Many years ago, my home shul of Temple Beth El in North Bellmore, NY put on a hilarious Purim shpiel called “Estherella” in which Esther appears as the Biblical version of Cinderella. It’s natural to compare the two women. Both heroines come from humble origins, and their kindness and self-effacing humility is rewarded when they marry royalty. But that’s where the similarity ends. Cinderella is a conventional story of a low status woman who is elevated when she is chosen against all odds by a powerful man. The Book of Esther is a lampoon of powerful men which turns on its head the value of being chosen by one.
When Cinderella is chosen by her prince, the story is over. Dream come true. They live happily ever after. Not so Esther. She marries Achashverosh at the beginning of the story. For the author of the Megillah, it would be unimaginable to portray Esther’s marriage to Achashverosh as the fulfillment of a life long quest. Esther’s marriage to the king merely sets the stage for a more important choosing. Esther is chosen by God.
When Esther’s uncle Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, Haman receives permission from the king to exterminate all of the Jews. Mordecai asks Esther to use her influence with the king to reverse the decree. When Esther hesitates, fearing her husband, Mordecai suggests that Esther’s true value lay not in being selected by the king, but in being chosen by someone even more powerful for a special mission. That someone is God.
In the words of Mordecai:
U’mi yodea im l’eit kazot higaat la’malchut?
Who knows if it is not for this very reason that you became the queen? (Esther 4:14)
Being chosen by God is very different than being chosen by Achashverosh and that is a central message of the Purim story. The arch villain of the Megillah is Haman. And Haman’s self-worth was dependent on powerful people choosing him. When Ashashverosh asked him what should be done for a man whom the king wishes to honor, Haman said to himself: “Whom would the king desire to honor more than me?” (Esther 6: 6) and suggested the honoree be dressed in royal robes and paraded through the streets of Shushan.
Earlier that day, Haman bragged to his wife Zeresh that the king had promoted him above all the other officials, and “’What is more,’ said Haman, ‘Queen Esther gave a feast, and besides the king, she did not invite anyone but me.'” (Esther 5: 11-12). But, as anyone who has ever name dropped at a party (all of us), this is a hunger that can never be satisfied. Thus, Haman complained to his wife, “Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordecai sitting in the palace gate.” (Esther 5: 13)
We know where this leads. The Megillah is telling us that the impulse to ground our sense of value in being chosen by the rich and powerful ultimately leads to behavior that is not only selfish, but cruel and dangerous. And there is an obsessive nature to this hunger. We are not in control of ourselves when we continually seek others’ approval.
By contrast, the Bible portrays belief that we are chosen by God as the source of our freedom. We might think it is the opposite. If we are merely tools of God to further a pre-ordained plan, doesn’t that deny our agency?
Not as the Bible understands it. In the Purim story, small people appear powerless in the face of great forces. A people can be exterminated on the basis of a whim of a powerful person, and their execution date can be determined by a role of the dice. In this context, the invocation of God’s plan is not meant to be a denial of human agency. It is meant to be a check on human presumption.
From God’s perspective, Haman and Achashverosh are small men, ridiculous figures. Those who use their power to aggrandize themselves are reminded by God that in the larger scheme of things, their power means very little. But, at the moments when we feel least powerful, Jewish Tradition reminds us of our great significance, and the power of even one heroic act, like that of Esther, to save an entire people.
Time and again, our Tradition highlights the ability of ordinary people to change the world. Moses’s parents, two nameless Jews, defy Pharoah’s decree and birth the redeemer. Ruth, a complete unknown, restores the faith of the Jewish people in themselves and becomes the great grandmother of King David. These ordinary heroes embody the Jewish people itself, a politically insignificant people who grew to have an outsized impact on the consciousness of humanity.
We all want to be valued. The question is by whom, and for what? In the Book of Deuteronomy, God warns the Jewish people not to get the wrong idea about God’s favors to us, “for you,” says God, “are the least of the peoples.” As if our history would not remind us enough! But, guided by God’s delightful habit of upending expectations, our ancestors turned the handicap of our national vulnerability into a powerful insight about the human condition.
In the eyes of God, every somebody is a nobody. And every nobody is a somebody. And, who knows? Perhaps it is for this very message that we have been chosen.