Purim is a holiday of opposites and reversals. That is not news to us. But it is also a story of faith and identity. After Esther hears about Haman’s plans to destroy Mordecai and the Jewish people, Mordecai tells her to plead with the king. She replies to him and says that no one can go and speak with Ahashverosh without an invitation – not even the queen – else he put them to death. Though she knew that her people’s lives were at stake, she was not willing to risk her own. We don’t quite know what Esther thought might happen if this were the end of the conversation – was she giving up and assuming that the Jewish people would be massacred? Did she think that she would still live since the palace did not know of her heritage? Did she hope that Mordecai would find another way to intervene with Haman’s vicious plans? Was she scared?
I would imagine that she was overwhelmed to say the least. Mordecai’s response offers her encouragement; he seems to know her role and have little fear that Haman’s wishes would actually come true. He says, “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4: 13-14)
He is saying that Esther is one of us. The fact that she is royalty does not protect her. But if she does not speak up, she and her family (Mordecai) will perish and yet the Jews will still find relief and deliverance. I am fascinated by the notion that Mordecai doesn’t worry about the people’s fate – he seems certain that they will ultimately be fine. In a book where God’s name is not mentioned even once, this seems to speak of some Divine intervention or protection. That faith is rare today and perhaps something we might aspire toward. And yet, that deep trust in God – or simply in the people’s salvation – doesn’t stop him from persuading Esther that acting is her responsibility.
If the Jewish people will be okay anyway, then why does it matter if Esther petitions the king? First, Esther then becomes a representative of the Jewish people instead of someone standing outside of it. She must take a risk and feel the vulnerability that the Jewish people in Shushan were feeling as they fasted and mourned and wore sackcloth and ashes. Second, her voice must speak on behalf of Mordecai’s voice – his fate is bound up with hers.
Esther then asks for the Jewish community of Shushan to fast on her behalf, while she and her maidens do the same. In that moment, she becomes intertwined with the Jewish community in a stronger way. She acts for them and they act for her. She does not stand silent in the face of a potential injustice for herself of her people.
Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel is a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
May we, like Esther, feel connection to our community. And may we, like Mordecai, strive to have faith that we need to empower others to take a stand as well as the faith that our people will endure.