Reserved. Modest. Quiet. Humble. Self-controlled. Hidden. These adjectives probably don’t conjure up images of a heroine. They don’t seem to describe the type of person who would put her life on the line for others, be a public figure, a political entity, and a person of control and power. But they are.
These are the very words that describe Queen Esther, a woman whose body, mind, soul and actions affected reality and changed the world.
While she had the help and support of Mordechai in fighting the decree that was aimed at destroying the Jewish people, it was Esther who was able to implement the plan, and who had the foresight and insight to know how it had to be done. And it was she who insisted that the story of Purim be written It was what the king didn’t see that attracted him to her down and read, year after year, for she knew that its relevance to the Jewish people will always be pertinent. This is why the Megillah, the “Scroll of Esther” that became part of the Torah and from which we read during the holiday of Purim, is called after her.
Esther was taken as the queen against her will. She was chosen for her exceptional beauty, and yet it was actually what the king didn’t see that attracted him to her. The former queen, Vashti, was a woman who garnered her attention by displaying her undressed body at royal gatherings. While her body itself was attractive, that was her only positive quality. When she was unable to flaunt her figure due to a horrific skin rash and boils, she had nothing to show for herself; in her refusal to display her body, she lost not only her position as queen, but her life as well.
While Esther was supposedly chosen as queen because of her external beauty, the commentators note that it was miraculous that she was found to be attractive, as her physical appearance actually was quite unflattering. The Talmud tells us that Esther was actually of a greenish complexion, but that she had a “thread of grace” that was upon her. We are taught that when the internal is elevated and beautiful, it will show through to the external, so that she can be seen as nothing other than beautiful. This is one of the main themes throughout the text of Eishet Chayil, “A Woman of Valor” from Proverbs, which teaches us: “Grace and beauty are false; it is the woman who has awe for her Creator that is blessed.”
We even see that Esther went to great lengths to hide her physicality, as she did not want the king to be attracted to her. And had she not had a holy reason and need to be in the palace, then most likely she would have been seen only from the outside, in which case she never even would have been chosen. But being that she most definitely had a job to do, one in which G‑d chose her as the conduit to fulfill this mission, her internal aspect was seen; and that being the case, no other woman could possibly have competed with her.
So from the beginning of Esther’s involvement with the king, it is clear that he was attracted to a depth within her, and it is through this that she is ultimately able to maneuver what needs to be done to save her people. While Esther is in the king’s palace, however, she is not allowed to reveal to anyone that she is Jewish.
Under Jewish law, if one’s life is in danger, there are allowances for being able to break Jewish law. Yet Esther ensured that she keep not only the spirit of the law in her circumstances, but the letter of the law as well. She managed to create a schedule so that she would always have different maids on Shabbat, so that no one would become aware that When the internal is elevated and beautiful it will show through to the external during this time period she was doing anything different. Through her desire to maintain her Jewishness, she discovered a way to do what she needed to do. In this she beautifully fulfills the Torah principle that “nothing can stand in the way of will.”
This is also how Esther was able to approach the king directly, even though he hadn’t called for her. She knew that she was taking a risk, she knew that he could have had her killed for her lack of obedience; but she knew that it was necessary, and she knew that G‑d would protect her. But even though Esther needed to act on her own, she never felt that she was a one-woman show. She knew that she was given a mission and was chosen as a vessel, but that it was not something in which she could feel that she therefore didn’t need the help of anyone else. Not only did she confer throughout with Mordechai for advice and direction, but before she approached the king, she asked that the entire Jewish people fast and pray for her success.
As a queen, she understood the true meaning that the only way to rule is not when you control others, but when you represent them. She could take such a life-threatening risk only if she was acting as the body for the will and desire of the entire Jewish people. If she were to merely act alone—for her own motives and desires, and thinking that she needed no help from others—it is questionable whether she would have been successful.
And so, when she did enter the king’s chambers, she was accepted, and not only was she accepted, but she was granted the ability to ask for anything that she wanted, up to half of his kingdom.
The name “Esther” itself is an indication as to how she led her life and fulfilled her role. The root of Esther in Hebrew is hester, meaning “hidden.” Often we think that when someone is hiding something, it is out of a situation of embarrassment or discomfort. The modern-day concept is “if you got it, flaunt it.” Show the world what you have to offer, be out there, be public, the more the better. It just isn’t so exciting to be the heroine behind the scenes. But one’s motives then need to be carefully examined.
The only way to rule is not when you control others, but when you represent them
If one’s desire is to show to everyone else what you have to offer, what you are capable of, then yes, it better be out there and public. But if one’s desire is to use one’s capabilities for a higher purpose—to achieve a greater good not just for one’s ego—then the best way to do this is to begin in private, in a hidden way, so that the goal can be accomplished.
Ironically, Vashti represents in many ways the way we view the modern-day woman. She is confident, attractive, outgoing, fearless and bold. She has no problem showing off her undressed body to a room full of people, to tease them, taunt them and amuse them. However, her goal is purely self-oriented. She cares for nothing other than her ego. This is why, as soon as her body doesn’t look good, isn’t attractive for a public viewing, only then does she hide.
Esther remains hidden throughout, but for the purpose of being able to be seen. And when she is able to be revealed, she is not seen as a mere body for others to use and abuse, but as a heroine—as one who represents what is holy, and as one who thinks not only for herself but for her people. As the Talmud teaches us: “A blessing rests only on something that is hidden from the eye.”
While it may be real exciting to be in the newspapers and magazines showing off what you accomplished, the greatest accomplishments are kept secret. The most important innovations and creations—be they in medicine, technology, science or the military—are “Top Secret,” “Strictly Confidential” and under the tightest of wraps.
While Vashti may have made the cover of every magazine, it was Esther who was behind the scenes being the woman who was really changing the world. Esther epitomized the statement, Kol k’vudah bat melech penimah, “The true honor of the princess is within.” The word for “within,” penimah, is the same as pnimiyut, one’s internal, one’s spiritual makeup. This is Esther. Through understanding the true meaning of being hidden, she revealed an everlasting message to the Jewish people for all time to come.