With each reading of the Purim Megillah, Esther becomes for me more daring, more intelligent and more heroic than ever before. Lately I’ve been wondering what the extreme Orthodox rabbis in Israel and elsewhere might make of this woman if they were to meet her today.
Certainly they would praise her, as Jewish tradition always has, for her dedication to her people in a time of great trouble. They might also laud her as a martyr for having sacrificed her personal life as a Jew to live in the court of King Ahasuerus, bear his children and obey his rules. But what would they think of the real woman who emerges from the scroll of Esther? You know, the one behind the mask of passivity she dons early in the story, the one who gets what she wants, unlike her openly defiant predecessor, Vashti. Would they find her too gutsy or too subversive for their taste?
Look at Esther’s strength right from the start. Her guardian, Mordechai, thinks nothing of sending his young virgin cousin into the royal palace — well, let’s be honest, the king’s harem — to satisfy the whims and wants of a heartless ruler. Not only that, he also instructs her to hide her Jewishness and change her name, from Hadassah to the Persian Esther. Alone, bereft of her identity, probably terrified, Esther doesn’t panic; instead, she uses her wits to work the system. She manages to catch the attention of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the palace women, and flatters him by seeking his advice on how to dress to impress the king. He gives her the best cosmetics and seven handmaidens, and steers her away from the glitz and glitter the other contestants wear. She looks chic and different in her little black dress and pearls — or whatever the royal equivalent is. And Hegai looks good for having found a new queen for his boss, assuring Esther a lifetime friend at court.
Once installed as queen, Esther quickly learns to manipulate power. When Mordechai discovers a plot against the king, she makes sure Ahasuerus receives that information in Mordechai’s name. When Mordechai walks near the king’s gate in sackcloth and ashes, she rushes clothes out for him to wear. Not yet aware of Haman’s evil plot, she knows it is politically incorrect for him to appear in mourning near the court. Kings like their subjects happy. Her greatest moments come, of course, after she learns of Haman’s plans. She hesitates only briefly when Mordechai asks her to plead with the king to save Persia’s Jews from destruction, recognizing that one wrong step can mean losing her life and any chance for her people. But when she decides to take the risk, she becomes a whirlwind of activity.
She begins by commanding Mordechai to have the Jews of Shushan fast with her. This order, the first she has ever given him, establishes her authority with him and the Jews. Next, she invites Ahasuerus and Haman to two feasts. In the process of arranging them, she brilliantly lulls Haman into feeling safe and unthreatened while at the same time planting seeds of jealousy in the king’s mind. She thoroughly understands her royal spouse, a man so callous that he could condemn an entire people to destruction without even knowing who they are. Appealing to his conscience would mean nothing, but by arousing his suspicion, she can gain her ends. Why, the king might wonder, does she honor him and Haman together, as though they were equals? What had the vizier to do with the queen? By the time Esther points a finger at Haman as the villain who would murder her and her people, the king has been primed to distrust him. It’s an easy leap for him to think Haman is trying to seduce Esther when he finds the vizier lying prostrate on her couch, in reality pleading for mercy.
Esther has saved the Jewish people. And it is Esther who then introduces Mordechai to Ahasuerus and places him in charge of Haman’s estate. It is Esther who begs the king to rescind his order to destroy the Jews, and when, instead, he grants her and Mordechai the right to kill their enemies, it is she who requests an extra day to complete that operation. Some people have criticized her for that request, considering the bloodshed excessive. But from the day Esther had to hide her Jewish identity when entering the court, she knew that Jew hatred existed in the kingdom and had to be eliminated.
Esther was tough, wily and unbelievably courageous. I don’t know how accepting of such a woman today’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis might be. One thing I do know: this lady would never go to the back of a bus.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.