“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence. ”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
If there is one strength that threads through the entire story of who Esther was and what she did, it is the power of silence. Esther can remain silent when others would not be able to and when she breaks that silence, her message carries, in a way that that of others, would never be able to.The very story of Esther is introduced to us by way of silence
“And it came to pass when the king’s order and his decree were heard, and when many maidens were gathered to Shushan the capital, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women…Esther did not reveal her nationality or her lineage, for Mordecai had ordered her not to reveal it.” (esther chapter 2)
The chapter continues by telling us that even after Achashverosh chooses her, Esther continues on her path of silence: “Esther would not tell her lineage or her nationality, as Mordecai had commanded her, for Esther kept Mordecai’s orders as she had when she was raised by him.” The power to conceal such a meaningful piece of information in such an intimate and ongoing setting should not be underestimated. Esther’s ability to conduct herself within the royal palace— under a national spotlight—in such secrecy is something most people would not be able to do.
Sometimes it is easier to be completely silent than partially so. Esther shows an incredible ability to use her words selectively. After Mordechai informs her about Bigtan and Teresh’s plot to assassinate king Achashverosh, Esther conveys that information, and then some, while continuing to conceal her identity.
“And the matter became known to Mordecai, and he told [it] to Queen Esther, and Esther told [it] to the king in Mordecai’s name.”
Esther did not need to tell the king it was Mordechai who told her about the plot—but she did. The rabbis learn from this the importance of giving credit to the person you are quoting. “Anyone who says a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as the verse says ‘And Esther said to the King in the name of Mordechai” (Pirkei Avot 6:6)
The power of Esther was both to add to her report on Bigtan and Teresh the name of Mordechai while at the same time omitting the fact that they are related. It is Esther’s power of silence. Yet every power has two sides to it. To be able to use a power we have in the opposite way can seem impossible. When it comes to saving the Jewish people from Haman’s evil decree, Esther does not spring to action. Esther is hesitant as she—more than others—knows the value of silence. “Esther said to Hathach, and she ordered him to [tell] Mordecai: All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who comes to the king, into the inner court, who is not summoned, there is but one law for him, to be put to death, except the one to whom the king extends the golden scepter, that he may live, but I have not been summoned to come to the king these thirty days.” (chapter 4)
Esther knows that the value of words can be greater than gold. She knows that words used in the wrong place can be a missed opportunity that is lost forever. It is at this point that Mordechai weighs in with all that he has. He begs Esther with these very famous words: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish, and who knows whether at a time like this you will attain the kingdom?”
Not only does Mordechai implore Esther to act, but he warns her of the dangers of silence. Sometimes silence can be deadly. There are times that even if silence will indeed save your very life, it is not worth it. Mordechai is not taking the path of dissuading Esther from overestimating the power of her silence. Mordechai takes her side and agrees that speaking might be deadly under the current circumstances—yet he urges her to take the risk. Now is the time. Esther is persuaded. Not because she decides she is wrong, but because she decides it is worth losing everything for.
“I will go to the king contrary to the law, and if I perish, I perish.”
Esther’s understanding of the power of speech explains another mystery of the Megilah. After inviting Haman to one party with her and the king, Esther says nothing at the actual party. Instead, she ends up inviting Haman for another intimate party, and only then dropping the bombshell that she is Jewish and that Haman would like to destroy her entire people. Esther knows that for words to have their maximum impact when spoken in the right place at the right time.
The name Esther also comes from the Hebrew word “Hester,” which means to hide. Commentaries often attribute this to the fact that God’s name is not mentioned in the book of Ether and that God’s hand is not shown through open miracles but rather through the directing of natural events. It is also possible the name Esther and the hiding it implies refers to who Esther was and her ability to remain silent even under the most difficult circumstances.
When thinking of Esther and the power of silence, I often think of the Israeli soldier Uri Ilani. When studying in Yeshiva Sha’ar Hatorah in Queens, I had the honor to learn from and get to know the late Rabbi Zelig Epstein. I also got to know his wife, Chaya, a granddaughter of the great Rabbi Shimon Shkop (1860-1839), one of the greatest Lithuanian Talmudists to have ever lived. His great-grandson Uri Ilan joined the Israeli army’s commando unit. Sent with four other soldiers on a secret mission in Syria, Ilan and his friends crossed the border into Syria on a dark night in 1954.
Tragically, the Syrians captured them, taking them from Quentera to a prison in Damascus, where they were tortured terribly. Afraid that he will not withstand the torture and that he would endanger the lives of Israelis by giving away Israel’s security secrets, Ilan tragically took his life. When his body was returned to Israel, a note was found on his body which read: “I did not betray.” So important to him was his silence to protect Israel that Ilan preferred to take his life rather than divulge state secrets, albeit under extraordinary torture. His silence is now taught in Israeli schools and to Israeli soldiers. Ilan’s silence of loyalty, commitment, and love for his people live much louder than any words of those who captured him. His silence resonates for generations.
Some leaders are remembered for their speeches, sermons, and encouragement; some are remembered for their silence. Esther’s legacy is her ability to remain silent in ways that no one else would be able to, yet to break that silence when needed. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere.” The lesson Esther imparts to generations is the power of silence and how that silence can empower our message a thousand-fold. May we be blessed with the power of Esther and Uri Ilan to know when silence is gold and when speaking out is worth sacrificing everything.