By Rabbi Shawn Zell
Living at a time when political correctness knows no bounds, it would be totally unacceptable for someone to say, “I decided to choose Davis the Jew, to serve as my accountant”. No one seems to utter a peep, much less whirl the gragger, however, upon coming across the phrase “Mordechai the Jew” while reading the Megillah. It is a phrase that appears time and time again, in the book of Esther. Far from being disparaging, Mordechai the Jew is an honorific appellative. Yet, if the Purim Megillah regards it as a badge of honor, to refer to the hero of the Purim Megillah as Mordechai HaYehudi or Mordechai the Jew, why doesn’t the Purim Megillah accord the same honor and respect to Esther, by referring to the heroine of the Purim Megillah as Esther HaYehudiah or Esther the Jewess? After pondering this question, I offer three suggestions, why Esther, like Mordechai, is most deserving to be viewed as a quintessential Jew.
Healthy, normal humans are in no way immune from doubts and fears, as they go through life. No sooner had Adam and Eve partaken from the Tree of Knowledge, when they experienced fear, hearing G-d walking in the Garden of Eden. As a people, the calming words of the prophet Isaiah “fear not, my servant Jacob” reassures us, that while fear on our part is understandable, so too should we bear in mind G-d’s protecting love. The Purim Megillah reminds us that Esther had every right to be fearful, in that more than 30 days had passed since she was last summoned to appear before the King. By showing up before the King, unannounced, Esther risked losing her life. It was then, that Esther realized, that that the best way to counter fear is through faith. Once Esther was able to summon sufficient faith in G-d, her fear of Ahasuerus subsided. Esther was finally able to grasp that even though fear is part of the life of a Jew, faith in HaShem is part of living as a Jew. It was then, that Esther was well on the way to earning the moniker, Esther HaYehudiah or Esther the Jewess.
An all too painful lesson taught to us by history is that with but few exceptions, anti-Semitism is a great equalizer. Anti-Semites are incapable of distinguishing between a Jew who impeccably observes mitzvot, from a Jew who is oblivious of his Jewish ancestry. Jews who distinguished themselves in service to the country, are held in the same contempt by anti-Semites, as Jews who are serving time in prison for criminal behavior. It is Mordechai who reminds Esther of this painful reality. “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house, you alone will escape the fate of the rest of the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish” (Esther 4:14). Others would have brushed aside such sagacious advice. But not Esther. Esther immediately decided to heed what Mordechai was saying. In doing so, Esther showed that she was deserving of the cognomen Esther HaYehudiah.
The most Jewish of phrases in my opinion is “B’Ezrat HaShem” or with G-d’s assistance. While observant Jews typically make liberal use of this phrase in their daily speech, I cannot help but wonder if they appreciate the theological implications of “B’Ezrat HaShem”. On the one hand, “B’Ezrat HaShem” accepts the fact that there are few if any actions that humans can engage in without divine assistance. If G-d wills it that one will not arise from his slumber in the morning or any time thereafter, then that person will be “dead in bed”. The same holds for any behavior. On the other hand, “B’Ezrat HaShem” serves to remind us that G-d will not shoulder the burden for most things we do in life. All the praying in the world, will not guarantee success in learning unless the individual takes it upon himself to work hard and study. Here too, Esther seems to come into her own, when she sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan to fast (and presumably pray) for her. She too will fast (and presumably pray) and then “B’Ezrat HaShem” proceed to embark upon a perilous mission of appearing unannounced before Ahasuerus. When the King extended his golden scepter to Esther, a good case could be made, that unknowingly, he was a shaliach or messenger, bestowing upon her the golden Jewess award, granting her the title of Esther HaYehudiah.
As we fulfill the mitzvah of reading the Megillah, Thursday evening as well as Friday morning, let us recall that which was left unsaid. Each time we come across the phrase Mordechai HaYehudi, let us also bring to mind and find a place in our heart for a phenomenal woman who possessed faith in HaShem, realized that her fate was inextricably bound up with the fate of her people, and understood that living life as a Jew requires partnering with G-d, thereby earning for herself the sobriquet Esther HaYehudiah.