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“A Time Such as This,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

March 22, 2024 | 12 Adar II 5784

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings. This week we take the joy of Shabbat and carry it with us as we arrive at Purim. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Why did Esther not reveal her Jewish identity until she absolutely had to?

When Esther enters the story, we learn she had been orphaned and adopted by Mordecai who
was related to her. He cared for her until he learned that the King has issued a decree for a
new wife. She was among those taken into the palace as a candidate. She remained there a
full year as was the custom. Mordecai stayed close by to check on her status and wellbeing.
Before they parted he provided the clear instruction that “she should not reveal her people or
her kindred.” Esther’s beauty and grace attracted the full attention of the King who declared his
love for her and choice as his queen.

There are many prurient and salacious aspects to the first chapters of the Book of Esther. We
will not review them here. What is worthy to note is that Esther seemed to have no agency at
the beginning of story.

There is a moment when she acted on behalf of Mordecai. As he sat by the palace gates, he
heard some disgruntled employees, who happened to also be eunuchs, complain about the king
and plot for his destruction. Mordecai learned of it and told it to Queen Esther, and Esther
reported it to the king in Mordecai’s name. (2:22) As a result of saving the King, the rescue
entered the book of annals for the king to remember. The text gives no credit to Esther even
though she made sure the King knew.

Later in the narrative the King appointed Haman (Boo!), who expected all to bow in his presence
because of his great importance. Mordecai’s refusal raised the ire of Haman (Boo!), who
discovered Mordecai’s Jewishness, and therefore Haman (Boo!) decided all Jews should be
punished with annihilation.

We know what happened next: Haman received permission to kill all the Jews from the husband
of Esther, a Jew, who kept her identity hidden because Mordecai had instructed her to do so even
though Mordecai had revealed why he did not bow down, because he was a Jew, thus making his
identity public information. The plot thickens.

And Esther’s voice will grow stronger now, and so will her identity.

Mordecai had learned that the wicked Haman (Boo) would mastermind the destruction of the
Jewish people and called upon Esther “to appeal to the king to plead with him for her people.”
But she feared for her life because she knew that only those summoned by the king could
approach, so she refused. Mordecai persisted with these words:

“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep
silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you
and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position
for just such a crisis.”

Then Esther sent back this answer to Mordecai:

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for
three days, night or day. I and my maids will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king,
though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” (Esther 4:11-16)

Up to this point in the story, Esther easily blended in. She did not feel compelled to share her
Jewish identity. Yet, the moment arrived when she felt threatened not only for herself but also
for her people. It awakened her to a particular connection that had been dormant. She realized
the time had come. The moment summoned her to assert her Jewish self.

It takes a tremendous amount of bravery to step forward as a Jew and assert one’s identity
especially in a time such as this and because it is a time such as this.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Elaine Zecher