Esther was a Jewish orphan who became Queen of Persia and risked her own life to save her people from genocide.
After losing both her parents at a young age, Esther was raised by her older relative Mordechai. A beautiful young virgin, she was selected for the harem of King Achashverosh. Esther was forced to leave her home and community and move into the palace. Mordechai warned her not to reveal her Jewish identity. Each day King Achashverosh selected a different woman from his harem to spend the night with, and after Esther’s turn came, he was so smitten with her that he elevated her from concubine to queen.
Even in a non-Jewish environment, Esther found a way to live as an observant Jew. She became a vegetarian so she didn’t have to eat non-kosher meat, and she survived largely on fruit and nuts. Queen Esther arranged to have seven maids, each one working on a different day, so she could keep track of the days and observe Shabbat.
Desperate for news of Esther, Mordechai started hanging out right outside the palace gates. He overheard two guards plotting to assassinate the king. Mordechai told Esther and she told the king, enabling him to thwart the plot.
Meanwhile Mordechai incurred the wrath of grand vizier Haman, who was descended from Amalek, the mortal enemy of the Jewish people. Haman demanded that all subjects of the king bow down to him but Mordechai was the only one who refused to do it. Haman wore a pendant around his neck depicting an idol, and as a Jew Mordechai knew that he was absolutely prohibited to bow down to an idol. He took his orders from the King of Kings.
Enraged at the insult, Haman convinced King Achashverosh to kill all the Jews, and the king promptly selected a date for the genocide. Mordechai came to see Esther and pleaded with her to use her influence with the king to save her people. Esther explained that she is not allowed to approach the king unless she is summoned by him, and she hasn’t been summoned in 30 days, which indicated that she may have lost the king’s interest. It was the law that anybody – including the queen – who tried to speak to the king without an invitation is instantly put to death. Mordechai told her that the whole reason for her to become queen may have been for this moment, but if she didn’t step up, the Jews would find salvation from someone else. With the fate of her entire tribe on the line, gentle young Esther showed she had a backbone of steel. She said, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” She told Mordechai she would approach the king, and asked him and the Jews of Shushan to fast and pray for three days.
Clever and discreet, Esther knew how to handle King Ahashverosh. Instead of rushing in with her demand that the decree against the Jews be rescinded, she invited him and Haman to a party. At that lavish event, she invited them both to another party. Before the second party, Haman arranged for a huge gallows to be built, on which Mordechai would be publicly hanged. That night, the king had insomnia and was reminded that he never rewarded Mordechai for saving his life. He told Haman to parade Mordechai around town, dressed in royal finery, riding the king’s own horse.
At the party, Esther revealed her Jewish identity to the king, and begged that her people not be slaughtered. Haman desperately begged Esther for mercy and threw himself on her, but the king thought Haman was trying to assault the queen, and he ordered that the vizier be strung up on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai. The king told Esther that unfortunately the edict could not be repealed, but after she cried from the depths of her heart for her people, the king allowed her and Mordechai to create a royal statement that gave Jews the right to defend themselves and kill anybody who tried to attack them. The statement was sent to all the provinces, and the Jews fought and defeated all those who rose against them.
Esther is a role model to Jews, especially those in the diaspora. Her story teaches that Jewish identity is eternal and internal. What happened to Esther is a Jewish parent’s worst nightmare – a young girl kidnapped from her home and her community, forced to marry outside her faith, trapped for the rest of her life in a non-Jewish environment where she was unable to eat kosher food, celebrate Jewish holidays, observe certain Jewish rituals or pray in community. Yet her Jewish identity remained so strong that she was fully ready to lay down her life for her people.
G-d is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, but it’s clear that the amazing “coincidences” in the Purim story are part of the Divine plan. Esther’s own name comes from the word Astar – hidden – because G-d is hidden, just as He often seems to be in our world today.
For maintaining her Jewish identity and saving her people, at great risk to herself, we honor Queen Esther as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.