The Heroism of Esther

March 9, 2014

10 min read


Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19 )

Despite her tragic circumstances, Esther did not lose faith or hope.

I have always been troubled by Esther's role as it is presented in the Book of Esther.

We are told of Esther being selected as Queen following a beauty contest run by pagans and heathen. Of course, Esther was taken against her will, as the verses indicate and the Talmud stresses. Nonetheless, why did Esther not choose martyrdom over life in the palace or harem?

This question takes on more poignancy when we recall the Talmudic teaching that the First Temple was destroyed due rampant acts of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality.

Why did Esther not give up her life, refusing to participate in sexual immorality?

Esther's story take place less than a century after the Temple's destruction. The argument could have been made that had she given up her life, refusing to succumb to the sexual immorality of the "beauty contest," perhaps she could have brought about some type of rectification for the fallen Temple.

But upon the advice of Mordechai, she was encouraged to participate as a passive victim. The only advice that he gave her was not to reveal her national identity.

From a legalistic Jewish perspective we can understand Mordechai's instructions: Jewish law recognizes that a rape victim is not expected to give up her life, as she is considered a passive victim who unwillingly transgresses one of the three cardinal laws. On the other hand, any desecration, even of a more minor offense, if publicly known, becomes a "desecration of God's name" and therefore would also require martyrdom. This would explain Mordechai's insistence that Esther conceal her heritage, not just from the king, but from the Jewish community as well.

But the argument in favor of martyrdom is compelling on a psychological level. The martyr is assured respect by co-religionists in this world and an exalted status in the next. This, coupled with an act of defiance against the enemy, seems like a combination too good to turn down. Yet Mordechai does not allow Esther to take this course of action.

Later in the story, when the nefarious plans of Haman become known, Mordechai instructs Esther to go in to see the king. This uninvited entrance to the throne-room of a paranoid despot could result in her death, and indeed Esther hesitates. But perhaps we can understand her hesitation on a different level. If she is prepared to enter willingly, she is no longer passive. Her status in the eyes of Jewish law would be transformed from that of victim to participant, and she would be then be required to offer her life. But the existence of the entire Jewish community hangs in the balance. She must go.

The Chassidic writer Rav Tzaddok of Lublin (Takanat Hashavin, p. 17) makes the point that if Esther seduces the king, she will forfeit her share in the world to come! Her response to Mordechai's directions, "As I am lost, I am lost," refers to her situation. Just as she may lose her life in this world, she risks losing her share in the next one.

Rav Tzaddok stresses that a person must be willing to "love God with all your heart and all your soul," even if it means giving up one's soul. This is true love of God. How ironic! Had Esther given her life before spending one night in the palace she would have been a martyr deserving a great share in the world to come, and now, having given up her body, she faces the possibility of her soul being wiped out. 


The more we think about Esther, the more we appreciate the sadness of her life. Orphaned as a child, married, but torn away from her husband, forced to live a life of secrecy, distanced from her people.

In the Talmud, Esther is compared to the ayelet hashachar, the first ray of light in the morning. The psalm of ayelet hashachar, Psalm 22, is dedicated to her:

"My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me despite my cries? Oh my God I cry in the daytime but you do not respond, and in the night I have no rest. But you are Holy, enthroned by the praises of Israel" (Psalm 22:2-4)

The Midrash expands on this idea, giving a voice to Esther:

"My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me? My Lord at the [splitting of] the sea, my Lord at Sinai, why have you forsaken me? Why has the order of the world changed concerning me? The order of the mothers? With regard to our mother Sarah, she was held captive by Pharaoh one night and he and his whole household were struck with a plague ... but I have been placed in the bosom of this wicked man all these years, for me you do no miracles. My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?" (Midrash Tehilim Buber, 22:16)

In the time of Esther some "rules" had changed. The Divine grace which had been felt since God spoke to Abraham had disappeared. It was a time when God was "hidden." Esther is not saved by a miracle or a plague. Esther is left alone. She realizes what she must do for her people, and her response is telling. She instructs Mordechai to gather the nation to pray and fast for her. Her identity will thereby become known in the Jewish community, but at this point this is no longer an issue: If she is to become a willing participant, it no longer matters if the people know who she is. Forfeiting her "passive victim" status wipes out her hope for a share in the next world, regardless of the public or private nature of her transgressions. In fact, her plan cannot succeed if it is carried out secretly: for the plan to be successful, the Jewish community must join together.

Mordechai is somewhat taken aback by her suggestion to institute a fast, as the Midrash explains:

[Esther said,] "And fast for me for three days, the 13th, 14th and 15th of Nissan." Mordechai said to her, "But the third day is Passover! She said to him, "Holy man of Israel, if there is no Israel, why do we need Passover?" ... And Mordechai went and abolished (for that year) the first day of Passover and made it into a fast. (Otzar Midrashim Eisenstein page 51)

Esther insisted that the people fast for three days prior to her entering the chamber of the king. Passover would not be celebrated that year, as if to say that when the Jewish world hangs in the balance and she herself is about to lose her portion in the next world, there is no place for a festive celebration of freedom. This source highlights the irony of Esther's plight and destiny. A full understanding of her actions can reveal the depth of the message of her story. 


Esther's behavior was motivated by pure love -- of God, and of her fellow Jews. Despite her tragic circumstances, she did not lose faith or hope. The Midrash tells us that while turning to God, Esther stresses:

"Master of the universe, you have given me three commandments -- niddah, challah, and lighting candles -- even though I am in the house of this evil man I have not broken one of them"(Midrash Tehilim Buber, 22:16)

Imagine the heroism of Esther: she would prepare for the systematic rape perpetrated on her body by going to mikveh, the ritual bath. Her body was taken but her soul was intact and pure. Now she makes the decision that she must blemish that soul for the sake of God and her people. Rav Tzaddok concludes that Esther did not lose her share in the next world because her action was a "sin for the sake of heaven." The Talmud teaches that a sin performed for the sake of heaven is greater than a Mitzvah performed with wrong intention (Nazir 23b).

Obviously this concept of justified sin is dangerous territory. All sorts of people justify their sins without going so far as to convince themselves that in actuality they are performing a Mitzvah. According to our Sages, the conditions needed to qualify as a sin performed for the sake of heaven are twofold:

  1. The intention must be to save the entire Jewish people.
  2. No personal gain or enjoyment should be involved.

(Other commentaries add a third condition -- that a prophet, a rabbi, or a court must have given the order to perform that particular sin.) Esther's actions fulfilled all conditions.

When she decided on her course of action, Esther did not know how things would turn out. She performed an incredible act of chesed, "loving kindness" with all her heart and soul. Perhaps this fits in with the theme from this week's Torah portion:

"It was your kindness I desired, and not your offerings". (Hosea 6:6)

Had Esther chosen the path of martyrdom, it would have taught the wrong lesson. God neither wants nor needs our sacrifices. Instead, Esther teaches a different lesson, the idea that kindness is more important than sacrifice, and that a pure mind is at the core of the service of God. Esther's pure mind, coupled with her love of God, saved the Jewish people from annihilation.


The Talmud teaches that repentance motivated by love of God is so profound that it can transform a sin into a Mitzvah. Perhaps a "sin performed for the sake of heaven" is another expression of the same idea.

The Zohar teaches that Yom Kippur is "a day like Purim," from the "play on words" where Yom Kippur is called "Yom Kippurim." The association seems obscure, these days seeming so different both in external practice and internal mood.

Kabbalistic sources connect Yom Kippur and Purim to the two aspects of repentance. Yom Kippur is permeated by fear of God, a type of repentance which, while quite effective is not the highest level of religious experience. Love of God outshines fear of God, and Purim represents the joy of love of God and the concept of repentance born of love.

The basis of this teaching comes from Esther, whose love was so profound that she was prepared to sacrifice all. This is the joy we seek on Purim.

The work of Purim, reaching to God via love instead of fear, is the real service of God.

In a sense, Yom Kippur offers us an easier way of reaching God. Fear of God is relatively simple to achieve. But the work of Purim -- reaching to God via love -- is the real service of God.

Only after Esther taught us how to love -- taught us how to perform kindness for others -- could the Temple be rebuilt. Now we understand why the Second Temple, built on a foundation of the kindness of Esther, could not exist in a time of groundless hatred.

Mordechai and Esther attempted to teach the Jewish people love, kindness and brotherhood, by establishing the Purim commandments of giving gifts -- each man to his friend.

The Talmudic teaching that in the future, when all other holidays are forgotten, Purim will remain, takes on new importance in light of its message of love. Purim is the holiday which reveals the hidden, the essence of Judaism: love of God and love of man.

Next Steps