The other Purim story
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
On Purim we read the Book of Esther. It’s a wonderful story of a beauty contest and of the winner, Esther, who gets to be the queen and to live in Ahasuerus’ palace in the lap of luxury. In true storybook fashion, she’s all set to live happily ever after.
And then the story takes a more serious turn, for as it turns out, Esther is the one person able to save the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of the wicked Haman. Esther doesn’t feel that she’s up to the job and tries to turn it down, but she is sternly rebuked by Mordechai, who tells her, “Who knows if just for this very purpose you have attained royalty!” Esther steels herself and goes to the throne room, where Ahasuerus, entranced by her beauty, eventually accedes to her request on behalf of her nation and pardons the Jewish people.
That’s one part of the story: Esther’s recognition, upon being reminded by Mordechai, that she has her own role to perform, her unique mission in life, and that she’d better seize the moment and step forward. And so she does the job, and she saves her people.
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But there’s another part of the story, which is told in the Talmud based on a nuanced reading of the verses. That is the personal story of the Esther who maintains her values and her dignity throughout all the years she spends amid the profligacy and the hedonism in Ahasuerus’s palace — the Esther who goes to great lengths to eat only kosher foods and to maintain her modesty and her lifestyle even in an atmosphere which is so inimical to the values upon which she’d been raised.
That is the Esther who was ready and prepared to take courage and rise to the occasion when she was called upon to speak up on behalf of her people. And, so we are taught, when she readies herself to enter the throne room, the verse says that Esther “donned royalty.” She became every inch the queen: She donned royalty itself. She came before Ahasuerus as the very image of royalty and dignity and majesty, and so even Ahasuerus was moved to heed her request to save her people.
Esther was ready to perform her role because through all the long years she remained true to herself, to her values
and to what she believed in — even in the midst of an atmosphere which was antithetical to her values and aspirations. She succeeded because she was secure in her knowledge of who she was and what she stood for.
That is the deeper lesson in the Purim story. It’s about knowing who we are and what we Jews believe, and living a life that
is true to those values. PJC
Rabbi Levi Langer is the dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.