If You Remain Silent at this Time: Concern for the Jewish People

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

 

DEVELOPING A TORAH PERSONALITY

Yeshivat Har Etzion

 


Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler

 

 

LECTURE #9

If You Remain Silent at this Time:

Concern for the Jewish People

 

WHY IS THE MEGILLA NAMED AFTER ESTHER?

On Purim, which is a day of soul-searching and not just festivity, we read the scroll known as “Megillat Esther.” The title of the Megilla reflects more than just the identity of a central character around whom the plot revolves. Chazal teach us:

 

Rav Shemuel ben Yehuda said: Esther sent [a message] to the Sages, demanding, “Inscribe me (my story) for all generations,” or, according to an alternate reading, “Establish me for all generations.” (Megilla 7a)

 

            Hence, the obligation of recording and reading the Megilla would seem to arise from a direct request by Esther that her story be set down for all generations: “Inscribe me, establish me.” But the Megilla in fact recounts a story which unfolds in the public arena. Is it the story of Esther alone? Surely it is the story of an entire nation, dispersed throughout Achashverosh’s one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, faced with the threat of genocide. The story also involves other main characters, such as Mordekhai. Nevertheless, throughout history this book has been known not as “Megillat Ha-Yehudim,” nor even “Megillat Mordekhai,” but rather as “Megillat Esther.”

 

            This being the case, an accurate and thorough reading of the Megilla requires that we pay special attention not only to the public, national aspect of the story—the threat of destruction and the salvation—but also to Esther’s personal story. Reading and understanding the Megilla requires that we understand what happened to Esther, and take note of the various stages of her development. What is the actual story of the Megilla from this point of view?

 

ESTHER I: PASSIVE AND GENERIC

I believe that Esther’s development finds expression on two interrelated levels: strength of character and moral awareness. The Esther depicted in the closing chapters is entirely different from the Esther of the opening chapters. Let us first study her psychological development and then her moral progress.

 

            Who is the Esther who appears on the scene in the second chapter? A beautiful young woman, but one who is powerless and completely lacking in independence of thought or action. She is under Mordekhai’s patronage; he treats her like a daughter. Even if we adopt the opinion that she was his wife, we are clearly dealing with a woman who lives completely under her husband’s rule. “And whatever Mordekhai said, Esther would do—just as when she was still in his home” (2:20).

 

            There is also a certain lack of sophistication about her, a simplicity and innocence. This point is emphasized not only in her character but also in her outer appearance. All other maidens come to the royal palace with every type of adornment: “Six months [of anointment] with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics. . .” (2:12). But “when it was the turn of Esther . . . to come to the king, she asked for nothing” (2:15). She wears no makeup; she is completely natural, simple, innocent and honest.

 

            At the same time, what is equally apparent is her passivity. She does whatever Mordekhai asks her to, because she lives in his home. And when she moves to the royal palace—no longer under the patronage of Mordekhai but rather under the patronage of the royal entourage—she does only “what she is told by Hegai, the king’s officer, appointed over the women.” She simply follows orders, completely devoid of individual will.

 

            Aside from her beauty, Esther lacks any distinguishing characteristics. Although there was public significance to her entry into the royal palace, there is really nothing that gives her spiritual or national prominence. The gemara comments (Chullin 139b), “Where does the Torah hint at Esther? From the words, ‘I shall surely hide My face’ (Devarim 31:18).” (This is a play on the similarity of the words haster astir and the name Esther.) At the beginning of the Megilla, it is not only the Divine Presence which is hidden; Esther herself is hidden from us. “Esther did not mention her birthplace or her nationality” (2:20). There is no Esther; she is a tabula rasa—no national identity, no moral identification, no roots and no background. Rather, she projects the type of generic, cosmopolitan image of one who hails from some unknown part of the hundred and twenty-seven provinces and arrives at the royal palace. No one knows whether she is a Mede or a Persian, from the north or from the south. Only one thing is known: she is beautiful and charming. But what is her identity? What is her character? What philosophy drives her?

 

ESTHER II: ACTIVE AND PROUDLY JEWISH

Such is the Esther of the opening chapters. A glance further on reveals how this innocent maiden suddenly displays initiative that we never would have expected of her. She takes on Achashverosh and Haman at their own game; she displays cunning, leading both of them by the nose. She leads Haman into a trap, simultaneously arousing the anger and desire of Achashverosh. Together with her personal initiative, her inner, spiritual, national and moral identities also come to full expression.

 

            The anonymous Esther, devoid of roots, hailing from the “one hundred and twenty-seven provinces,” reveals herself and is transformed into a specific, singular Esther, belonging to a “special nation.” What characterizes her from that point onwards is not shrinking back into obscurity, but on the contrary—an emphasis on her uniqueness, her belonging to a special people, a nation whose “ways are different.”

 

            From here onwards, Esther not only displays initiative in the sphere of political manipulation, but, brimming with self-confidence, she faces up to Haman. Here Esther takes her place as a worthy member of the royalty, a leader. Her leadership is so outstanding towards the end of the Megilla that to some degree it overshadows that of Mordekhai.

 

            Once upon a time, “whatever Mordekhai said, Esther would do.” He was the one pulling the strings. Suddenly, Mordekhai’s own achievements come only in the wake of Esther’s initiative. How does Mordekhai come to possess Haman’s home? Through Esther. Who writes the Megilla? While Mordekhai is still equivocating, “Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote” (9:29), and only afterwards did Mordekhai join her.

 

            Now it is Esther who is prepared not only to stand before Achashverosh, but also to send a letter to the Sages and demand, “Write me down! Remember me for all generations!” Is this really the same innocent maiden who “did what Mordekhai told her,” and “whatever she was told by Hegai, the king’s officer, appointed over the women?”

 

STIRRINGS OF CONSCIENCE

The answer—the difference between the end and the beginning— must be sought elsewhere: in the middle of the story, in particular, in the four verses in which the change occurs. These verses represent the key to the entire Megilla.

 

            After the royal decree to exterminate all the Jews is issued in Shushan, messengers are dispatched throughout the kingdom to publicize it. Upon hearing the terrible report from her maidens and eunuchs, Esther begins to awaken somewhat from her passivity. “The queen was greatly distressed” (4:4). Esther, who indeed has the power to avert the evil decree, who lives in the royal palace, who can pull the necessary strings, does nothing. She thinks to herself, “The decree has been issued—what can I do? I’m a young and simple girl; I can’t move mountains.”

 

            What eventually drives her to act? Mordekhai disturbs her complacency. The entire nation of Israel faces mortal danger, and this she is able to bear. But then she hears that her beloved adoptive father Mordekhai has removed his regular clothing and is wearing sackcloth instead. “And she sent clothing to clothe Mordekhai and to remove the sackcloth from upon him, but he did not accept it” (4:4). Instead of trying to have the royal decree annulled, instead of expressing solidarity with her people, instead of joining Mordekhai in protest and mourning, she begs him to stop this nonsense, to accept the decree as it is, and to put on some decent clothing.

 

            Despite everything, this still represents progress. She no longer is completely inactive. Something has started to move, and once she shows active concern for an individual, Mordekhai, once the mire of passivity has been abandoned, things start to happen.

 

            Mordekhai refuses to accept a change of clothes from Esther, so she sends a messenger to Mordekhai a second time, “to learn what this was and why this was” (4:5). What is his problem? Mordekhai sends back a very clear message: a copy of the royal decree. True, it is not clear from the Megilla—and this is a critical question in itself—whether Esther knew of the existence of the decree before Mordekhai sent her a copy. Even if we suppose—as I am inclined to—that she had heard mention of it, there is still a vast difference between vague rumors which reach her by various means and a copy of the actual decree sent to her directly by Mordekhai. Esther starts to respond to his message, but in a limited way.

 

            Mordekhai persists in his appeal to her, telling her, in effect: The entire nation of Israel—young and old—is in danger. Everyone. This is the appointed date. Go and do something, in your position as wife in the royal palace: Shout! Appeal! Beg! Pray!

 

            All around, swords are being sharpened, ammunition is being stockpiled, but Esther remains unmoved. She tells Mordekhai that she cannot approach the king: it is against palace regulations. “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman comes to the king, to the inner courtyard, without being called, there is a standard penalty—he is put to death!” (4:11). Of course, there are exceptions: “Unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter, then he shall live”—but I? “I have not been called to come to the king for thirty days.” For a whole month we have not seen each other, and so approaching him will be a problem.

 

            Such was Esther’s response even after “the queen was greatly distressed,” even after Mordekhai had sent her a copy of the king’s decree. Suddenly, Esther might be exposed to personal danger. The entire nation of Israel stands on one side of the scale, and she stands alone on the other. What decides the issue? Obviously, her own problems. If there is a personal interest and a public interest at stake, which is more likely to prevail?

 

THE TURNING POINT—“DO NOT IMAGINE THAT YOU WILL ESCAPE”

At this point, Mordekhai sends her a message which, if we read it correctly, is quite terrible. I myself tremble anew each time I reach this verse:

 

And Mordekhai said in reply to Esther: Do not imagine that you will escape in the king’s palace from [among] all the Jews. (4:13)

 

            What a biting accusation! It would seem that he should have told her, “You don’t want to do anything? Then don’t. You’re cowardly and lacking in any initiative! You haven’t been called to the king in thirty days? So what?” This would have put Esther in a more positive light. It is terrible that you are not prepared to risk yourself, even at the expense of the entire nation, but still—it is a result of your inherent weakness.

 

            However, Mordekhai doesn’t attribute her response to weakness. He pushes his assault all the way, appealing to the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul. He accuses Esther of refusing to go to the king not because she lacks courage, not out of weakness, but rather as a calculated choice: “Let the entire Jewish nation be destroyed. Let them all perish—young and old, men and women. I will remain secure in the royal palace.” This is how Mordekhai interprets her response, and this is what he addresses: not weakness, not a lack of courage, but rather what he fears may lie behind everything. Behind the apparent timidity lies apathy. If you really cared, if you considered your own soul to be at stake, would you be able to say, “For a whole month I have not been called to the king”? Is this how someone talks when she believes that her nation is in danger? Is this the response of someone who cares?

 

            Someone who really cares, someone whose consciousness is deeply rooted in the collective experience of Am Yisrael, someone whose destiny is bound up with that of the nation, disregards any consideration of danger or possible anger on the part of the king. In fact, such a person does not even have to suppress these thoughts—they do not even enter her mind. Such considerations arise, whether consciously or subconsciously, out of a perception that everyone else may perish, but I will manage to save my own skin.

 

            This, as we have mentioned, is a most serious accusation. What does Mordekhai want from her? He knows her, after all. She had been in his care for a long time, a young and innocent maiden, passive and naive. Why is he attacking her with this terrible accusation? Why not give her the benefit of the doubt? Why not understand her weakness? How can you expect this unfortunate young woman, an orphan who has spent years in the care of others, to courageously enter the royal courtyard?

 

            But Mordekhai does not compromise. He understands that if one knows the situation, and if one is truly concerned, then no considerations are admissible and no rules are relevant. Rather, one must be prepared for self-sacrifice, taking care that not personal interests but rather national interests will dictate one’s plans and actions. “Do not imagine that you will escape in the royal palace from all the Jews!”

 

“IF YOU REMAIN SILENT”

Mordekhai adds a further note:

 

For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join the royalty? (4:14)

 

            He tells Esther: Your calculations are mistaken. Not only does your response demonstrate moral debasement, but you are mistaken in a practical sense as well. Do you believe that everyone will perish and you will remain there, in the royal palace, just because you have succeeded in entering the king’s bedroom? Is that how you think God runs His world? Someone who avoids any responsibility, who doesn’t care, who isn’t prepared to risk herself, who sets her personal ambitions over the interests of the nation—is that the person you think will survive? Will she be the one to succeed? Will all values just disappear? “And you and your father’s house will perish.”

 

            “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from elsewhere.” Salvation will come. I don’t know how or from where, but it will come! Those who pay heed to sundry considerations and circumstances, the doubters and cowards of many types, those who put themselves first—all of these will perish! “Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join the royalty?” Now is zero hour. This is the test.

 

            This is also the turning point. Mordekhai directs this terrible accusation at the doubtful, hesitating, fearful Esther, pushing her to the wall and demanding that she stop fabricating excuses and abandon her rationalizations. He demands that she look deep into her soul and see what lies behind her hesitation. She must not try to deceive either Mordekhai, herself, or God. If she undertakes such an unflinching appraisal, she will see that what lies behind all her excuses is apathy.

 

            The excuses fall away; Mordekhai rejects, one by one, all of her claims and considerations. Morally laid bare, Esther must make her fateful choice: Do I care or don’t I?

 

            It is now that the young, passive, powerless Esther faces her moment of truth, and she prevails. She passes the test. It is now that she rises to her full stature and reveals herself—not just in title, but in essence—as a queen.

 

            At this moment Esther realizes that what is at stake is not just a private matter involving Mordekhai. She realizes the dimensions of the threat, the potential tragedy looming over the whole of Am Yisrael, including herself. She is no longer the anonymous Esther; she is prepared to reveal herself, to identify herself openly. She is ready to contribute, and to stand together with her nation. This Esther understands that her fate and destiny are not a private, personal matter, but rather bound up with those of the nation as a whole. And when the danger and the mission are public, then the course of action, too, will of necessity be a public one: “Go and gather all the Jews” (4:16).

 

THE WILL AND THE WAY

Well aware of her true destiny, Esther presents herself before Achashverosh. She renounces personal considerations in favor of communal ones. Only after she has passed the test of identification and concern is she capable of standing before Achashverosh, appearing before the people, leading the camp, initiating action, making demands and even deciding events.

 

            The key to the question of where we find the transition from the retiring Esther of Chapter Two to the regal and commanding Esther of Chapter Nine is to be found in the Esther of Chapter Four. In the zero-hour of Chapter Four, the fateful showdown between Mordekhai and Esther decided the struggle between apathy and empathy, selfishness and selflessness.

 

            As mentioned earlier, the Megilla recounts Esther’s development on two levels: one in terms of strength of character, initiative and courage, and the other in terms of moral awareness, of reassessing priorities. The two processes go hand in hand: when Esther finds the will to achieve an important end, she finds the ability to do so as well. This is the essence of Mordekhai’s message to her—if there is a will, there is a way. But first, you must truly will it.

 

            This is indeed what happens. Once Esther cares enough, she thinks hard and arrives at a solution. Her two-pronged plan consists of prayer—“Gather all the Jews,” a call to the Almighty—and donning her royal garb in order to find favor in the eyes of an all-too-human king. There is fasting, crying and raging at the heavens, together with an easy smile and a move to action. When the will prevails, suddenly it becomes apparent that one possesses the means. Those latent character traits which until now have lain dor- mant burst to the surface. Deeply hidden resources that have been concealed in the recesses of the soul reveal themselves when the will prevails, and prove themselves capable of overturning worlds, annulling decrees and changing the fate of an entire nation.

 

DO WE REALLY CARE?

Such was Esther’s redemption then. The same applies to us today.

 

            We are all, to some degree, Esther. Each of us, for whatever reason, has doubts as to his or her abilities. We, too, are hesitant: “What, I’m going to achieve all that? I’m going to save Am Yisrael? I’m going to put a stop to assimilation? I’m just a youngster; I can achieve only a little: a little bit in my neighborhood, a little bit in a youth group, a little bit in the family. But to start a revolution? To determine the future of a nation? To avert an evil decree? Little me?”

 

            Here comes the demand. I don’t want to use Mordekhai’s words, but I do want at least to pose the question. How much of our resignation is motivated by supposed “inability” and how much is a result of the fact that our concern simply doesn’t run deep enough?

 

            Esther’s concern does not run deep enough for two reasons, both extremely serious. On the one hand, perhaps she does not act because of a lack of knowledge. True, she may have heard something about the decree, but she did not pay much attention. What penetrated the depths of her soul was only the family issue, the distress of Mordekhai.

 

            The question is obvious: How can this be? The whole of Shushan is shouting it out, there are posters on every corner, children in the streets are sharpening swords, everyone knows. Can it be that only Esther, who is right in the middle of it all, in the palace, doesn’t see?

 

            Today, too, everyone knows that Am Yisrael is in grave danger. There is danger of assimilation, danger of mixed marriages, danger of people losing their way, danger of being cut off from roots and values. Can it be that only you cannot see it? As if this information is hidden somewhere? Is there any difficulty involved in obtaining the statistics on Jewish education in Israel and in the Diaspora? Someone who cares enough can get his hands on the figures: at least sixty percent of Jews in the Diaspora are being lost! And the situation here in Israel is nothing to get excited about either. A person is quite capable of finding out, if he’s interested enough, the number of students who “drop out” of the Religious Zionist education system or who discard their kippa in the army!

 

            But even more serious are Mordekhai’s words to Esther. At a certain stage there is an effort to give her the benefit of the doubt: The whole of Shushan knows, except the queen? Still— maybe they told her it was just a possibility, a thought, and she may have thought that the danger wasn’t imminent. But after copies of the decree of annihilation are publicly displayed, and Mordekhai brings them to her attention, can Esther still wonder why Mordekhai is trying to disturb her complacency?

 

            Herein lies the ultimate question. It is directed to each and every one of us. Let each person do as Esther did: stand before himself, stand before God, and once the situation is quite clear to him, ask himself, “Where do I stand, who am I, what comes first, what is vital and what is secondary?” This does not imply that what is secondary is necessarily unimportant: Esther’s plans of being queen and ruling over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces certainly represented serious career considerations. The question is not whether one’s personal plans are inherently improper. Rather, a person must ask himself not only whether what he is doing is good and worthy, but whether it is the best and most worthy thing that he could be doing. He has to keep asking himself: Is this really what the circumstances require? Is this the best that I can do at this time?

 

            Chazal teach that God once criticized the ministering angels themselves (Yalkut Shimoni, Beshalach, 333). When God saved the Israelites at the Red Sea by drowning the Egyptians, the angels requested to do what would appear to be their rightful job, to fulfill themselves, to express their innermost souls—they wished to break out into a joyous song of praise to God! God said to them: Indeed, song is beautiful and wonderful; it gives expression to the soul. But there are times when even song itself is not worthy of the ministering angels. “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and yet you sing My praise?!”

 

            The angels’ song itself is not necessarily wrong; it is just inappropriate at that given time. The question is one of priorities. It is good and worthy to sing praise to God, but is that all that needs to be done at this particular time?

 

            “My creatures are drowning in the sea”—a sea of assimilation, a sea of ignorance, a sea of alienation from Kenesset Yisrael. And you—you who are capable of moving the carriage out of the mud, you who could lend a hand, you who could uplift the nation, you who could be inculcating values—you offer song?!

 

            This is the real question. If you understand the situation— and there is no reason or excuse not to—then you hear the cry that emanates from every part of the country, from every corner of the globe, expressed in the spiritual dangers surrounding and threatening us on every side. Someone who cares knows what is going on, and once he knows he must ask himself: What significance does this knowledge have for me? To what extent does it cause me pain? To what extent do I identify with world Jewry, in fasting and prayer? To what extent is my spiritual world structured such that Kenesset Yisrael and its dangers are on one side and I, with my considerations and private plans, am on the other?

 

            Like Esther, we will all have to ask ourselves the question when the time comes: We could have saved; did we? What will be our answer then? More importantly, what is our answer today?

 

 

(Based on a transcript by Aviad Hacohen.

Translated from Hebrew by Kaeren Fish with Reuven Ziegler.

This sicha was delivered in Yeshivat Har Etzion on Ta'anit Esther 5744 [1984].

It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)

 

The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.  It can be ordered from here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/ralbooks.htm.