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Esther: Hiding, Seeking, and Identity Politics

Congregation Rodeph Sholom

Therapists' Study Group

March 8, 2016/28 Adar I 5776

Source Sheet by Rabbi Sari Laufer

  1. (ז) וַיְהִ֨י אֹמֵ֜ן אֶת־הֲדַסָּ֗ה הִ֤יא אֶסְתֵּר֙ בַּת־דֹּד֔וֹ כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין לָ֖הּ אָ֣ב וָאֵ֑ם וְהַנַּעֲרָ֤ה יְפַת־תֹּ֙אַר֙ וְטוֹבַ֣ת מַרְאֶ֔ה וּבְמ֤וֹת אָבִ֙יהָ֙ וְאִמָּ֔הּ לְקָחָ֧הּ מָרְדֳּכַ֛י ל֖וֹ לְבַֽת׃ (ח) וַיְהִ֗י בְּהִשָּׁמַ֤ע דְּבַר־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וְדָת֔וֹ וּֽבְהִקָּבֵ֞ץ נְעָר֥וֹת רַבּ֛וֹת אֶל־שׁוּשַׁ֥ן הַבִּירָ֖ה אֶל־יַ֣ד הֵגָ֑י וַתִּלָּקַ֤ח אֶסְתֵּר֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־יַ֥ד הֵגַ֖י שֹׁמֵ֥ר הַנָּשִֽׁים׃ (ט) וַתִּיטַ֨ב הַנַּעֲרָ֣ה בְעֵינָיו֮ וַתִּשָּׂ֣א חֶ֣סֶד לְפָנָיו֒ וַ֠יְבַהֵל אֶת־תַּמְרוּקֶ֤יהָ וְאֶת־מָנוֹתֶ֙הָ֙ לָתֵ֣ת לָ֔הּ וְאֵת֙ שֶׁ֣בַע הַנְּעָר֔וֹת הָרְאֻי֥וֹת לָֽתֶת־לָ֖הּ מִבֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיְשַׁנֶּ֧הָ וְאֶת־נַעֲרוֹתֶ֛יהָ לְט֖וֹב בֵּ֥ית הַנָּשִֽׁים׃ (י) לֹא־הִגִּ֣ידָה אֶסְתֵּ֔ר אֶת־עַמָּ֖הּ וְאֶת־מֽוֹלַדְתָּ֑הּ כִּ֧י מָרְדֳּכַ֛י צִוָּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־תַגִּֽיד׃

    (7) And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter. (8) So it came to pass, when the king’s commandment and his decree was published, and when many maidens were gathered together unto Shushan the castle, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken into the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women. (9) And the maiden pleased him, and she obtained kindness of him; and he speedily gave her her ointments, with her portions, and the seven maidens, who were meet to be given her out of the king’s house; and he advanced her and her maidens to the best place in the house of the women. (10) Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred; for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.

  2. (יח) וְאָנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא עַ֥ל כָּל־הָרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה כִּ֣י פָנָ֔ה אֶל־אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֲחֵרִֽים׃

    (18) And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.

  3. מגילה י״ג א:כ״ז-ל״ב

    ויהי אומן את הדסה קרי לה הדסה וקרי לה אסתר תניא ר"מ אומר אסתר שמה ולמה נקרא שמה הדסה על שם הצדיקים שנקראו הדסים וכן הוא אומר (זכריה א, ח) והוא עומד בין ההדסים רבי יהודה אומר הדסה שמה ולמה נקראת שמה אסתר על שם שהיתה מסתרת דבריה שנאמר אין אסתר מגדת את עמה וגו' ר' נחמיה אומר הדסה שמה ולמה נקראת אסתר שהיו אומות העולם קורין אותה על שום אסתהר

    “And he brought up Hadassah” (Esther 2:6). She is called Hadassah but she is called Esther. It has been taught: R. Meir says: Esther was her proper name. Why then was she called Hadassah? After the righteous who are called myrtles (hadasim), for so it says, “And he stood among the myrtle trees” (Zechariah 1:8). R. Judah says: Hadassah was her name — Why then was she called Esther? Because she concealed [masteret] the facts about herself, as it says, “Esther did not make known her people or her kindred” (Esther 2:20). R. Nehemiah says: Hadassah was her name. Why then was she called Esther? All peoples called her so after Istahar.

  4. Sidnie White Crawford, Chair of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

    The purpose of the Book of Esther is to demonstrate to Jews living in exile that it is possible to achieve success in the country of one’s exile without giving up one’s identity as a Jew. In this, the Book of Esther is similar to books such as Daniel or Tobit, or, in fact, to the historical character Nehemiah. However, the Book of Esther is unique in two important respects. First, the protagonist of the book, and the one with whom the audience should identify, is a woman, Esther (Mordecai is, of course, the other leading character and finishes the story at a very high rank, but this is basically because of his relationship to, and through the efforts of, Esther). This choice of a female hero serves an important function in the story. Women were, in the world of the Persian diaspora, as in many other cultures, essentially powerless and marginalized members of society. Even if they belonged to the dominant culture, they could not simply reach out and grasp power, as a man could; whatever power they could obtain was earned through the manipulation of the public holders of power, men. In this sense the exiled Jew could identify with the woman: he or she too was essentially powerless and marginalized, and power could be obtained only through one’s wits and talents. But, as the actions of Esther demonstrate, this can be done. By astutely using her beauty, charm, and political intelligence, and by taking one well-placed risk, Esther saves her people, brings about the downfall of their enemy, and elevates her kinsman to the highest position in the kingdom. Esther becomes the model for the Jew living in exile.

  5. On Purim, Jews dress up and wear masks that change faces etched in pain and suffering into joy and frivolity. On the surface, it seems that Purim involves an escape from reality, one moment in which we can mask the pain and difficulties we experience and don fanciful carnival masks and costumes. All is turned on its head on Purim; even gender roles are ignored, and men and women can dress up as the other.


    Yet in a deeper way, this Jewish carnival experience allows us to challenge the inevitability of things as they are inherited identities and fates. And in so doing, Purim provides us with the hope that the garments we put on that seem only to mask our present realities can reveal the deep-seated consciousness of our potential for change, our ability to bring happiness and fulfillment to our lives. Purim's masks may seem to conceal, if just for a moment, the chaos and pain of our present lives and enable us to escape this reality, but they may really offer us the chance to don serious masks of conscious determination to bring the light of the Divine into our world. Yes, God may not be mentioned in the entire book of Esther, and some have seen this as an intimation of the existence of sheer chaos in the world, where anarchy is at play.


    Yet, we may ask what lies beneath a story that intimates the absence of God and meaning, and the holiday of Purim, which is about frivolity and play. Underneath the garment of the story is perhaps a glimpse of the existence of a force in the universe that can help us move beyond who we are and what our lives presently are, and enable us to become who we aspire to be. What may be necessary is for us to recognize that, unlike the Exodus story, in which God is recognized through redemptive miracles, the Purim story demands that we come to recognize the Presence of the Divine through the ability to hear the hidden voice of God. The redemptive paradigm of Esther is to see the camouflaged Divine in the darkness of our lives. Purim bespeaks the existence in the world of the light of the Divine, sparks of which are hidden beneath the surface of our lives, and ours is the task to sew those sparks into a full garment of splendor that will enhance the majesty of our souls. Perhaps that is the reason why Maimonides stated that 'all prophetic books and sacred writings will cease to be read in the messianic era except the book of Esther.'"


    From: Cohen, D. N. J. (2012). Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity (1 edition). Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights.

  6. (א) וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַתִּלְבַּ֤שׁ אֶסְתֵּר֙ מַלְכ֔וּת וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֞ד בַּחֲצַ֤ר בֵּית־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַפְּנִימִ֔ית נֹ֖כַח בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְ֠הַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁ֞ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֤א מַלְכוּתוֹ֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמַּלְכ֔וּת נֹ֖כַח פֶּ֥תַח הַבָּֽיִת׃
    (1) Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the entrance of the house.
  7. מגילה י״ד ב:ל״ד-ל״ו
    אסתר דכתיב (אסתר ה, א) ויהי ביום השלישי ותלבש אסתר מלכות בגדי מלכות מיבעי ליה אלא שלבשתה רוח הקדש
    “Esther,” as it is written, “Now it came to pass on the third day that Esther clothed herself in royalty” (Esther 5:1). Surely it should say, “royal clothing”? What it shows is that she clothed herself in the Holy Spirit.
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