Life-or-Death Decision

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 Mordechai!1 So to marry the king was not just a matter of intermarriage, but adultery as well. Nevertheless, “Esther was taken to the king's house.”2 Once there, she continued to passively resist any actions that would make her desirable to the king.3

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.4 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 king?

The commentaries offer a number of explanations, but we’ll focus on the classic one.

Passive vs. Active Transgressing

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 sins.5

Therefore, as long as Esther was forced into having a relationship with Ahasuerus, she was not obligated to give up her life.6

This all changed, however, once Queen Esther approached the king.

Queen Esther 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."7

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.8

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.9

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 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 husband10).11

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!

You can learn more about Esther and her supreme sacrifice here.