Esther — Women are the key to our spiritual and physical survival
You do not need to study Hegel, to know that human beings are social creatures. One of the main themes of the Shmoneh Perakim of the Rambam, is that man is a social being and the purpose of the mitzvot is to bring us not only closer to G-d, but also to man. The whole purpose of the IsraelB online community I run is to connect Jews and make them closer to each other.
Sociologists such as Peter Berger and Ernest Goffman talk about the “self” and the “other”. The individual, the “self” can only develop and mature, if he is connecting with the “other”, his surroundings and environment, the people around him.
In the Tenach, there are two sefarim named after women: Esther and Ruth. The moving story of Ruth, occurs in Eretz Yisrael. They are living in poverty and the emphasis is not on beauty or aesthetics. On the other hand, Esther is a story of Jews who chose to stay in Persia, in Chutz La’aretz, where there is affluence and wealth. Both these women have to cope by themselves- Ruth is a widow. Esther is an orphan. Their desperation leads them to achieve greatness. Both Ruth and Esther are forced by their circumstances to go through transformations in their characters.
I remember a shiur I heard in Yeshiva from Rav Lichtenstein, where he spoke about Esther 1 and Esther 2, and how Esther changes, develops and redefines herself as she is forced to. Pushed into a difficult situation she manages to find the inner strength and drive to adapt, however hard and unnatural it is for her.
Esther 1, as described in chapter 2 of the Megillah is a beautiful young woman, but one who is lacking independence. She is under Mordechai’s control; he treats her like a daughter. “And whatever Mordechai said, Esther would do—just as when she was still in his home” (2:20).
There is also a certain lack of sophistication about her, shown in her outer appearance. All other maidens come to the royal palace with every type of adornment:“Six months [of anointment] with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics. . .” (2:12). But “when it was the turn of Esther . . . to come to the king, she asked for nothing” (2:15). She wears no makeup; she is completely natural, simple, innocent and honest.
She merely follows events and orders. She does whatever Mordechai asks her to, because she lives in his home. She does only “what she is told by Hegai, the king’s officer, appointed over the women.”
Aside from her beauty, Esther lacks any distinguishing characteristics. There is really nothing that gives her spiritual or national prominence. Esther herself is hidden from us. “Esther did not mention her birthplace or her nationality”(2:20).
Rav Lichtenstein, in his shiur, then described Esther 2, from chapter 4 onwards.
She is active and assertive. She now has a role to play. She takes charge and believes she can make a difference. As a result, people perceive her very differently.
She enters the game that Achashverosh and Haman are playing. She leads Haman into a trap, arousing the anger and desire of Achashverosh. Together with her personal initiative, her spiritual and national identities also come to the surface.
The anonymous Esther, hailing from the “one hundred and twenty-seven provinces,” reveals herself and is transformed into a specific, unique, singular Esther, belonging to a “special nation.” Once she herself realises she is different, others respect her for it.
From chapter 4 onwards, Esther not only displays initiative through political manipulation, but she faces up to Haman. Here Esther takes her place as a worthy member of the royalty, a leader. Her leadership is so outstanding towards the end of the Megilla that to some degree it overshadows that of Mordechai.
Once upon a time, “whatever Mordechai said, Esther would do.” He was the one pulling the strings. Suddenly, Mordechai’s own achievements come as a result of Esther’s initiative. How does Mordechai come to possess Haman’s home? Through Esther. Who writes the Megilla? While Mordechai is still equivocating, “Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote” (9:29), and only afterwards did Mordechai join her. Hence, the Megillah is named, ‘Megillat Esther’ and not, ‘Megillat Mordechai.’
Esther realizes in chapter 4, that she can take control. But the change comes from within:
Esther begins to awaken from her passivity. “The queen was greatly distressed” (4:4). Esther, who indeed has the power to avert the evil decree, who lives in the royal palace, doesn’t do enough.
Now is the critical change in her character. At this point, Mordechai sends her a message:
Do not imagine that you will escape in the king’s palace from [among] all the Jews. (4:13)
Mordechai adds a further note:
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join the royalty? (4:14)
Esther’s reaction is very different to what we see of her in chapter 2. Now she takes action. She makes a move and dosen’t just sit back, observing: “Go and gather all the Jews” (4:16).
Esther stops being passive, apathetic, and dependent. She becomes more self-aware and self-confident, reflecting a more healthy self-esteem. Only then, do other people take notice and start listening to what she has to say. However, the change comes from within, not without. The way she perceives herself has changed and as a result, other people also view her differently.
We see with Esther, that the two processes go hand in hand: when Esther finds the will to achieve an important end, she finds the ability to do so as well. This is the essence of Mordechai’s message to her. If there is a will, there is a way.
So too, in our lives. If we truly believe in ourselves, then other people will believe in us and our fate will change. We can take control and forge our own destiny. However, that change must come from within. It is only when we know who we are, that other people will know, as well.