To paraphrase the old Levy’s Rye Bread ad campaign, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love the Purim story!” Queen Esther has gifts for us all!
On the holiday of Purim, the Book of Esther is read word-for-word from start to finish. The book – scroll, actually – is known as Megillat Esther, from whence the expression ‘the whole magillah.’ It tells the story of how Queen Esther saved her 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 she is in a position to rescue her people, she sends a message to her uncle that she would be afraid for her life if she were to take the action outlined for her. Mordecai replies that Esther “should not think that she would escape the genocide because she was in the king’s house, any more than all the other Jews. And further, that, if she held her peace at this time, deliverance would arise from somewhere else, but she and her father’s house would be destroyed. He ends with these words: “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”” (Esth. 4:13-14, KJV.)
Mordechai’s response lays it all out: Esther did not have to do it, yet there would be personal repercussions should she fail to act. He suggests that her purpose on earth was to do this task, yet adds that the people would be saved, whether or not Esther chose to play her part in the drama.
Esther chooses to act, uttering five simple, courageous words: “If I die, I die.”
Esther’s choice involved many risks. First, in a reversal of the actions of her predecessor, Queen Vashti, who was beheaded for failing to appear when summoned by the king, Esther had to appear before the king without being summoned, an act punishable by death if the king did not deign to allow her to come forward. Once she won an audience with the king, she had to devise a plan that would both trap her enemies and save her people. This she did through an elaborate series of dinner parties in which, with the cool nerves of a master spy, the strategic genius of a winning advocate, and more plot twists than a season’s worth of soaps, she built the evidence against her enemies and constructed the case for the merit of her people.
An important theme running through Megilat Esther is the play of hidden vs. revealed. (The word “megillah” comes from the root word ‘to reveal,’ and the name Esther is from the word ‘to conceal.’) In most Jewish holidays, miracles are flamboyant, outright, unmistakable: the Red Sea parts, manna falls from heaven, a small oil lamp stays lit for eight continuous days. The feats are awesome and, well, miraculous. They turn a grateful nation’s attention to a higher power.
In the Purim story, miracles are wrought through human actions. Politics, planning and subterfuge play a part in the drama, as do a host of human emotions: lust, pride, greed, anger, jealousy, hope and daring. In this very human drama, things are not what they appear to be, people are not who they think they are or who say they are. Those who are high up are humbled, and those who are humble get raised up. Perhaps the Purim story presents a more useful model than an outright miracle, for we can only pray for a miracle, while the Magillah asks us to become aware of the miracles hidden in plain view in every day life.
Megillat Esther suggests that we, like Esther, have greatness within us; it suggests that things are not what they seem; it suggests that the roles we play in life do not always reflect the inner knowledge within us; it suggests that we must have the courage to step into greatness if we want to fulfill our destiny; and, finally, it suggests that our roles have vital importance.
And yet, it also suggests the utmost freedom of choice in taking on our roles or not. Failure to take on our potential will cause harm only to ourselves and to those close to us. That which is destined will take place, with or without us.
Our tasks await us and they are worthy of our fullest commitment and devotion. Esther fasted and prayed for three days before she approached the king, and she asked that her maidservants and all the Jewish people fast and pray with her. Then, acting with all the skills at her command, she engineered a complete and total victory for her people.
Do we give our goals the support they require? If our goal is to paint, do we make the time and space for our art? If we are devoted to our children, are we fully present when we are with them? Even though we may have achieved a lot in our lives, is there the seed of something new that wants to blossom?
Is this to say that our goals are just as important as Queen Esther’s? What chutzpah! How can we compare ourselves to Esther? After all, she is a queen, saving an entire people; we, on the other hand, are just regular folk trying to make it through the day.
Yet Esther did not start out a queen, nor did she harbor an intention of doing heroic deeds. She simply followed her uncle’s instructions, first submitting to what amounted to a year-long casting call for the plum role of queen, competing with all the young lovelies of the land. Through it all she followed Mordecai’s counsel, hiding her true identity and her faith until the moment of revelation. Nor was her destiny immediately apparent; they say that the events of the Megillah spanned 17 years.
Who was Esther? She was but 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. The start of the story does not determine its outcome. We cannot foresee the twists and turns of the plot. 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 be waiting to be discovered. We can choose to follow our path, or not. If we do not choose to act, someone else will.
We have free will. There is no real rush. Our fullest potentiality is there for us, only if we want it.
Whatever our role, be it to paint or to parent, bargain or bake, or just share our true selves with the people around us – it is there for us if we choose it. 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 end of the story. Every pearl starts with a single grain of sand. There are miracles happening all around, all the time. We are all pearls in the making, we are all Esthers, we are all Kings and Queens.
May we be blessed to discover our fullest selves, to be part of the miracles happening all around us, to be a force for goodness, light and learning in the world.
Reba Linker is author and coach specializing in inspirational books for women. Her book, Follow the Yarn, leads by example, encouraging others to ‘follow their own yarn,’ tell their own stories, and discover their own true voice.