The Dual Nature of Queen Esther
A question I received by email recently:
«What can we learn from Queen Esther and her character, that we can teach our daughters today? What application might our children find for their lives today?»
The first thing to understand about Queen Esther was that she was extremely righteous. She was, in fact, a Prophetess, which demands a very high level of spiritual self-development. She and Mordechai together composed the Book of Esther; the only Book in Tanach (the Jewish Bible) that a woman directly composed. (Several women
are quoted, such as the Prophetess Deborah in Judges, but she did not compose the Book of Judges itself. The song she composed comprises one chapter in the Book of Judges.)
Let us look yet deeper. One of the clues to understanding Biblical figures is their names. Names are not given by accident. Our Rabbis tell us that whenever Jewish parents give Jewish names to their children they are granted a certain measure of Divine Inspiration, and thus they give each child the name that is appropriate for that child’s soul.
This was all the more true in the times of the Jewish Bible. This is why the Talmud (BT, Chullin 139b) asks «Where is Queen Esther hinted at in the Five Books of Moses?» Every event and every personage in Jewish history is alluded to in the Five Books of Moses, if only you know where to find it.
Where indeed, is Esther alluded to in the Torah, and what is the significance of that particular allusion?
In the case of Esther things are slightly more complicated, because she had two names. The name given to her by her parents was Hadassah. The name given to her by the Gentiles when she became queen was Esther. The Gentiles called her some form of Ishtar or Astarte, but in Hebrew and Aramaic it came out as Ester. (In English, for some reason, it is spelled Esther.)
Despite the fact that Esther was a name given to her by Gentiles, that is the name to which she is alluded in the Five Books of Moses. The name Esther means «hidden,» and indeed, Esther’s true identity was hidden in plain sight, so that as queen of Persia she could effect salvation for all her people. She had to be forcibly taken to the king’s palace in order to accomplish this. (Had she gone of her own free will to marry this gentile, king or no king, she would no longer have been righteous, and she would thus no longer have been able to effect that sort of salvation for any of her people.) For many years, no one knew that Queen Esther was Jewish. Because, as the Megilah tells us, «Esther did not reveal her race or nationality, because Mordechai had ordered her not to» (2:10). This was necessary, because Mordechai foresaw the impending calamity, and also foresaw that Esther would be the instrument through which Hashem would save the Jews.
Esther was uniquely suited to this purpose. Esther had inherited a great quality from her ancestor Rachel, the wife of Jacob. Esther was from the Tribe of Benjamin, Rachel’s second son. As we know, each of the Pillars of the World (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, and a few others) exemplified certain characteristic traits. They did this by acquiring and developing these traits within themselves to such a degree that their level of achievement in this area was incomparable. And they acquired these traits so deeply, that they merited being able to instill these traits in their descendants. These traits became hereditary, so that all their descendants, and all those who join the Jewish People, can acquire them.
This is not entirely unique to the Children of Israel. Descendants of Ishmael have a tradition of hospitality that they have inherited from our common ancestor Abraham. Esau respected and honored his father Isaac greater than any man ever honored their father, and many of his descendants inherited that potential. Going further back, many descendants of Yefes (the oldest son of Noah) inherited the blessing Noah bestowed upon him. The Greeks were descendants of Yefes, and they inherited the primary quality of that blessing: their entire culture was saturated with beauty. Their language was beautiful, their architecture was beautiful, and so on.
Thus, a Jew, whether by birth or by choice, has the ability to acquire certain traits at levels we would not imagine possible. (This is demonstrable, and can be witnessed, if you know where to look. Admittedly, such great, righteous people are few and far between, but they do exist.) Why are we able to do this? By the merit of the Pillars of the World, our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. How are we able to do this? With a great deal of hard work, and after many years of effort.
Rachel embodied many good traits, of course, but she is perhaps most famous for what she did for her sister Leah. Jacob worked for Laban for seven years, in exchange for which Laban was to allow Jacob to marry his younger daughter Rachel. But Laban pulled a fast one on Jacob, and gave him Leah instead. (She was wearing a veil.) Then Laban forced Jacob to work for him another seven years for Rachel.
Now, when Laban pulled the switch, where was Rachel? Why didn’t she step forward and put a halt to the proceedings? Why didn’t she speak up and warn everyone at the wedding ceremony that Laban was tricking Jacob?
The answer is that speaking up would have embarrassed Leah terribly. Judaism teaches that it is better to be thrown into a burning fire than to embarrass someone publicly. Thus, Rachel kept her silence, and told no one.
Can you imagine that? Can you fathom how a person could wait for the love of her life for seven years, and then give him up in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, so that her sister, her rival, should not be embarrassed publicly? Not many people would act that way.
And thus this characteristic trait, that of silence and discretion, was planted in the national identity of the Jews, and most especially in the descendants of Rachel.
And thus, Queen Esther had a place from which to draw such strength. For Esther was herself a righteous Pillar of the World (though she is not considered one of the Matriarchs). And therefore her adopted name was also appropriate for her, in that it not only portrayed the status of Hashem’s relationship with the Jews in Exile, that Hashem performs miracles for us in a hidden manner, it also indicated Esther’s personal nature. Indeed, like all of the events that took place in the Megillah (Book of Esther), it was quite ironic in its own way, especially since the Gentiles gave her the name that indicated that she would not tell them that she was not a Gentile!
This concept of self-control, as epitomized by Rachel and Esther, to keep silent when necessary, is a trait all of us should learn and develop.
This is why the Talmud finds Esther’s name alluded to in the Tanach (Jewish Bible) in the verse «astir panai,» which means, «I will hide My face….» (Deuteronomy 31:18). When we are not worthy of miracles that involve disturbances of nature, such as the Splitting of the Sea and so forth, Hashem works using hidden miracles, such as the Miracle of Purim, where Hashem works anonymously, so to speak, behind the scenes of what we humans think of as «natural» means.
The name Hadassah comes from the word «hadas,» which means myrtle. The myrtle is a rather plain-looking plant, but when its leaves are bruised and crushed they give forth a very sweet fragrance. Esther, the Talmud tells us, was actually not very good-looking. It was, in fact, a miracle that everyone who looked at her thought she was beautiful. This was a necessary element of the overall miracle that saved the Jews from annihilation.
Let us take a look at Esther’s life. There she was, in Shushan, living with her husband Mordechai. These were two of the most righteous people alive at the time. They lived a life of holiness together, and certainly did not welcome Esther being dragged away from home and forced to become the wife of a Gentile. At no time did Esther ever encourage the king in their relationship. Yet nevertheless, the king loved her and kept her as queen for all his life.
King David composed Chapter 22 of Tehilim (Psalms) with Queen Esther in mind, seeing prophetically what would take place some 450 years later. Esther would often pray this Psalm. Remember, also, that Esther was a prophetess, and was often granted Divine Inspiration. The Book of Esther says that «On the third day of the fast, Esther dressed in her royal clothes, and she stood at the king’s inner court….» (Esther 5:1). The Talmud (Megilah 15a) says that this means she dressed in spiritual royalty, and was granted Divine Inspiration at the time. But on her way to the throne room she had to pass the
Persian idols that the king worshiped, and so of course the Divine Inspiration left her, since holiness will not visit where there is such impiety. In anguish, she cried out, from Psalm 22, «My G-d, my G-d, why have You forsaken me?» and continued praying the rest of that Psalm.
Esther was forced to remain in the palace for many years, and the agony was incomparable. Esther, who was orphaned at a young age, now had to live her adult life in misery as well. Esther lived at the king’s palace for nine years before the events of Purim took place, without knowing why Hashem had placed her there. But there is never pain without purpose. Hashem never allows anyone to undergo suffering without a reason. And whenever there is suffering, Hashem’s purpose is to elevate and improve people, starting with the person undergoing the suffering, and often spreading out to others.
It is therefore fitting that King David should compose (also with Divine Inspiration) the words that Queen Esther would later say so often in prayer. There has seldom lived a righteous man so beset with troubles as was King David, a man who spent much of his life running away from one person or another, including his own children. Yet King David produced the Books of Psalms, the greatest prayers and praise of Hashem ever composed. One thing that is unique about King David and his Psalms is that he composed psalms both when he was at peace, and when he was in trouble. He never ceased to praise Hashem, and he never ceased to beg Hashem for consideration and mercy.
It was indeed the troubles he underwent that helped shape King David into what he was. In all his life he has never been accused of more than one error, and even that is greatly misunderstood to be much worse than it was. Indeed, his greatness, and thus his fragrance, like Queen Esther’s centuries later, was shaped at least in part by being crushed and bruised.
King David and Queen Esther do not stand alone. They stand as pillars for us to hold on to and emulate. They teach us what we must know of life. Just as the hadas must be bruised and crushed in order to smell its sweetest, so often must each of us undergo suffering in order to fully develop. Our sweet smell is inherent, but it is not always manifest until brought forth through difficult times.
And the two names of Queen Esther work hand in hand in this message: Hashem’s salvation lies waiting for us in secret. Somewhere, whatever trouble we may be going through, for whatever reason we may need to be «bruised and crushed,» like the hadas, there is always an ester, a hidden salvation waiting for us, that Hashem has prepared for us long before the troubles began.