Esther: A Mission in The Harem

Sefer Esther (the Scroll, or book, of Esther) is an intriguing and astonishing instance of a miracle that has no supernatural element whatsoever. It has no trace of a deus ex machina or of mysterious happenings over and above the events which themselves radically change the situation. Rather, all the motivations, desires, and explanations are plain to be seen. In principle, this is an important key to understanding the significance of the Jewish attitude to miracles. It is clear, at least in so far as something of this nature can be clear, that in Jewish thought the essence of the miracle is not identical with the supernatural event but is linked to its significance, its content — and its result, arising from the combination of forces and personalities involved.

Thus, in the Scroll of Esther, where everything is apparently revealed and comprehensive, the narrative is in a certain sense misleading. When we examine the details of the story, it becomes apparent that this is a complex tale, with several levels of which only the edges are visible. Deeper penetration reveals different aspects of Esther’s role and even of her being. From the moment of her being taken to the palace, we discover an interesting and instructive phenomenon in regard not only to the sequence of events thereafter but also to their significance.

The fact that Esther had come to live within the palace was not planned: that is to say, she was not an emissary of Israel sent to operate within the king’s house. Nor was she the prototype of the beautiful spy planted in the courts of the enemy. However, from that moment, even before she became queen, it is clear that Mordecai had ideas of his own, and that ulterior thoughts of his directed Esther’s steps. Both Mordecai and Esther were fully aware of the possible importance of her being in the royal house; and thus, from the outset, there was a certain readiness for appropriate action which ultimately bore fruit.

At the time when Esther first came to the harem, neither she nor Mordecai knew what lay ahead. Haman’s deeds and influence, his rise to power, were not yet apparent and, indeed, came only later. It is very likely that, in the early stages of Esther’s sojourn there, neither his enmity nor his anti-Jewish programs had taken shape. However, as I have said, Esther was preparing herself for, or at least showing an almost inspired awareness of, what could happen in the future — as is attested by the fact that initially she “had not shewed her people nor her kindred” (Esther 2:10). This discretion was not simply accidental, nor was it necessarily a case of self-interest. Rather, Esther was acting here on the express instructions of Mordecai to whom, as is explicitly stated, she was still obedient (2:20).

There is, here, no attempt to hide from antisemitism in the modern sense. It was very likely that King Ahasuerus, like most Persian rulers was more or less tolerant of the religions and peoples in his domain. Yet Esther was introduced into the palace in such a way that it was not at all clear to which nation she belonged — an uncertainty that was the first indication of what was to follow. In everything that Esther was to do there was an element of surprise. It is interesting that Haman, himself an interested party, did not discover Esther’s Jewishness until after he was powerless to do anything about it; and since he did not know of her origins, it did not occur to him to act against her.

Therefore, the first stage in Esther’s becoming the king’s favorite did not bring advantages to “Mordecai’s people” — as the Jews are referred to in the book. It was common in those times for the women of the harem, the favorite concubines who reached a senior position, to be rewarded with a series of benefits and privileges for members of their nation. In almost every culture with a similar social structure that we know of, foreign concubines acted in the interests of their own compatriots or members of their own faith. It was apparently so in the court of the Mongol khans and in the Turkish empire, to give but two instances. In some cases, like China and Japan, preferential conditions for the queen’s relatives were a permanent and influential factor in internal politics. There are many instances all through history of the influence of the favorite queen or concubine being of great historical importance.

The fact that Esther, in accordance with Mordecai’s instructions, did not overtly seek such “fringe benefits” proves that we have here a case of inspired foresight or, at very least, an awareness of the “the sorrow that is to come.” There is here an implicit realization of the fact that a representative within the king’s court could be more useful if her Jewish identity were not recognized.

Esther is an almost classic example of the conspiratorial connection. On the one hand, she did not disclose “her people or her kindred,” even though the king tried various means to extract the secret from her. She actually appeared to be an orphan, someone without relatives, in a way that was somewhat damaging to her status. For, after all, someone without connection, background, or roots was inferior. In the long term, this inferior status appeared preferable to the premature disclosure of her origins. In addition to this “secrecy,” Esther and Mordecai were in almost daily communication, whether directly or by means of messengers bringing reports to and fro between them. These reports were probably not always important; although at other times, they may have been crucial. The single instance recounted in the book concerns a different kind of communication. This is the incident in which Mordecai used Esther in order to forestall a rebellion that was being plotted against the king. Here, too, Mordecai’s action went beyond the immediate issue at hand: he had reasons of his own for preserving the connection with Ahasuerus, who seemed to him more “amenable” than other likely candidates to the throne, if only because of his relationship with Esther.

Hence, it seems likely that the Esther-Mordecai relationship went beyond the regular family bond, and that Esther was, in fact, carrying out a mission, whether knowingly and voluntarily or whether in response to her uncle’s commands as instructor and guide. Esther was the unacknowledged emissary of the Jews within the palace. It may be that, from the outset, Mordecai was simply using her to learn about what was going on in the country generally, but it is also likely that he was farsightedly thinking of possible future developments.

In truth: it Was Mordecai who “engineered” the high point of the drama: the moment in which Esther revealed herself as a Jewess and reached the zenith of her political achievements by overthrowing the most important man in the country – Haman. Mordecai not only guided Esther’s steps but also encouraged her and spurred her on. He showed her that the crucial moment had come to act, even if that act incurred grave danger to her position and, if the king were so minded, even to her life. This was the moment when she must fulfill her task, regardless of the cost to herself.

It is interesting that another aspect appears at this point which, even if only hinted at in the Bible, seems to be of profound significance: that is the power of prayer at a crucial moment. Mordecai’s prayer is mentioned in the Septuagint – not in the original, but it is still evident from the context. Esther’s feeling that she had come to carry out a great task, her commitment to her people, and her belief in the Jewish way of life and values were evident when she asked Mordecai to call for a three-day fast to pray for the success of her mission – in memory of which the Fast of Esther is observed to this day. Esther’s request reveals not only the strength of her bond with the people but also reveals the extent of her faith in the efficacy of the prayers of the Jewish people and her feeling that she represented their spirit within the palace.

An understanding of Esther’s deep commitment to her people changes any initial impression we may have received of her as a woman who, if she did not sell her honor, at least compromised it by going complacently to the palace, losing contact with her past, and becoming a woman of the harem. Here, her role was to be pleasing in the sight of the king, to amuse and satisfy him – with all that this role implies. Yet there are other hints of Esther’s true character – some very fine and faint; others very clear.

There is the danger she underwent for the sake of the nation and her declaration that a day of celebration and feasting be initiated to commemorate the events. This was the act of a woman who had carried out a dangerous mission and felt a need to perpetuate that mission, not only in the deepest social and national sense but also as something of profound significance in her own life. She felt her deed had value as a sacrifice and epitomized the many tasks fulfilled for national or ideological reasons.

Into this category must come those tasks, difficult and perhaps among the less pleasant, that women must sometimes carry out to achieve their goal: to surrender themselves totally, while protecting their identity and remembering where loyalty must lie. It is not an easy temptation to withstand. In the case of Esther, she was not involved in a dubious or temporary love affair but actually became the queen, reaching the heights of ambition and achievement which a woman in those days could perhaps hope for. Nevertheless, Esther felt that her task was more important, and that it was up to her to represent the Jewish people at this moment. When Mordecai confronted her with the choice between her mission or her rank, her status, and – not least – her life, he was making things very difficult for her. On the one hand, Esther had attained the highest possible position, that of queen, and she was likely to lose it at one stroke. On the other hand, if she betrayed her mission, she would be a traitor to her values and beliefs for the rest of her life.

The sages have evaluated a role of this kind in connection with both Yael and Esther: “Better a transgression for the sake of heaven than a good deed which is not.” This saying, dangerous to those who abuse it, expresses an understanding of the spiritual dedication that goes beyond mere personal danger and involves also a degree of personal humiliation, a renunciation of self. From the point of view of the Jewish woman, Esther’s role was not honorable. Had she married a fellow Jew and become a decent housewife in the capital or elsewhere, the feeling would have been that she was fulfilling a mitzva (for the sake of heaven or otherwise) in a perfect, dutiful way. The very fact that she was in the palace to begin with was, in a certain sense, the result of a chain of “transgressions in the name of God.”

Midrashic and Talmudic literature expands this notion and penetrates deep into the problem of this total devotion.

The moment when Esther was required to go to Ahasuerus and use every means of seduction and temptation at her disposal in order to lift the sentence of death that had fallen on the Jews was not just a moment of personal danger. She was required to pass from a passive state to an active one, to become the temptress. Previously, Esther could claim that, to some extent, she was in a situation in which she was held under duress. From the moment when she took the initiative in approaching the king to seduce him, she lost her last shreds of innocence. Where previously she could feel pure, at least in spirit, she was now to some extent sullied. The step Esther took in approaching Ahasuerus with a view to enthralling him by her personal charm was a step more drastic than her induction into the king’s harem, a matter in which she had no choice. Consciously, she now decided to endanger not only her life but her soul; and from this moment onward, she became the savior of the Jewish people. Inwardly, however, she could no longer regard herself as belonging to the ethical values of her people, not in body and perhaps also not soul.

Other generations have maintained that, when a man gives up his life while his soul is pure and unsullied, he has reached one level of sacrifice; and that there is a further level, where an individual not only gives up his life but also exposes his soul to a danger whose result none can foretell.

The test of sacrifice, the hidden, unexplained test which is not stressed in The Scroll of Esther, changes this woman from a mere historical figure to a national heroine. The mechanism of the miracle is plainly revealed and visible. All its elements are clearly spread before us. Esther is the woman around whom this miracle revolves, the savior whom we later bless in the religious festival of Purim recalling her act of heroism.

This essay first appeared as a chapter in Biblical Images by Rabbi Steinsaltz.