The Hidden Identities in Megillat Esther and its Timeless Lesson
Esther’s secret Jewish identity is a central theme of Megillat Esther, enabling her to rise to royalty without detection before her dramatic reveal near the end of the story (7:6). The significance of this secret is highlighted in the Megillah by the repetition of Mordechai’s instruction to Esther and her compliance (2:10 and 2:20). Moreover, the Talmud (Megillah 13a) suggests that her real name was Hadasa, and Esther was her title on account of this hidden identity, rooted in the Hebrew words for hidden סתר.
There is a perplexing problem that begs itself: how did Esther succeed in her charade? If King Achashveirosh really cared about her Jewish identity, how did this powerful monarch fail to make this simple discovery? Esther was raised by Mordechai who was introduced as a Jew (2:5) and was clearly recognizable to Haman as a Jew (3:6). Since Mordechai raised Esther, communicated with her in the palace, and even communicated through her to the king (2:22), how could Achashverosh fail to detect this connection? If he cared at all about her religious identity, how did he miss it?
Let’s consider the possibility that despite Esther’s best efforts, Achashveirosh indeed knew that she was Jewish and noticed her attempt to hide it. Perhaps he reasoned that two can play that game. If she was so ashamed of her religion and so intent on disconnecting herself from her people, then he would not be bothered by it either. Esther, guided by Mordechai, made the same calculation that countless Jews would make throughout our history: if we reject and suppress our identity, we would succeed in evading the threats of antisemitism. If we look and act like everyone else, we will be treated like anyone else. And this worked for a while.
Esther hesitated to approach King Achashveirosh on behalf of the Jewish People (4:11). She explained that her fears were rooted in the fact that she was not summoned by the king for thirty days. There is little doubt that she also feared the repercussions of her upcoming revelation. It was dangerous to destroy her protective strategy that had sustained her until this point. Mordechai responded that the charade was only a temporary solution; ultimately we can only be safe if we wear identity with pride. Perhaps it was to her great surprise that the moment that Esther revealed her identity, she was immediately respected and began to see the unfolding of the redemption of the Jewish People.
Much has been said about the frightening rise in antisemitism that we are currently witnessing. Similarly, much has been said about the best ways for us to address it and to defend our community from this ugly threat. One timeless lesson that this historic narrative offers us is exactly what Bari Weiss wrote in her book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”: the only sustainable approach to fighting anti-Semitism is to lean into it our Jewish identity with pride. When confronting short-term threats, it is sometimes effective to hide. In the long run, however, the only way to survive is to be proud of who we are; the only way to gain respect is to respect ourselves.
Bari Weiss wrote: “In the first three decades of my life, I never wore a Magen David necklace. It always seemed redundant to me. But since the Pittsburgh attack, I have worn a Jewish Star pendant regularly, especially in public venues and in situations where I am conscious of being one of the only Jews in the room. This show of pride has become super important to me. I want people to know that I am unafraid… So my advice is this: Ask yourself if where you are living passes the kippa test. If you would be uncomfortable wearing a kippah or a Magen David necklace in your neighborhood, you should make a plan to improve your neighborhood or make a plan to leave it.”
Mordechai firmly responded to the tentativeness of Esther: “Do not delude yourself and think that you can escape the fate of the Jews by hiding your Jewish identity” (paraphrase of 4:13). The existence of hate and antisemitism is, unfortunately, an inevitable constant; our relationship with our Jewish identity is up to us. This lesson of Megillat Esther could not be more relevant.