12 Years a Slave & Esther
Like Solomon Northup, Esther could not reveal her true identity.
This year's Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African American man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. Under brutal conditions he worked on plantations in Louisiana for 12 years before he was finally released.
Throughout all the harsh years that he suffered as a slave, no one believed his real story. His wife and children spent those 12 years in New York wondering where he was and why he had disappeared. His vocation as a farmer and violinist became distant memories. He had to pretend that he didn't know how to read so that he wouldn't be killed. He had to live someone else's life until Samuel Bass, a trusted Canadian carpenter who worked with Northup, sent letters, including one written by Northup, to friends and higher-ups revealing Northup’s location. Eventually someone from the North came to rescue him.
Solomon returned to his family and reclaimed his true identity, but he was unsuccessful in his attempt to sue the men who kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. The law in the District of Columbia prohibited him as a black man from testifying against whites. Later, in New York State, the two men were charged with kidnapping but two years later the charges were dropped. We are left with a sense of bewildered injustice: How could this man lose 12 years of his life without any explanation or reparation? How could a free, employed husband and father lose his entire identity for so long?
When the film won Best Picture last week, I thought about how the Book of Esther that we will read on the upcoming holiday of Purim echoes with the last of the lingering questions from Solomon’s life story.
She had to hide the core of her soul: her precious Jewish identity.
When Esther was chosen to be queen and married the evil Achashverosh, Mordechai warned her not to reveal her true identity. He feared for her safety and knew that she could only help the Jewish people if her identity as a Jew remained a secret. Esther obeyed Mordechai's instructions as she desperately held onto the precious legacy of her ancestors. She kept seven servants, one for each day of the week so she would always know when Shabbos arrived. She made sure that there was no chametz in the palace for Passover, and only ate fruit and vegetables so that she could keep kosher. But for years she had to pretend to be somebody that she wasn't. She had to hide the core of her soul: her precious Jewish identity.
Imagine being forced to mask your identity. Esther didn't forget who she was, but did the masquerade impact her belief in her own inner strength? By the time she needed to approach the King to beg for the salvation of the Jewish nation, she was hesitiant to speak up.* Mordechai reminded her what she would lose if she didn't step forward: “Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps just for this moment, you were chosen to be in the Palace” (Megillat Esther 4:12-14).
Esther rose to the occasion and saved our nation. She begged the King to save the Jews and destroy Haman’s plans. In the end, Haman was killed, along with his 10 sons, in the same way that he had planned to kill Mordechai, and the Jewish nation was victorious against its enemies.
History Repeats Itself
But history weaves its way forward in spirals. Today we are once again faced with the fear to express our true identity. A recent survey of Jews from nine European countries, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, revealed that a quarter of the respondents avoid visiting places and wearing symbols that identify them as Jews because they are afraid of being attacked. In Sweden, 49 percent of the respondents said they are afraid of wearing a kippah and carrying any identifiably Jewish item.
Are we returning to a time in history when we are afraid to be recognized as Jews?
An overwhelming majority of European Jews reported a rise in anti-Semitism. Last week a group of Arab men attacked a Jew on a Paris train, shouting at him: “Jew, you have no country.” The attackers strangled him and beat him until another passenger warned that the police were coming. Unfortunately, more than 75 percent of respondents do not report anti-Semitic harassment to the police and 64 percent said they do not report physical assaults; the respondents believe that reporting incidents either was “not worth the effort” or simply ineffective.
The statistics are chilling. Are we returning to a time in history when we are afraid to be recognized as Jews? Are we again hiding our identities out of fear for our lives? Are we masquerading behind someone else’s life story because it is too risky to use our own voices? Years of slavery can make a person feel trapped even though in his heart, he knows that he is a free man. And when no one else can see who you are, can you be strong enough to know yourself? When no one else knows where you have come from and where you dream of going, can you stay true to your own values? Will we have the strength to take off our masks when we need to speak to the King?
Because if we cannot tear off our masks like Esther did, our true stories will be lost. This is why the megillah is named after Esther. She risked her life to save the Jewish People. She didn’t give up. She told the King: I am a Jew, and my people are in danger.
Because of Esther, we have the holiday of Purim when the bewildering sense of injustice is turned upside down, and the kidnapped man gets to see his captors reprimanded. A day when we ‘get back’ those lost years when we were living someone else’s life script. A day when all the loose ends come together and all the plot lines converge. A day when we no longer feel shame or fear. A day when we all have the chance to find our true voices and write the megillahs of our own lives.
This Purim, we have the opportunity to feel the love of our Father, our King who has always known who we really are, and who has been patiently waiting for us to reclaim the scripts of our lives. He is waiting for us to find the courage to say: I am a Jew, and I am stepping forward to speak up. This is who I always was. This is who I really am. This is who I will always be.
*The idea that Esther lost her self-confidence when she was forced to hide her identity comes from Rabbi Joshua Lookstein