Purim, Esther, and Us

File:'Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman', oil on canvas painting by Jan Steen,  c. 1668.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
Jan Steen, “Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman”

I’ve always thought that the Book of Esther would make a terrific movie. It’s got palace intrigue, public politics, massive stakes, and the fate of empires and the Jewish people hang in the balance of the actions of fully-drawn characters.

That movie has yet to be made, and the oft-cited One Night With the King surely isn’t it, despite the casting of John Rhys-Davies as Mordecai. I mean, it’s a terrible movie, and I had to sit through it twice (don’t ask), and literally the only thing I remember of it was this speech that he gives:

“Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish; and who knows whether it was for a time like this you became queen?”

Of course, Davies had better writers for this speech, since it’s directly from the Book of Esther itself.

Rabbi David Fohrman in his The Queen You Thought You Knew, notes that “if you remain silent” in Hebrew consists of a doubled-verb, for emphasis, and draws a connection to the only other time in Tanach that verb is doubled. It comes in a discussion of when a man can nullify a vow that his wife has made. He can either immediately nullify it, or he can immediately confirm it.

But if he tries to exercise a sort of “pocket veto” by actively remaining silent and doing nothing, well, that’s not an option. It becomes valid over his silence, his deliberate effort to pretend that no vow has been taken. Remaining silent in this case is kind of a coward’s way out, but it makes no sense – either the vow is valid or it’s not.

Esther, similarly, doesn’t have the option of silence and doing nothing. She either goes along with what’s happening or she tries to stop it. Doing nothing is tantamount to letting the genocide of her people happen – she can’t pretend there’s no mortal danger, even though nobody at the palace knows she’s Jewish.

And so, she doesn’t.

Rather than being seduced by the trappings of power and comfort and taking a pass, and not knowing what’s going to happen, she confronts her fears, concocts a risky plan, and runs the gauntlet of guards and idols to go visit the king in his private chamber. She has no idea if the guards have been told to not let anyone in. She has no idea what the king’s reception will be. She doesn’t really have any idea if her plan will work, although it’s a good plan and she’s tried to load the dice as well as she can.

The lesson for today, for each of us not only as Americans but also in the Jewish community, could not possibly be more obvious. Our current Jewish leadership is in disarray, unwilling to confront rising anti-Semitism as long as it comes from its preferred political party, instead pretending there’s no danger.

We know who our Esther is supposed to be. Do we have a Mordecai to slap some sense into them and remind them of their obligations?

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