Sermon: Women Of Hebrew & Christian Scriptures: Esther

2018 February 11
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

The story of Esther is the story of a hero. And like so many of the heroes in the Hebrew Bible, she is a reluctant hero. She doesn’t seem particularly interested in being queen to the Persian king Achashverosh. The contestants in the royal beauty pageant spend a whole year beautifying themselves – six months applying myrrh and six months applying something else. This is all part of an official beautification program on the palace grounds. Esther declines these treatments, at least for the actual contest, and goes au naturale.


When the king selects Esther despite her best efforts she tells her uncle Mordechai that she’s scared. And he tells her, “You’ll be alright. Just don’t let them know you’re Jewish.” As Jewish refugees in Persia, they already know that there are people in power who want them to go back where they came from. But she becomes queen and the text says she was much beloved by the king and the people.


The position of queen is vacant because the previous queen, Vashti, said no to the king. She refused his command to dance for him and all his friends wearing her crown and only her crown. The king consulted with his advisors and they told him to dethrone her and exile her. They warned, “For the queen’s conduct will go out to all the women making their husbands contemptible in their eyes, by saying, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she would not come!’ [The women] who have heard of the matter concerning the queen will respond similarly …and there will be no end to the contempt and anger.” And so king Achashverosh dethrones and exiles the queen.

This is all recorded in the Book of Esther, otherwise known as the Megillah. The Megillah inspired the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is coming up in a couple weeks. Purim traditions include getting dressed up in costumes (it’s kind of like the Jewish Halloween), having a wild feast, giving gifts of food, giving gifts of money (so it’s a great time to pledge) and, of course, reading out loud the whole Megillah, which, as you can imagine, is long. There’s also often a Purim schpiel or play, like the one our own thespians performed earlier.

We saw in the play the critical moment that causes the backlash against the Jews in Persia: Mordechai refusing to bow to Haman. This cracks open all the underlying fault lines between the immigrant culture and the dominant culture. In the words of the text, it fills Haman with wrath. In the words of today, it immasculates and insults him. It highlights where the difference of the immigrant “other” becomes real. It exposes an absolute incompatibility between two cultures and two religions – a place where compromise is not possible. One is governed by a hierarchy of humans with the King at the top; the other organized around a concept of the sole sovereignty of God. They have no other gods.


So Haman, recognizing the threat that this poses both to his authority and that of the king, knowing that a people with allegiance to a higher power can be politically dangerous, and remembering with chills Queen Vashti’s act of resistance, goes to the king and says these famous lines: ‘There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose customs are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws. It is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”


Achashverosh readily agrees – not to “deport them” as we said in the Purim play – but to exterminate them. He doesn’t seem to care one way or another – he has no ideals or ideologies of his own, no particular hatred of Jews, he just likes having power, and watching beautiful women compete in beauty contests and dance for him and his friends. He likes to throw big parties and parades. He takes the advice of his advisors so those things can continue to happen. His advisors do have political agendas and ideologies. But Achashverosh does whatever is most expeditious for Achashverosh. (If you think I’m twisting this story to make it match modern day politics, read the Megillah yourself sometime. It’s uncanny.)


So following Haman’s advice, the king writes a decree that is sent out to every corner of his land specifying the date on which all the Jews will be killed. Mordechai gets word that this is going to happen and pleads with Esther to do something. He’s now begging her to tell the king that she’s Jewish and save her people.


Esther finds herself in a singular position, being both Jewish and the queen of Persia. She is a member of the underclass and a member of the dominant class. She has access to both ways of thinking and being. She can see through the lens in which the king is sovereign, and see through the lens in which God is sovereign. (In this way, she’s in the position that Moses was in. If you remember from my description last month, Moses wound up being adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and growing up in the Egyptian palace.) So like Moses, Esther has access to power, she’s culturally bilingual, and has a kind of privilege that’s completely out of reach for other Jews in the land. But she is a woman.


Like Moses, Esther attained this position of power passively. Moses was completely passive as a baby being picked up from a floating basket. But Esther is passive as an adult. Her Hebrew name is Hadassah, but she uses the Persian version, Esther, so as to not call attention to her Jewishness. She doesn’t really want to be queen, but she doesn’t really resist going to the beauty contest, she just doesn’t make an effort. And when she’s selected, she quietly goes along with it and agrees to hide her Jewish identity. She comes across as someone who is scared and trying to keep her head down and stay out of trouble. So many women, even today, are forced to live tentative, partial lives like this, knowing how dangerous the world can be for them, never really consenting but neither having the power to say no.


And so when Mordechai comes to Esther distraught about the decree against their people and says, do something!, her understandable first reaction is, “are you freaking kidding me?” She explains that for a person, especially a woman, to be assertive in any way, even as mild a way as coming before the king without being invited, is punishable by death. At that moment she is living completely cocooned within the mindset of the human hierarchy in which the king has absolute and ultimate power. She is subject to that power and she is terrified.


But then her uncle Mordechai helps her see through that other lens – the lens of her people – in which God is sovereign. He speaks what becomes another famous set of lines in the Megillah: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another source, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.


In other words, perhaps your whole life comes down to this moment. Perhaps everything you have done and learned and all the unlikely events that landed you, strangely, in bed with the king, have been just setting up the serve. And this is where you are called to choose: you claim who you are and speak out boldly on behalf of your people; or you play it safe and stay silent. This is the critical fulcrum point of your life; everything else has been prologue to right now.


And so Hadassah chooses. She chooses to take the risk of showing her true colors to the king and fighting for her people. She chooses as much out of a sense of her own spiritual power as out of the knowledge of her powerlessness. As her uncle had said, she would not ultimately escape the fate of her people. And as her uncle had implied, if she made the leap of faith, deliverance would come.


This is a human story, with human villains and human heroes, and while there is a sense of divine puppeteering in placing Esther in the right place at the right time, the word “God” is not mentioned in the entire Megillah. Esther is called a hero because her act of bravery does turn the tide and save her people. But more important, she’s a hero because her act of resistance is a spiritual breakthrough – she breaks through all of her social conditioning, all of her fear, all the rules of the dominant culture about what you can and can’t do. After a lifetime of playing it safe and hiding her real self, Hadassah finally comes into her power.


Who will we be at the next fulcrum point of our lives? Sometimes we will be Esther and play the games that we must to navigate a perilous path through the world… because we have to for our survival. And sometimes, if we keep growing, we will be Haddasah and connect to our true self and our values and the real source of power. Sometimes our soul will require us to do something extraordinary and bold that overturns all expectations. At those times, may we have the courage to do it, knowing that the way has been lit by Hadassah and all who have followed in her footsteps.




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