Two Lessons from Queen Esther’s Story
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
While you are reading these lines, you are probably getting ready to celebrate Purim. As we all know, Purim is a joyous festival in which we dress in costumes, eat hamantaschen and hear the reading of Megillat (or scroll of) Esther. We also send gifts of food (mishloach manot) to friends, help those in need (matanot l’evyonim), and enjoy a seudah or mishteh (the Purim feast) during Purim day, when we eat, drink, and rejoice.
This is the way we celebrate Purim, but of course this festival has much more to teach us. There are important lessons and values we can learn from the Megillah and the laws and customs of the holiday. On this occasion, I want to say a word about an important teaching from the story of Queen Esther.
We all know that Esther is the heroine of the Purim story. However, some sages and Torah scholars had a critical view of Esther. They wondered how it could be that the main Jewish character of the story got married to a non-Jewish person, hid her Jewish identity, and participated in a royal beauty contest that did not look appropriate, to say the least, for a modest Jewish girl.
If you think about it, Esther engaged in all kinds of activities that were not well regarded by Jewish tradition. Furthermore, intermarriage and the hiding of the Jewish identity have been traditionally viewed by rabbis of all ages as detrimental to Jewish survival.
The irony of Esther’s story is that precisely because of the kinds of behaviors listed above Esther found herself in a position to save her people. In the face of the existential threat to the Jews of Persia posed by the wicked minister Haman, Esther could have preferred to play it safe and just save herself. She could have remained hiding her identity or asked for personal protection for her and her loved ones. Instead, she cast her lot with the entire Jewish people.
What can we learn from Esther’s style of life and her heroic actions? I see that there are two lessons we can learn,
-Lesson #1: our personal privileges or honors have no use if we cannot use them to protect our people. As long as Jews are oppressed or threatened as a people or community, every Jewish individual is in danger too, even those who enjoy apparent protections.
-Lesson #2: We need to be very careful about judging other Jews because of their Jewish observance, Jewish identity, or even their life style. The story of Esther is the story of an apparent assimilated Jew (although rabbinic tradition tends to insists that she and Mordechai were observant Jews) who ended up saving the Jewish people. Regarding Jews who are far away or even alienated from the Jewish community, we should always try to bring them closer, instead of criticizing them.
May we celebrate Purim with much joy and merriment, and may we continue learning important values and lessons from this holiday, and put them in practice in our lives.
Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!