After King Ahasuerus had his
wife, Queen Vashti, killed in a fit of drunken rage, messengers were sent to
seek out the most beautiful maidens, one of whom would be the next queen of
Persia. Esther, an
upright Jewish girl, did not want to be taken to the palace. Not only did she
abhor the notion of marrying a vile Gentile king, according to one opinion in
the Talmud, she was actually already married—to none other than her cousin
to marry the king was not just a matter of intermarriage, but adultery as well.
Nevertheless, “Esther was taken to the king's house.” Once
there, she continued to passively resist any actions that would make her
desirable to the king.
So, clearly, her
marriage to the king was not her choice and not an
ideal to be emulated and celebrated; she was coerced into it. Had she
refused to comply with the king's wishes, she would no doubt have been put to
death (as Ahasuerus had already done to his previous wife).
Would this have been
almost any other prohibition, our discussion would have ended here. After all,
according to Jewish law, preservation of life supersedes almost all mitzvahs.
However, in this case, the question only gets stronger.
The Three Cardinal Sins
In most scenarios, one is obligated to transgress a
commandment if it means saving a life. But there are three cardinal
sins—idolatry, murder and sexual prohibitions (such as adultery and incest)—for
which one is obligated to relinquish his life rather than transgress (you can
see more on that here).
So why didn’t Esther give up her life rather than marry
The commentaries offer a number of explanations, but we’ll
focus on the classic one.
Passive vs. Active
When it comes to the three cardinal sins, one is only
obligated to give up his life if he is being forced to actively transgress the
prohibition. Thus, if someone is forced under pain of death to commit murder or
adultery, he is supposed to give up his own life rather than commit the sin.
However, one is not required to give up his life if the prohibition will be
done in a passive manner. Thus, when a woman is violated (heaven forbid), the
act is being done to her and she isn’t violating one of the three cardinal
Therefore, as long as Esther was forced into having a
relationship with Ahasuerus, she was not obligated to give
up her life.
This all changed, however, once Queen Esther approached
Approaches the King
After the decree to annihilate the Jewish nation was
issued, Mordechai tried to convince Queen Esther to approach the king. Esther
finally agreed and asked that the Jews fast. But in an almost defeatist manner,
she added, “I will go to the king, contrary to the law, and if
I’m lost, I’m lost."
The rabbis explain that there is a subtle, tragic meaning
here. Whenever a queen went before a king with a request, she was also
submitting herself physically to him. Esther was essentially saying, “I will go
to the king, contrary to the Torah law, for until now, whenever we had
relations, I was coerced into it (and therefore not liable), but now I will be
going willingly. Therefore, if I’m lost, I’m lost—as I am
lost to my father’s house, so will I be lost to you.” As long as she was
coerced into the forbidden relationship, she was still permitted to have
relations with Mordechai. However, the moment she went willingly, she would be
forbidden to her precious husband.
Others explain that there is yet a
deeper meaning to her words. In using the phrase “if I’m lost, I’m
lost,” Esther was saying that she would be lost both from this world (if she
was killed by the king), as well as from the world to come, for now she was
willingly and actively going to King Ahasuerus, thereby
transgressing one of the cardinal sins.
Yet Mordechai, leader of
the Jews and member of the Sanhedrin (supreme Jewish court), urged Esther to
take this action. Why?
Saving a Nation
Rabbi Yechezkel Landau,
known as the Nodah B’Yehuda (1713-1793), as well as many others, explains that
although normally a person may not transgress one of the three cardinal sins,
even to save a life, there is an exception to this rule is when one is
transgressing the sin in order to save not just a few people, but the entire
nation. Thus, in this case, Esther was permitted to go to the king on her own
volition (she was still, however, forbidden to ever be with her husband).
We can now truly appreciate the
tragic life of Esther and the tremendous self-sacrifice she made for her
people. She was willing to give up all she had, both spiritually
and physically, including any hope of ever being able to be with her husband,
in order to save her nation.
May we merit that just
as in the story of Purim, when G‑d’s hidden hand was ultimately revealed and
His nation saved, so too, in this exile, may G‑d’s hand be revealed with the
ultimate redemption, speedily in our days!
can learn more about Esther and her supreme sacrifice here.