant. Haman who lacks all “chen.”
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Queen Esther was never released from this odd life into which she had been thrust willy-nilly. She never returned to her people to live out the rest of her days not as “Esther” the hidden one, but as Hadassah, a simple Jewess, openly raising children in her own tradition. But she left an incredible legacy — a scroll in the Tanach that to this day we call “The Scroll of Esther” and not of Mordechai; a rich Jewish festival that brings abundant light to those who know how to utilize the day; and, according to tradition, a son Darius, who helped restore the Temple.
I hope that everyone can have their happy ending, where they no longer have to hide. But in the meantime, I bless you. You bereaved by death or miscarriage, who wish well to happy and whole families; and you suffering endless infertility treatments, buying a gift for yet another bris. You who are experiencing sexual feelings that cannot, for whatever reason, be manifested, who wish a smiling mazal tov to a couple holding hands with a person of their choice and preference — totally oblivious to what a luxury that is. You singles attending weddings of people half your age, yet smiling and dancing as if it was your own. You who are pretending to be more or less religious than is true for you, trapped in a lie, and you “theological marranos,” who cannot share your doubts with your peers. You who must keep your political opinions to yourselves due to crushing peer pressure in your environment; and you, struggling with medical or psychological issues, post-natal depression, a past of sexual abuse, or any other demons that you decide cannot be publicized.
I bless you all that your mask not be tight, not be choking off your air and light. That you find places in which to share what you feel, and friends to hear, contain and care.
Most of all, I bless you with the greatest gift possible: your own innermost connected being, your full presence and self. May your scarred heart be whole as only a broken heart can.
I thank Rabbi Doniel Katz for bringing me to this understanding of “chen,” through Breslov teachings.