Every year as I prepare for Purim, I discover a new way of reading the text that gives such wonderful insight into its characters, and seems to describe situations and relationships that we face today.
The Book of Esther is full of twisting reversals, points high and low. It is filled with extreme emotions – joy, sadness, terror, rage, fear, hatred, and relief. The lowest – and most triumphant – moment in the story occurs in chapter 4.
In chapter three, Haman uses lies and bribery to extract permission from King Achashverosh to kill all of the Jews of Persia in revenge for Mordechai refusing to bow down to him. At the end of the scene, Haman and the King sit down to drink while the city is dumbfounded by the quickly spreading news.
Thus begins chapter 4. Mordechai springs into action. He has made it his habit to spend his days hanging outside the harem, where his niece Esther is safely ensconced as queen. Upon hearing the terrible news, Mordechai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and covers his head with ashes – all signs of mourning.
Esther’s servants inform her about the bitter weeping of the Jews of Shushan and her uncle Mordechai. But Esther has been removed from everything taking place in the lower city, so she has no idea what is causing their great sorrow. She is not allowed to leave the palace to see things for herself.
She sends her servant, a eunuch named Hatach, to talk to Mordechai, check things out for her, and bring back a report. Mordechai tells him the whole story, and even shows him Haman’s decree with the King’s seal upon it. He sends Hatach to Esther with the message that she must go before the King to appeal for mercy on behalf of her people. In fact, Mordechai commands her to do so.
Esther’s response is disappointing to him. “Everyone knows,” she says “that if any person, man or woman, enters the king’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter to him may he live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the king for the last thirty days.”
Now there are a couple of ways to understand Esther’s comment. Thirty days is a long time. Perhaps she is out of favor with the king, and if she shows up unannounced she faces execution. Or perhaps she is suggesting that enough time has passed – thirty days – that she is expecting to be summoned to the King any day now. So why risk her life needlessly?
We have been trained to think of this episode in the Megillah in the following way: Mordechai is the paternalistic uncle trying to convince the young, naive Esther to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people. This is not what is going on.
Esther’s response is not an outright refusal. In fact, her statement shows deeper thoughtfulness and strategy than her uncle’s. Consider these the opening salvos in a political negotiation.
Mordechai responds, again through Hatach, playing his Kissingerian role as shuttle diplomat. “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.”
How should we understand this densely packed statement? Mordechai’s opening words sound like a threat. He seems confident that the Jewish people will be saved, whether by Esther’s intercession or not. This is the closest reference to God in the Megillah, although it is still just an intimation. Perhaps Mordechai is even appealing to her ego, dangling the prospect of becoming the hero of the story. In any event, it seems, on the face of things, that Mordechai has taken Esther’s response as a refusal to act, and now he is trying to change her mind.
Perhaps there is another way to read the story. Esther has not refused Mordechai. Rather, she has communicated to him what conditions in the palace are like; how dangerous it is there for her. Now Mordechai is approving of her plan to take things slow. This is the answer he wants. So he offers encouragement. The risk is worth it. Your fate in the palace is the same as ours out here on the streets. Indeed, if you don’t act, you could die while the rest of us are saved by some other hero. You are the Queen. Now act like one.
Esther responds with a plan. She sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for three days. Meanwhile, she will do the same with her court in the palace. Then she throws in a bit of melodrama, “and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”
She throws Mordechai’s threats back at him. She will indeed try to intercede, but she makes sure that Mordechai understands the risks she is taking.
We are now back where we started from. The chapter opened with Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan in mourning. Now, Esther has declared her solidarity with the Jews of Shushan by calling for a three day public fast, also an act of mourning.
In the postscript to the chapter, Mordechai returns to the city, and does what Esther has commanded him.
Notice that the exchanges began with Mordechai commanding Esther. Now it is Esther who is doing the commanding. And Mordechai seems perfectly willing to go along with it. Their roles have reversed.
Why does Mordechai back down? Is Esther’s plan such a good one? ‘Fast for three days and I’ll take care of it.’ Can he not come up with something better? Is he comfortable being commanded by his niece?
Again, we have more than one way to read this story. On its surface, it would seem that Esther has won the argument. The intercession will take place on her terms. In doing so, she has established herself as the one with the power. She is the Queen, after all. No more will she allow herself to be controlled by Mordechai. Mordechai obediently goes back to do as he is told.
Or, perhaps Mordechai has won the argument. This is exactly the outcome he has wanted from the beginning. He has always known his niece has tremendous potential. Her selection as queen does not surprise him. She has been perfectly placed to play a critical role on behalf of the Jewish people. Think of her as one of those sleeper agents that are waiting to be activated. Mordechai needs to find a way to awaken Esther’s latent talents so that she can become the hero he has trained her to be.
Mordechai is a spymaster, working from behind the scenes to nurture Esther’s talent and arrange the situation so that she will be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
To further support the notion that Mordechai is a spymaster, consider the following: Mordechai is the one who somehow uncovers the plot by two guards to stage a palace coup, but he does not bring the news himself to the King, although he certainly could have. He sends the warning through Esther. Why? So that she can establish her credibility and raise her stature in the court. Mordechai stays in the background, where he wants to be. Perhaps that is why he is not initially rewarded for his meritorious service.
Also, somehow, Mordechai has found out the exact amount of money that Haman has secretly promised to give the king. It is safe to assume that this detail is not public knowledge. After all, leaders generally do not want word to get out that they have accepted a bribe. Mordechai knows just where to be and when to be there to get the critical information that he needs.
So why does Mordechai obediently follow Esther’s command?
He is happy to.
He has finally seen her leadership qualities burst forth. He has groomed her for greatness from the very beginning. Even though she has not elucidated her plan, Mordechai is confident that Esther will know exactly what must be done to save the Jewish people.
And she does, with Mordechai proudly watching from the sidelines.
The book is named after Esther, the hero of the story. But we also recognize Mordechai’s contribution as the uncle who adopts her, protects her, trains her, gives her wings, and eventually lets her fly to a greatness that she achieves through her own courage and intelligence.
Isn’t that we try to do as parents? While they are in our care, we provide our children with protection, education, and self-confidence. We know that they will face adversity in their lives. We encourage them to face it squarely, perhaps warning them what could befall them if they do not confront challenges directly. And we are so proud when they recognize the risks, and step forward nevertheless.
Eventually, our children reach an age when we can no longer exert total control over their lives, as much as we might want to. Like Mordechai, hopefully, we will have enough faith in them that we can watch from the sidelines while they make their own decisions, command their own fates, and deal with the consequences.
The difficult question that does not have a straightforward answer is: When exactly does that moment come? Is it twelve, thirteen, thirty four?