I Am the First, I Am the Last
PurimBurst, 2004 / 5564
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
And [Mordecai] brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter; for she had neither father nor mother. (Esther 2:7)
וַיְהִי [מרדבי] אֹמֵן אֶת הֲדַסָּה הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת דֹּדוֹ כִּי אֵין לָהּ אָב וָאֵם.
There are two words in Hebrew that contain the same three letters, only rearranged. They are אין (ayin) and אני (ani). The first means nothing, and the second means, I and ego. The first is a name for the most transcendent and unknowable level of Divine Being. The second refers to the illusion of oneself as an independent entity apart from G‑d. In general a spiritual path moves from ani to ayin, from self-absorption to self-surrender. The kabbalists associate ayin with the crown of the head, and ani with the soles of the feet (and even the ground beneath them). You can’t get farther apart than that. Yet they are really just opposite poles of Divine expression, for one thing is certain, “There is nothing but G‑d.” And so, HaShem Himself affirms: “I am first and I am last [I am the crown and I am the footstool], besides me there is no G‑d.”sther’s tale is the story of all women, and since the Jewish people are compared to the moon (which is feminine) it is also their saga as well. The Book of Esther is an historical narrative, that occurred between the years 367 – 357 BCE. Yet there are moments in time that are nearly transparent. The veil lifts and behold, real people with real lives are suddenly part of a holy drama that conveys the most sublime and eternal truths through the mundane facts of their unsuspecting lives. Esther’s tale is a masterpiece in this regard. Stick a pin through any page, and secrets spill out on the other side.
I used the masculine pronoun here out of habit, because it is our convention to refer to G‑d as He. Yet, in fact, this verse is spoken by the feminine face of G‑d, the holy Shekhina, the cosmic She (at least according to R. Shlomo Elyashuv, the master kabbalist known as the Leshem). He explains that the unfolding of worlds happens in stages. Each downward step produces a denser reality. Slowly spirit congeals into matter as it passes through the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical planes. Each level births the one below it. Thus the footstool (ani) of the upper world becomes the crown (ayin) of the next world down. And yet, says the Leshem, the inner core of that newly formed crown disappears and descends through a hidden passageway, only to reappear, heavily disguised, as the barren ground that is the lowest point of that very same world. Whereas the crown is a radiant source of bounty; barren ground is bereft of even its basic needs, of seed and moisture. No one would know that these two are really one. Its truth is deeper than the eyes can see.
This constant motion between crown and footstool, ayin and ani, ruler and servant, is the feminine’s kabbalistic role (according to the Leshem). It contrasts with the masculine power which, as the central pillar, is stable and solid like a backbone, and holds the stature upright. He is birthed by the crown and stands upon the footstool. His strength is his unswerving commitment to truth.
The feminine’s experience is the opposite, for she is in constant motion. She is the first and she is the last, and then the first again. She is both the highest (אין) and she is the lowest (אני). The former is her secret truth, the latter is what meets the eye. She appears as a footstool, and that is her service. Yet her essential self, says the Leshem, is actually higher than all whom she serves, for she is actually their source on high. Everything traces its roots back to her. Whatever exists, no matter how lofty, she preceded it, and even more, she birthed it into the world. This split between inner truth and outer role, inner royalty and outer dependence is a paradox that agitates at the core of every woman’s soul. The hidden fact of woman’s royal ancestry could be the most well kept secret in the universe. Before there was even the thought of creation she inhabited the pure realms of infinite oneness, called אין (ayin).
And this brings us to Esther, for she embodies the Divine feminine in this holy drama. Hechal HaBrocha proves this by reading the verse above in a way that is perfectly consistent with the Hebrew, but expresses an entirely new idea.
כִּי אֵין לָהּ אָב וָאֵם.
“Ayin is her mother and father.”
This verse (says he) is teaching that Esther was birthed from pure, Divine oneness. She is a direct descendent of the One-Who-Transcends-All. “She has no mother and father” because she is the ב”ה אין expressing itself as אני. And so, true to her archetype, she was also a captive woman in the king’s court. To be sure she was the queen, but this was against her will. Esther loved another, and was forced to marry Achashverosh. Crown — footstool, ayin — ani.
Now, why did Mordecai insist that Esther be the one to risk her life to save the Jews. Everyone knows that HaShem controls the hearts of earthly kings. Why couldn’t Mordecai use prayer or kabbalistic meditation to approach the heavenly throne himself and appeal to the King of Kings for mercy. Certainly a tsadik of his stature knows the way to PaRDeS and could have prevailed.
It seems that HaShem wanted both kings to be appeased (both He and Achashverosh)…for real. It seems that Israel’s coming of age demanded that they align the physical with the spiritual, the political with the holy, in a way that truly satisfied the interests both. What an impossible mission. And it seems that Esther’s familiarity with ani and ayin, and her ease of negotiating between them, made her uniquely suited to the undertaking.
When Haman maligned the Jews to Achashverosh he said: “There is a certain people…whose codes are different from everyone else; and they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to tolerate them.” His argument prevailed and, “The King [indicating both Achashverosh and the King of Kings] removed his signet ring … and said, ‘Do with them as you see fit.’”
The Jews now faced annihilation from both worlds. They incurred the earthly king’s wrath because they held fast to their Torah and refused to assimilate. They incurred the heavenly king’s wrath because they were lax in their practice and had begun to assimilate, even if only at their edges.
Both kings had to be appeased, but each demanded precisely what the other forbid. What an impossible knot. And this was Esther’s mission: To find the truth (and the words to express it) that would ring in the heart of both kings, each with their polar opposite interests, and all this without compromising her integrity one iota. Interestingly, the sentence she speaks contains both the words ayin and ani.
כִּי נִמְכַּרְנוּ אֲנִי וְעַמִּי לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוֹג וּלְאַבֵּד וְאִלּוּ לַעֲבָדִים וְלִשְׁפָחוֹת נִמְכַּרְנוּ הֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי כִּי אֵין הַצָּר שׁוֶֹה בְּנֵזֶק הַמֶּלֶךְ
For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, slain, and annihilated. But if we had only been sold as slaves and maid servants, I would have kept my silence. Instead, the enemy has not sufficiently recompensed the king for the damage [that will be incurred to him by the Jews’ annihilation.]
With ani Esther appeals to the earthly king. Achashverosh does not care about the Jewish people, but he does not want to lose Esther, his chosen one.
With ayin she appeals to the heavenly king and her last phrase could be retranslated applying Haichal HaBrocha’s technique:
כִּי אֵין הַצָּר שׁוֶֹה בְּנֵזֶק הַמֶּלֶך
The ayin [the contrite and whole-hearted submission of Israel’s will to HaShem, expressed through their fasting and teshuva] even though it was prompted by distress [and not by their own initiative] nevertheless, does still compensate for the “debt” they incurred to the heavenly King [through their earlier, wayward behavior].
Esther’s formula succeeded. Both kings were appeased. Esther found a strategy that convinced both the heavenly and earthly powers (even though the latter was as corrupt and drenched in self interest as Achashverosh).
History repeats itself. Again, Israel is pressed between the contradictory demands of its heavenly King and an unholy fellowship of world rulers. What a set-up. Yet if Esther is our prototype, then HaShem is asking us to pursue a similar strategy. Like master locksmiths, we are challenged to find the combination of truths that will release the deadlock, satisfy both kings, and bring redemption NOW. And again, if Esther is our prototype, the solution will be a feminine approach, born in the heart of one who knows the mystery of ani and ayin from the inside, from experience. And just as “Mordecai did exactly as Esther commanded him,” we must give voice to our feminine wisdom and be willing to follow its lead.
This Purim, when everything turns upside down, when ani becomes ayin, and ayin becomes ani, and HaShem lets loose his treasure chest of hidden lights into the world, and we all stretch to receive them, let it be that at least one among us catches the spark that solves the current paradox that is the key to our redemption, and the rest of us (holy and unholy kings) should see its truth and accept its guide.
 3394 – 3404 since the birth of Adam (the first human being) in the Jewish counting of years.
 Deut. 4:35.
 Isaiah 44:6.
 R. Shlomo Elyashuv, The Diminishment of the Moon, chapter 10.
 R. Yitzchak Yechiel Safron, Ketem Ofir, 2:7.
 The Ari does not present any gilgulim for Esther, which is very unusual.
 In verse 2:7, Esther is actually called יפת תואר, which is the term the Torah uses to indicate the captive woman in Deut. 21:11.
 PaRDeS is a term that hints to the kabbalistic meditation where a person’s soul travels up through the various chambers of the heavenly palace.
 Esther 3:8-11.
 Esther 7:4.
 Esther :17.