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Esther steps out of the cotton wool

Esther descends from the line of Benjamin. I’ve noted in another post her connections with Saul and Jonathan, of that tribe. But we can see also an important connection to Benjamin himself, and that is through the theme of (over)protectiveness.

At Benjamin’s birth itself (Gen. 35:18), his father steps in to protect him from the devastating name his mother Rachel bestowed on him with her dying breath. She called him Ben Oni, son of my distress, and Jacob changes it to Ben-Yemin, son of the right (with several potential meanings, all positive). He saves his youngest son from carrying a traumatic name for the rest of his days, one which would have reminded him permanently that his mother died in bringing him to life. Indeed, Benjamin possibly never even knew that he had a different name to begin with.

Following that, we see an explicit and powerful ongoing theme of Benjamin being protected, not just by his father but also by his brothers. While we hear of the brothers roaming with the sheep, we never see the youngest outside of the home. When the brothers go down to Egypt to get food, he is left behind, “lest harm befall him” (Gen: 42:4). When Joseph, disguised as an Egyptian, demands that the brothers bring Benjamin on their next visit (Gen 42:20), they are horrified. True, it is primarily their father whom they want to protect from his inevitable grief and demise should Benjamin be taken from him – but, by default, they are also protecting Benjamin from harm.

Benjamin is always passive, never active. He is always part of someone else’s plan – for example, when Joseph places the cup in his bag (Gen: 42:27). He is swathed in cotton wool and never empowered or allowed to take his own steps into maturation. As such, Jacob’s final blessing to him, “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil” (Gen: 49:27) seems initially a little at odds with what we know of him.

Yet perhaps it does fit. Perhaps all this protectiveness had the opposite effect, of creating a deep desire – a hunger – in Benjamin to shake off all his would-be protectors and smotherers, and go out hunting, as a lone ravenous wolf. In fact, his descendants become fierce warriors and lone wolves – they end up separated from the rest of Israel in very negative ways (Judges 20-21).

Back to Esther. She represents the rectification of this unbalance. We can well imagine that she grows up as a sheltered Jewish orphan, in the protection of her older cousin Mordechai (Esther 2:7). He strives to save her from any more grief after the loss of her parents, and also from the pervading negative influence of the surrounding Persian culture. Even after she is taken away to the palace, Mordechai continues to be very concerned for her welfare (Esther 2:11).

In the palace, she comes immediately into the protection of Hegai, in charge of the harem. She is taken from the hands of one man, Mordechai, and placed into the hands of another, Hegai. She has no agency; she obeys Hegai’s instructions, just as she obeyed Mordechai’s.

However, in the course of time comes that famous moment when she comes into her own, and steps forward to create her own destiny and save the Jewish people (Esther 4:16).

That is when she rectifies the flaw in Benjamin’s upbringing, becoming active and going beyond the cocoon. She seeks an audience with King Achashverosh in a manner that puts her outside the protection of the law, for she has not been called; it is illegal for her to approach him. Her safety is not guaranteed here by any man. She must take the risk by herself, and have faith in the ultimate protection of God (which itself is not always vouchsafed to us humans as “safety” in the way that we understand it).

However, she does go to the other extreme and function as a lone wolf. She asks the community to fast for her (Esther: 4:16), and she acts in tandem with Mordechai.

Esther’s shift to activity and her risk-taking pay off. We are reaping its benefit to this very day. May we too learn to step out of overprotectiveness – of others towards us, or of us to our our own selves – but without overdoing it; while still remaining connected to the wider community,

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom. www.yaelunterman.com
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