PurimBurst, 2009 / 5769

PurimBurst, 2009 / 5569

Esther inspired affection in the eyes of all who saw her… (Megillat Esther 2:15)

What was the secret of Esther’s extraordinary (even supernatural) grace.[1] It wasn’t her sense of fashion, for she did not primp even before her big night with the king.[2] And it wasn’t her physical features, as captivating as they were,[3] for outer beauty, though compelling, always has detractors—it inevitably, also, arouses envy. Not so for Esther, who found grace in everyone’s eyes. Before she revealed her Jewish roots, each nation was sure she was one of them.[4]

The Ya’arot D’evash[5] discloses her secret: All those that Esther met saw themselves in her, because she would see herself in them.

“Esther inspired affection in all who met her because, even though she was the most powerful woman in the world, she related to every person as her equal. This was not a manipulative strategy but the truth of how she saw the world. Esther identified so deeply with the essence of people—all people—that they felt as if she was their soul-sister, cut from the same cloth, reared in the same household. Everyone felt seen, mirrored and drawn to Esther through a mysterious bond of reciprocal affection.”

Every soul has a specialty.  Each person brings some facet of Godliness into focus through the lens of his or her life. It may be the virtue that one values most, or an area where one naturally excels. Sometimes it’s glimpsed when one feels “in the zone,” but it may be the place where one struggles most. Just as there is a uniform code of spiritual law articulated by the Torah, so do we each have a special assignment that is optional for others but binding on us. R. Isaac Luria (the Ari) teaches that we are obligated to strive toward perfection in the area of our soul specialty, and if we don’t it counts as a debit, no less than transgressing the uniform code.

Esther’s specialty was her compassionate x-ray vision, the honor she showed toward all mankind. Wherever she looked she saw to the core, to the Godly spark embedded there. Esther was utterly dedicated to her people yet lacked all trace of racist taint. It is no surprise that this was her test, to perfect this virtue to an ultimate degree.

Everyone knows that Esther risked her life when she entered the king’s chambers unbidden to beg that he retract the decree that called for her people’s extinction. Yet in that fateful moment she risked more than death, and was tested on many fronts.

When she passed through that door she forfeit all hope of resuming her marriage to Mordekhai.[6] Initiating this tryst with the king would irrevocably seal her fate—she must remain forever, now, Ahashverosh’s wife.

And still there was another test that stunned her at that doorway. The Talmud recounts:

Esther…stood in the inner court of the king’s palace.[7] R. Levi comments on this verse: As Esther prepared to plead for her people, she reached the chamber of the tslamim [usually translated as idols], and felt the Shekhina leave her, fallen and bereft of grace. Broken, she cried out the words of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”[8] Continuing her conversation with God and seeking to know why the Shekhina had dropped her, Esther speculates…Perhaps it is because I called Ahashverosh a ‘dog’, as the psalm reads further on, “Deliver my soul from…the dog.”[9] Straightaway she retracted her words and esteemed him with the title of lion, as the psalm continues, “Save me from the lion’s mouth.”[10],[11]

Even in this extreme situation, where the king designated Esther his wife without considering her consent (while in fact her heart belonged to her beloved Mordekhai); and even after he crowned her as queen he continued to gather the virgins; and he was in cahoots with Haman the Amalakite and archenemy of the Jewish nation; and had issued a decree for her beloved people’s genocidal extinction…even with all these justifications (personal, national, and religious) the Shekhina would not tolerate a disparaging word from Esther about this idolatrous tyrant.

The Talmud employs a term that does not appear in the Biblical tale: it describes Esther approaching the chamber of tslamim, plural of tselem, which means image, and is assumed here to mean idols. The standard interpretation is that the Divine Presence does not dwell in a place of spiritual impurity, and the presence of idols is the ultimate desecration. Since Ahashverosh was an idolater, there were sure to be idols in his throne-room, and they are what caused the Shekhina to leave when Esther crossed that threshold.

Yet, there is another interpretation even more consistent with the original verse and with Esther’s successful remedy. Tselem is the term the Bible employs to teach that we humans were “created in the image of God.” The chamber of tslamim becomes the inner soul core of human beings, where their spark of Godliness dwells. The verse that inspired the Talmud’s commentary is thus properly read: “Esther stood in the inner court of the [heavenly] King’s palace [the chamber of tslamim, where the image of God resides.].” Esther’s job, her Divine mission, is to never lose sight of the holy tselem, the image of God that dwells at the core of all who stand before her.

Only with Esther’s humble grace can one enter the chamber of tslamim where a brief lapse of anger or a racist word counts as a full-fledged sin (evidenced by the Shekhina’s retreat when she called Ahashverosh a dog). The Shem M’Shmuel notes that her insult equated him to Amalek, which closed all doors to his teshuva and transformation.[12] In contrast, a lion is the noblest of creatures, identified with Judah, and one of the three holy beasts on the heavenly Throne of Glory.[13] To label him a lion is to affirm his holy root and the possibility (nay, inevitability) of his teshuva. That is the only viewpoint that is welcomed in the holy of holies where the image of God resides. Smuggle in a racist slur and the Shekhina drops you like a leaden idol.

But Esther held the paradox. She didn’t turn her gracious heart into a rigid ideology that paralyzed her from employing might to defend her nation if necessary.  She commandeered the war with Amalek as the text clearly states.[14]  And she even made difficult decisions that increased enemy casualties. Yet her judgment was not skewed by rage or racist hatred. She designed the most spiritually productive battle plan to assure her people’s safety and she acted decisively.

It is painfully clear that our greatest challenge as a people is to heal the rifts among ourselves. But how? We study the laws of right-speech and try to refrain from slander. We commit ourselves to generous deeds and weave threads of love that way. Our prayers are for the Jewish nation including every one. Yet all these seeds will only sprout if they fall on fertile soil. And for this (literally) ground-breaking work, Esther is our model. Our fierce drive to heal our people must rest upon a universal base. We must cultivate a habit of kindness toward the peoples and creatures of the world.

In Duties of the Heart,[15] R. Bechaya brings a teaching tale:

A group of students were walking with their rabbi along a country road.  They passed the carcass of a rotting dog that wafted a foul odor. The disciples commented on how putrid the carcass smelled. The old sage answered them, “How white are its teeth!” The pupils immediately regretted their disparaging remark.  If it is reprehensible to make a derogatory comment concerning a dead dog, how much more so is it wrong to denigrate a living human being…The goal of this pious rabbi was to instill the habit of viewing the world with a kind eye, even something as lowly as a dead dog. 

Ours is a holographic world, which means that every piece contains something of every other piece inside itself. And that means that every nation also embodies aspects of every other nation as well. And that means that if we cannot honor (even celebrate) the diversity of peoples, cultures and creatures on our planet, then we will not succeed in “loving our holy Jewish brethren as ourselves,” for when they remind us of a nation for which we feel contempt our love will fast dissolve into disdain.

Let it be that on this holy Purim day, when Esther’s lights stream through the world that they wash away our racist taints (individual and collective) so that we fix our gaze on the image of God in all the places it be found. And with Esther’s twinkle in our eye, let us pass through all the barriers that block us from our King, and there, within that sanctum, standing face to face, let us pray that every word we speak and every act we do should always bring the greatest good that is possible at that time. And in that way, together all, we should bring Mashiach now. For if we follow Esther’s lead, and cleanse our hearts from pride, our prayer is sure to draw down grace, for that’s the promise of this day.

A fanciful afterthought: It is curious to note, that Ahashverosh was the king of Persia, which, in 1935 changed its name to Iran (which means, Land of the Aryans) in order to affiliate with Hitler’s master race (identified as Aryan, for real or imagined reasons). Iran (the Land of these self-indentified Aryans), has publicly stated its genocidal intention to wipe Israel off the map.

Historically, it appears that the Aryans were the original Brahmin caste in India that introduced the earliest scriptural writings, called the Vedas which Jewish tradition connects to the verse in Genesis 25:6. After Sarah died Abraham remarried Ketura (which commentaries identify with Hagar, the mother of Ishmael) and had six additional sons “to whom he gave gifts, and sent them…eastward, to the east country.”  Commentators note the similarity between A-braham and Brahman (as well as other commonalties) and speculate that the gifts Abraham sent with his sons were the mystical teachings that seeded early Brahmanism. Apparently the elite Brahman status was originally connected to the spiritual wisdom they possessed.

It is also interesting to note that the word Aryan, in Hebrew, actually means lion-like, and that one and a half thousand years before Esther honored Ahashverosh with the title of lion, Jacob (Abraham’s grandson) blesses his son Yehuda / Judah (the one whose name represents the entire Jewish people, who are called Yehudim, i.e., Jews) with the following words:  “Young lion (arye), Judah, you have risen from prey, my son. He crouches like a lion, like an awesome lion, who will dare rouse him?”[16] In fact, an emblem among Jews almost as common as the Jewish Star is the Lion of Judah. It is a strange irony that these Aryans, who seem, at least recently, to have such compelling hatred for the Jewish race, might actually trace their leonine (synonym for Aryan) roots to Abraham, the first Jew.

 

[1] A compendium of passages which describe Esther’s grace: “Esther inspired affection in the eyes of all who saw her…The king loved Esther more than all the other women he had met, one each night, in the four years since Vashti’s execution…Esther awakened grace and inspired his favor so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen…Esther agrees to plead that her people be spared annihilation. She risks her life by entering the King’s chamber [uninvited] a forbidden act that carries the death penalty…Esther donned royalty, slipped past the guards, and stood in the inner court facing the King…When the king noticed Queen Esther…she inspired his affection.”

[2] Megilat Esther, 2:15.

[3] ER (Esther Rabba) 6:9:” …Esther was like a masterpiece of art, a statue, whose beauty crosses all cultural bounds ….Esther’s beauty roused affection in heavenly and earthly beings, alike.”

[4] TB Meg. 13a.

[5] R. Yehonaton Eibshitz (1690-1764), Ya’arot D’vash, chelek 1, drush 5.

[6] TB Megilla 13a.

[7] Megilla 5:1

[8] Psalm 22:2.

[9] Psalm 22:21

[10] Psalm 22:22.

[11] Megila 15b

ותעמד בחצר בית המלך הפנימית. אמר רבי לוי: כיון שהגיעה לבית הצלמים ־ נסתלקה הימנה שכינה, אמרה: (תהלים כ״ב) אלי אלי למה עזבתני, שמא אתה דן על שוגג כמזיד ועל אונס כרצון? או שמא על שקראתיו כלב, שנאמר (תהלים כ״ב) הצילה מחרב נפשי מיד כלב יחידתי. חזרה וקראתו אריה, שנאמר (תהלים כ״ב) הושיעני מפי אריה.

[12] Amalek is compared to a rabid dog in midrashic and later writings, while the Jewish people are likened to lions, the noblest of beasts.

[13] The Throne of Glory had, as its four supports, a lion, ox, eagle, and man.

[14] Megilat Esther, chapters 8 and 9.

[15] Vol II: p. 99(humility, chapter 6)

[16] Translation from, Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah.

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