llustration by Lior Zaltzman
I remember when I first realized I didn’t understand Esther — possibly, didn’t even like her.
It was Shabbat afternoon and a group of us were reading over the text of the megillah with a woman from my Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis. I was in junior high, with several years of Queen Esther costumes behind me, and the idea of her as a major heroine was firmly ingrained.
Until I actually read her story.
After all, what do we know about Esther? She has little distinguishable personality and is described as simply following Mordechai’s orders, “just like when he was raising her.” (2:20) She somehow pleases everyone, whether despite or because of her passivity, throughout the process of “auditioning” and winning the crown. But none of that struck me as particularly worthy of calling someone a hero and role model.
Even when she was told of the threat to her nation, it apparently didn’t occur to her that, as queen, she might be in the best position to take action. And even when Mordechai pointed out the obvious, she still resisted. (What a choice of when and how to finally assert herself!) What was it that finally convinced her? Fear, apparently: “If you do nothing, you won’t survive either!” (paraphrasing 4:13-14)
So would she have been content to sit in the palace and hide while the rest of the Jewish people were exterminated, rather than making any effort to use her position?!
As the years went by, my discomfort with Esther only increased. In particular, as I studied other women of the Bible and formed perspectives on their characters and how they served as role models, Esther seemed more and more to be an outlier — and not in a good way.
Most major (and minor) female characters in the Bible strike me as incredibly strong of mind and action — not because they are out doing Big Things all the time (they’re not), but because they recognize moments of need, and step up and take decisive action. Sarah offers her maidservant to her husband because their lack of children is a problem and she sees this as the most logical solution. Rivka tricks her husband because she perceives a danger to which he is blind. Yael welcomes Sisera into her tent, representing herself as a helpful ally, and then drives a tent peg into his skull. I could go on and on.
But Esther? She cowers in the corner until bullied into action.
Was this the heroine of my younger costumes, who my daughter would one day want to be for Purim?
Fortunately, as I have continued to learn (and teach), I have come to appreciate Esther’s character much more. I started to take more notice of what happens after Mordechai’s scare tactic: “And Esther said… Go, gather all the Jews…fast for me…I and my maidens will also fast, and with this I will go… And Mordechai went and did according to all Esther had commanded upon him.” (4:16-17)
Talk about turnabout!
That line back in 2:20, I now think, is intended to alert us to a flaw in Esther’s character. “Esther did what Mordechai said, like it was when she was being raised by him.” Why emphasize her obedience (already hinted in 2:10), and why point out that this was just like when she was a child? Precisely to imply that this blind obedience was childlike, and therefore out of place in someone who was no longer a child.
It may have taken a shot of fear to bring on her maturity, but mature she did. The relationship between Esther and Mordechai flips 180 degrees in 4:16-17, so that suddenly she stands tall and starts giving, rather than receiving, the instructions. And what does Mordechai do? “Everything Esther commanded him.”
This new Esther does, indeed, seize the moment and find the solution. And she carries through to the end of the story — and the beginning of the institutions of the Scroll of Esther and the holiday of Purim.
Although 9:20 tells us Mordechai did the writing, we soon discover that Esther played a major role in getting her story and holiday institutionalized. In fact, 9:32 hangs it all on her: “And the word of Esther established these matters of Purim, and it was written in the book.”
The Talmud provides more detail, describing how Esther argued with the Sages, on points of politics and text, to get her story established in the calendar and canon. And she won.
By the end, Esther turns out to be — just like other biblical heroines in their moments — a model of female action and empowerment, and a clear counter to those today who would claim that Jewish women traditionally do not (and/or should not) have a voice. Like the others, Esther most certainly had a voice. She didn’t find it so easily, but once she did, she used it to great effect.
In fact, perhaps she is all the more heroic for overcoming, so quickly and completely, the traits that prevented her taking initiative sooner.
We owe Esther a huge debt of gratitude. For the whole salvation from Haman thing, certainly. But also for showing us the lengths to which a nice Jewish girl can impact the world, by seizing the moment and finding her voice.