The Book of Esther reads like a perfectly constructed drama. Through a serendipitous chain of events, an orphaned Jewish girl marries the king of Persia and becomes queen of the empire, uniquely positioned to foil the plot of the evil advisor who wishes to annihilate her people. The bad guys are hanged, and the good guys live happily ever after. The end.

But let’s take a step back and look at the context of this story. The megillah was recorded A careful reading reveals a gripping saga of love and lossduring the fourth century BCE,1 when the Jews were subjects of the Persian empire. To compose it in a way that would be inoffensive to the Persian king, much of the inner workings of the story had to be concealed between the lines, visible only to the discerning eye.

A careful reading reveals a gripping saga of love and loss. And at the center of it all is Esther, the woman who saves the day but must give up all that she holds dear. Her story is, in essence, a tragedy.

The Party

The megillah opens with a party. In the year 366 BCE,2 King Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) threw an extravagant party for all his subjects, celebrating the third anniversary of his ascension to the throne, a year in which he had completed the construction of his magnificent throne, secured his reign,3 and taken Vashti as his queen.4

Citizens from throughout the 127 provinces came to the capital city of Shushan to partake in the 180-day celebration. And what a sight they beheld!

The affair was so lavish that resplendent golden goblets were used for the occasion. No cup was used more than once, and no two goblets were alike. But these magnificent chalices paled in comparison to the most dazzling vessels of all—the sacred vessels of the Holy Temple, which had been looted and razed almost 70 years earlier by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.5

Achashverosh adorned himself in elegant robes, with fine golden threads woven into the intricate fabric. Besides their splendor, his garments were unique in that they had been worn by the holiest of men—the Jewish high priest in his services in the Holy Temple.6

Why did Achashverosh dare to now use these sacred utensils and garments, which had been stolen 70 years earlier? He was ecstatic that the prophecy of Jeremiah, promising the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel after a 70-year period of exile, had not come to pass.7 Therefore, Achashverosh audaciously flaunted these priestly robes and holy utensils, proving to the world that his empire was more powerful than the G‑d of the Jews.

Mordechai, the leader of the Jewish people, realized that the party was a desecration of G‑d’s Name. He warned the Jewish nation not to participate. However, apprehensive of appearing as ungrateful citizens, few Jews heeded Mordechai’s directive.8 And so, the holy nation of G‑d attended these degrading celebrations.

Esther Is Chosen

Ironically, precisely at the feast celebrating Vashti’s queenship, Vashti angered her drunken husband and was executed by him.9 Unwittingly, she paved the way for Esther to be chosen as queen and save her people.

The king became lonely and sought a new queen. He ordered that all pretty, young maidens be gathered to Shushan, where they would undergo a twelve-month beauty treatment in the palace harem. Among them was Esther, a righteous Jewish woman.

Although the other girls requested cosmetics, ointments, jewelry and clothing, Esther didn’t ask for any accouterments to enhance her beauty.10 She had no desire to impress the king; instead, she secretly tried to decrease She had no desire to impress the kingher chances of charming Achashverosh, so that she would be rejected and sent home to her family.11

But of all the candidates, Esther was chosen as the most beautiful maiden, and was crowned queen. Tragically, this pious Jewish girl was forced to live in the seat of unholiness, the headquarters of the Persian empire, infamous for its depraved debauchery.

A Double Tragedy

The tragedy of Esther’s life, however, runs far deeper. Esther was not only a refined Jewish girl forced to live with a gentile king, a terrible aberration in its own right; Esther was, in fact, already married—to the righteous Mordechai!12

Yet amidst the agony of being forced to live such a conflicting double life—as the wife of a holy Jewish sage13 and simultaneously the queen of a vulgar king—Esther maintained her piety.

Life in the Palace

Esther, or Hadassah (called so because of her sterling spiritual beauty),14 abhorred the debased society of the palace. Commentaries point out that Esther was originally radiantly beautiful,15 but after living in a constant state of revulsion,16 her complexion developed a greenish pallor. Even so, her inner beauty shone through, entrancing all who met her.17

The immorality and decadence of the king’s palace did not prevent Esther from living a full Jewish life according to the training she had received from Mordechai, as attested to by the verse, “Esther continued to do Mordechai’s bidding, just as when she was raised by him.”18

Instructed by Mordechai to keep her identity as a Jewess a secret,19 Esther devised a plan to keep Shabbat. She requested seven maidservants and rotated them daily, so that the maid serving her on Shabbat, seeing her perform no work, assumed that Esther did no work on the remaining days of the week.20 Esther also observed the holidays, avoided nonkosher food, and even faithfully adhered to the laws of family purity,21 visiting the mikvah regularly so that she could resume relations with Mordechai. (Esther was halachically permitted to remain married to Mordechai, because each meeting with the king was forced upon her under penalty of death.)

This double life required much cunning. To be a clandestine This double life required much cunningreligious Jewess who maintained veiled relations with her husband, while simultaneously attending to the dazzling palace lifestyle, wasn’t simple. It is without wonder that the Talmud asserts that Esther was royal—referring not only to her queenly clothing and position, but to her royalty of spirit.22 In the center of depravity, the holy prophetic spirit clothed Esther.23

Salvation Through Pain

The chain of events leading to the salvation of the Jewish people through Esther’s influence was certainly divinely orchestrated. But considering Esther’s saintliness, there emerges a perplexing question. G‑d could have easily contrived a less traumatic means to save His people from Haman’s wicked plan. Even if Esther’s conduct was permitted according to Jewish law,24 what purpose was served by degrading the refined Esther?

To understand why the miracle had to be performed in this unusual way, we have to analyze the event that initiated this epic saga: Achashverosh’s triumphant party.

Chillul Hashem: Affronting G‑d

Although the Jews had been warned by Mordechai not to attend Achashverosh’s blasphemous party, the majority did not heed his advice. They participated in an event extolling a Jewish future outside of the Holy Land—a disgrace to the Jewish people and an affront to G‑d. By resigning themselves to life in exile, in essence the Jewish people were acquiescing in, and even celebrating, their separation from the Holy Land, from the Holy Temple and from G‑d. This was a chillul Hashem, a flagrant desecration of G‑d’s Name.

Chillul Hashem, publicly disgracing G‑d, is considered the ultimate detachment. Since chillul Hashem is a transgression of severe magnitude, it can be rectified only through the perpetrator’s death. Teshuvah (repentance) alone cannot erase the taint caused by chillul Hashem; only when teshuvah is accompanied by death does true atonement occur. The soul must undergo the awesome experience of death to obtain forgiveness.

Husband-Wife Bond

Our relationship with G‑d is analogous to a husband-wife relationship. Suppose the husband offends his wife slightly. When he apologizes for his insensitivity, his thoughtlessness will be forgiven. The husband has not terribly hurt his wife; she understands that her husband sincerely loves her, but has hurt her due to carelessness. Only the superficial, outer layers of their relationship have been affected. Inside, each is aware of the other’s deep love. The apology reveals a deeper aspect of the relationship, and the insult is seen for what it is—a careless remark.

However, if the husband publicly shames his wife and deliberately disgraces her, the apology that was sufficient in the former case is no longer adequate. Such a serious offense requires a corresponding show of regret.

Since the husband has shown utter disregard for his wife, he will have to reveal a much deeper level of their relationship to prove his love. He may have to expose a hidden part of himself in order for his wife to truly forgive him.

Likewise, in our relationship with G‑d, there are certain sins that we consciously commit. While these sins disturb and disrupt our bond with G‑d, they do not penetrate the very core of our relationship. For sins of this nature, repentance—demonstrating true regret—is sufficient.

By publicly profaning G‑d’s Name, however, an individual creates a tremendous breach in the relationship. To repair this deep rupture, the very essence of the bond between the individual and G‑d must be exposed. This rectification requires the revelation of the inner essence of one’s soul, which is, and always remains, united with G‑d.

Mesirat Nefesh: Self-Sacrifice

This revelation can be accomplished only through the process of mesirat nefesh, self-sacrifice. Life itself is one’s dearest possession. When one is willing to sacrifice this most precious possession, he demonstrates that nothing is more significant than the relationship and bond with G‑d. His very life loses its value in comparison to the bond with his Creator.

Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jews was, in reality, G‑d’s message to His people. He was giving the Jews the opportunity to atone for their chillul Hashem and repair their breach with Him. Unbeknown to Haman, he served as a tool to reunite G‑d with His beloved.

And the Jews responded to G‑d’s call. Although they could have saved themselves by converting to the Persian religion, not one of them considered this avenue of escape. To the Jews of Persia, maintaining a bond with G‑d was more valuable than life itself.

I’d like to suggest that this self-sacrifice was sufficient to atone for the first level of chillul Hashem. At this level, a Jew sins against G‑d by demonstrating a public To the Jews of Persia, maintaining a bond with G‑d was more valuable than life itselfdisregard for His Torah. The Jews of Persia rectified this deficiency in their service when they willingly prepared themselves to die rather than renounce their Judaism.

On a deeper level of chillul Hashem, however, a Jew not only desecrates the Torah of G‑d, but he publicly disgraces the people of G‑d. And death alone does not atone for one who publicly humiliates the children of the Almighty.25

The chillul Hashem caused by the Jews of Persia involved this latter level. They did not transgress any Torah precept at Achashverosh’s feast. In fact, the commentaries note that Achashverosh had tables of kosher food set especially for the Jews. Their crime wasn’t an affront against the Torah; it was an affront against the Jewish people.

By participating in the celebrations, the Jews were insinuating that they were no longer the Chosen People. For this crime, they required more than the atonement received when one sacrifices one’s life for Torah. A higher level of self-sacrifice, a sacrifice for the Jewish people, was required.

For this, the Jews needed Esther.

Mesirat Nefesh: Sacrificing the Soul

In the usual process of mesirat nefesh, one sacrifices physical life for G‑d or His Torah. Although one’s physical existence ends, his spiritual existence continues.

Moreover, dying for the sake of G‑d strengthens one’s connection with Him. By displaying an absolute love for G‑d, an individual attains a higher spiritual state in the world to come. For this reason, righteous saints often prayed to die al kiddush Hashem, for the sake of G‑d.26 Ultimately, it may be a spiritually pragmatic calculation to sacrifice one’s worldly existence for eternal unity with G‑d.

The highest level of mesirat nefesh, however, occurs when the self-sacrifice makes no sense. This ultimate level is experienced when the individual sacrifices not merely his physical body, but the most sacred of sacred, his spiritual self, for the sake of the Jewish people. Esther, due to her sublime soul, was chosen to fulfill this ultimate level of self-sacrifice, thereby completing the atonement needed for her people.

Esther Sacrifices Her Soul

When Mordechai requested that Esther plead with King Achashverosh to save the Jews from Haman’s wicked decree, Esther heroically replied, “Ka’asher avadti, avadti—whatever I will lose [by this act], I will doubly lose.”27

Although some interpret this line as the stoic words of a martyr who knew she might perish at the king’s hand, other commentaries point out a much deeper loss.

Approaching the king meant that she would have to submit herself to him, committing the cardinal sin of adultery. As a result, Esther knew she would “doubly lose.” As an adulterer, she would lose her beloved husband, Mordechai.28 But more importantly, she would forgo her spiritual future in the next world. Yet Esther wasn’t thwarted by these considerations.

The righteous Esther was prepared to follow the instructions of Mordechai, the tzaddik of her She could never again live with Mordechaigeneration, in order to save her people. She didn’t anticipate any spiritual benefit from her heroic actions; on the contrary, she assumed she was surrendering her spiritual life because of her impending sin. Nevertheless, she was willing to sacrifice everything, even her eternal life, for her people’s salvation.29

Spiritual death for the sake of the Jewish people, the children of G‑d, is a level of mesirat nefesh that reveals the deepest core of the soul. It exposes the part of the soul most intimately connected to G‑d—in fact, utterly united with Him.

Dying for the Sake of Love

To illustrate, let us return to the metaphor of a husband-wife relationship. When one spouse is prepared to give up his or her life to save the other, it is the ultimate self-sacrifice. The spouse realizes that upon death, there will no longer be any relationship. Nevertheless, the love for one’s spouse is so great that one is willing to forgo the pleasure of the very relationship for the sake of the other.

Likewise, Esther’s actions demonstrated that her love for the Jewish people was so intense that she was willing to relinquish her spiritual future for them. By displaying such a love for the Jewish people, whose essence and core is one with G‑d, Esther was showing a love for G‑d. Ultimately, by sacrificing everything for the Jewish people, Esther was sacrificing everything for G‑d.

Through her supreme self-sacrifice on behalf of her people, Esther was able to obtain atonement for their sins and annul the decree calling for their annihilation.30 And although Esther ultimately did not lose her eternal life in the next world, she did have to give up her precious relationship with Mordechai.

The festivities of Purim are therefore as much a celebration of our salvation as a tribute to our great heroine Esther.


In our personal lives, we are not called upon to renounce our spiritual existence. Most of us are not even called upon to sacrifice our physical existence for the sake of the Torah or the Jewish people.

All of us, however, are called upon to sacrifice some of our self-gratifying instincts for our more sublime G‑dly desires.

Within each and every individual there lurks a personal Haman, the base and selfish instincts of man. Within us all there is also a Mordechai, a G‑dly soul, which desires to reach beyond the confines of the finite self to achieve a higher truth. And it is up to us to choose between these two drives.31

In our daily struggles, we can tap into our inner “Esther,” our capacity for self-sacrifice, to overcome our “Haman” and achieve victory for our “Mordechai.” This capacity, exemplified by Esther, enables us to bring the ultimate redemption, a time when our closest and deepest relationship with G‑d will become manifest.