With Purim on the near horizon, it is worth reflecting on the central character of the book that gives us the holiday – Esther. To be certain, there are other individuals who teach us lessons by their conduct, including Mordecai, Haman (boo), Vashti, Achashverosh and a host of minor players, but it is Esther who occupies the very center of the tale and who gives the book its name.
The layers of interpretations that have been heaped upon this heroine have made her into a piously observant woman who was dependent on her uncle’s direction. But a reading of the story itself – without the presumptions of the midrashic embellishments – and what emerges is a picture of a surprisingly contemporary woman.
Esther was an orphan. Her parents named her Hadassah, a nice Hebrew name, but she was known to the outside world by a name similar to Ishtar, a pagan goddess. It is a phenomenon we all know – those of us with names like Jack and Scott and Nancy and Marcia. Jews tend to assimilate into the cultural norms of their surroundings, often becoming better practitioners than the native born.
And so it was with Esther. She out-beautified the other contestants for the position of queen, satisfying the king in ways unspoken but heavily implied. She did not keep a kosher diet; she did not observe Shabbat; she did not offer Hebrew prayers. How do I know? Well, she didn’t reveal her Jewishness. She was very comfortable being what we might call today a “secular Jew.”
And yet, when the moment arrived, she recognized the critical role she had to play on behalf of her people. The words of Mordecai that inspire her are, “who knows if it is not for this very purpose that you have reached this position” of influence. And Esther, no more “religious” than the moment before, puts her talents to work for the benefit of the Jews. She and her wise uncle become celebrated in Persia and beyond.
It is an oft-repeated story – the Jew who strikes out on her or his own, hiding the truth about identity, and succeeds beyond expectation. The inclusion of this book in the Bible may very well have been a conscious attempt at what we today call outreach. Its content and context speak to larger and smaller numbers throughout history who have taken quiet pride in their Jewishness but would not be bothered with public practice.
It is a story worth remembering as we encounter the quiet Jews in our world. All of us have to observe and remember Shabbat. Some of us don’t. But each Jew will someday find an opportunity to use those skills, native or honed, to advance the cause of our people and a better world. And who knows if it is not for that very purpose that each of us reaches our particular position.