These are lessons from Queen Esther.
The story is from the Jewish tradition. I share it here not in any religious sense, but rather in that it is a universal story of triumph over adversity that contains pearls of wisdom that may benefit us all.
On the holiday of Purim, the Book of Esther (called Megillat Esther) (from whence ‘the whole magilla’) is read from start to finish, every year. It tells the story of how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from genocide during what is commonly understood to be the reign of King Xerxes I of Persia.
When Esther’s uncle and guardian, Mordechai, suggests that Esther is in a position to rescue her people, Esther sends back the message: she would be afraid for her life were she to play such a role.
Mordechai answers that she does not have to do it, yet he warns of personal repercussions should she fail to act. Further, he suggests that her purpose in the palace, and perhaps on earth, is to do this task. Yet he adds that the people will be saved, whether or not Esther chooses to play her part in the drama.
Esther chooses to act, uttering five decisive words:
“If I die, I die.”
From that point, onwards, she never looked back. She threw herself, body, mind and soul, into her mission.
Her task involved great risk. In a neat reversal of her predecessor, Queen Vashti’s story, who was beheaded for failing to appear when summoned by the king, Esther had to appear before the king without being summoned. This was an act punishable by death if the king did not deign to allow her to come forward.
Once she won the audience with the king, she needed a plan. With the cool nerves of a master spy, the strategic genius of a chess master, and more plot twists than a season’s worth of soaps, Esther used a series of dinner parties to uncover the truth about the wickedness of her enemies and reveal the righteousness of her cause.
Concealed & Revealed
Throughout Megillat Esther there’s a play between hidden vs. revealed. The word “megillah” comes from the root word ‘to reveal.’ The name Esther is derived from the word ‘to conceal.’
In most Jewish holidays, miracles are unmistakable: the Red Sea parts, manna falls from heaven, a small oil lamp stays lit for eight days. The feats are awesome and, well, miraculous. They turn a grateful nation’s attention to a higher power.
In contrast, in the Purim story, miracles are wrought through human agency. Politics, planning and subterfuge play a part in the drama, as do a host of emotions: lust, pride, greed, anger, jealousy, hope and daring. In this very worldly drama, things are not what they appear to be, people are not who say they are. Those who are high are humbled, and those who are humble get raised up.
The Magillah asks us to understand our part in creating the solutions we seek. Further, it offers us a manual on how to create the most ‘miraculous’ results in our lives.
Megillat Esther shows that we must have courage if we want to fulfill our destiny, and it tells us that we each have a vital role to play. Yet it also suggests the utmost freedom of choice in taking on our roles or not. That which is destined will take place, with or without us.
Esther chose to act, and from that point forward, she focused only on the task at hand. This focus on the solution rather than the obstacle is her first gift to us, in terms of modeling strategies for success. She never succumbed to the enormity of the challenge in front of her, which was nothing less than averting a planned genocide of her people.
She focused on the obstacle only in terms of creating the strategy to overcome it.
Even when she was just a poor orphan girl – for that is how her story begins – and her uncle bade her to ‘try out’ for the role of queen, she never focused on the improbability of that coming to pass. She never raised the ‘logical’ objections: the competition is too great, I’m too poor, I’m the wrong religion. I can’t keep a secret. It was simply one step in front of the next, looking for the opening, rather than focusing on the obstacles.
Every obstacle is indeed a doorway. It all worked out, in ways Esther couldn’t have imagined. The hiddenness of her secret faith was exactly what allowed her people to be saved and the glorious ending to be revealed – all because she allowed the story to unfold one step at a time.
Esther’s second gift to us is to teach us how to approach our tasks with the fullest possible commitment.
Esther fasted and prayed for three whole days before she approached the king. Further, she asked that her maidservants and the entire Jewish population fast and pray along with her. Only then did she act.
So we can ask ourselves: do we give ourselves the support we need? Do we give our goals the support they require?
If our goal is to paint, do we make time and space for our art? Have we even bought paints or clay? If we are devoted to our children, are we fully present when we’re with them? Though we may have achieved a lot already, is there the seed of something new that wants to blossom – and are we giving that seed the nurturing it requires?
Is this to say that our goals are as important as Queen Esther’s? What chutzpah! How can we – just regular folks trying to make it through the day – compare ourselves to Esther, a queen, saving an entire people!
A final gift from Esther’s story seems to suggest that we, like Esther, have greatness within us.
It is meaningful that Esther did not start out as a princess or a hero. She simply followed her uncle’s instructions, auditioning for the role of queen. Nor was her heroic destiny immediately apparent: it is said that the events of the Megillah spanned 17 years.
Who was Esther?
She was just a poor, minority orphan girl who followed her path, one step at a time. Centuries later we are still talking about her.
Who are we?
Only we, ourselves, have the power to find out. We cannot foresee the twists and turns of the drama as we are living it. Like Esther, we can only take our journey one step at a time. Just as Esther’s destiny awaited her, our highest purpose may yet to be revealed.
We are loved at every stage of our journey, just as Esther was loved as an orphan, Queen, and hero. Our fullest potential is there for us, only if we want it. It is a gift for us, with attendant rewards, but it is not a demand of us.
Whatever our role, be it to paint or parent, bargain or bake, or just share ourselves with the people around us – it is there for us if we choose it, if it excites us. Our roles, humble or grand, are all breathtakingly brilliant just the same, and call upon the mobilization of all the courage, talent and skill at our command.
Things are not what they seem. A humble beginning does not determine the outcome of the story.
Every pearl starts with a grain of sand, and without that all-important grain of sand, there would be no pearl.
There are miracles happening all around us, to us, and through us, all the time. We are pearls in the making, we are Esthers, we are all Kings and Queens.
May we be blessed to take these lessons from Queen Esther to heart and to integrate them into our lives. May we all discover our fullest selves. May we be part of the miracles happening around us. And may we be a force for good, light and learning in the world.
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