Shaul vs. Esther: Learning to Live a Committed Life

hero image
businessman shoes stand at junction, choose way to success

As we approach Purim, the focus of the days immediately preceding the holiday becomes the long history of the relationship between Amalek and the Jewish people. Beginning with the few pesukim comprising Parshas Zachor, we remember Amalek’s original attack on the Jewish people shortly after the Jews left Egypt. Then, we read the less famous but equally important haftorah, which tells the story of King Shaul, commanded to completely annihilate Amalek, and his failure to do so. This mistake ultimately resulted in the birth of Haman, and the eventual need for Mordechai and Esther to correct where Shaul erred, by successfully destroying Amalek. This timeline presents a practical cause-and-effect: Esther needed to physically kill Haman to amend for Shaul’s not killing Haman’s grandfather Agag. But on a deeper level, a careful reading of the pesukim reveals that Esther needed to correct the exact psychological flaw that led to Shaul’s crucial error.

Shaul was ordered by Hashem, through the prophet Shmuel, to annihilate all of Amalek, including their women, children, and animals.  When Shmuel relayed the command to Shaul, he pre-emptively warned Shaul, “lo sachmol alav,” do not have compassion for [them]. And yet, despite killing many members of the nation, Shaul still violated Shmuel’s dictum, as we read, “Va’yachmol Shaul…,” Shaul bestowed mercy upon King Agag as well as the Amaleki cattle. In explaining the precise nature of Shaul’s sin, the Malbim offers a powerful explanation.

In his classic style, the Malbim differentiates between similar words to create a fundamental distinction. In this context, the Malbim draws an important distinction between three forms of compassion. On the one hand, the verb ח-ס, “chos/chus,” is the natural compassion a person feels for anything, including his property (as the Sages often say, “HaTorah chassa al mamonam shel Yisrael”), and reflects a person’s need for the item. For example, a person feels “compassion” toward his property inasmuch as he feels bad about his property being destroyed and needing to replace it. In a similar fashion, ר-ח-מ, “rachmanus,” refers to an innate feeling of mercy a person feels toward living things. “Chemlah,” on the other hand, reflects a deeper compassion that permeates the intellectual level, when a person believes that an item is inherently good, and from a social justice perspective, does not deserve to be destroyed. Hashem never commanded against, nor was He upset with, Shaul’s instinctive feelings of chus or rachmanus, practical compassion or mercy, in response to His command to kill an entire nation, including small children. These feelings came naturally and Hashem allowed, and even expected such natural feelings to arise, even while fulfilling His orders to wipe out a nation. There would have been no issue if the response was “Va’yachos Shaul” or “Va’yerachem Shaul.” The problem was “Va’yachmol Shaul,” his actions demonstrated an intellectual belief that Hashem was mistaken and that he, a mere mortal, was smarter and kinder than G-d. In that moment, concludes the Malbim, Shaul exposed his fundamental lack of faith in G-d by believing it appropriate to bestow kindness upon G-d’s enemies.

This grammatical subtlety of the Malbim provides an important clinical foundation into a Torah approach toward emotions and behaviors. What emerges from his understanding is a crucial distinction between emotions, which Hashem understands and allows, versus behaviors, which He demands of us, even if at times they conflict with our emotions. Hashem understood that commanding Shaul to kill an entire nation of men, women, children, and animals would be emotionally difficult. Shaul was a righteous man, and even an ordinary person would struggle to kill ostensibly innocent people. Yet, despite his internal reservations, Shaul was obligated to behave consistently with G-d’s command, thereby fulfilling His will. Like Shaul, we, too, are obligated to act in accordance with Hashem’s will (i.e., to follow halacha), even when it is emotionally difficult. This halachic obligation, whatever it may be, does not mean that a person cannot experience internal emotional conflict; rather he or she is obligated to “carry” that emotional conflict and still perform the desired behavior.

Outside of the realm of halacha, the clinical implications of this idea are far-reaching. The Malbim, aside from providing a road map for observing emotionally challenging halachos, also introduces the important notion of being able to “carry” one’s emotions—internally feeling one way while behaving in an entirely different manner. The reason this is so crucial is because as humans, we do not always control our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we may not be in the mood to learn, work, exercise, or spend time with friends. Other times our thoughts try to convince us that “I’m too tired,” or “he doesn’t like me,” or “I won’t understand it anyway, so why bother.”  Our thoughts and feelings may be out of our control, but our actions are very much in our control.

This idea parallels the approach of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), developed by Stephen Hayes. According to Hayes, people often struggle with difficult thoughts and feelings. Instead of trying to challenge or remove uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, the most effective way of dealing with them is to honestly and openly accept them, without judgment, while constantly pursuing “committed action,” i.e., engaging in activities and behaviors a person values. The premise of ACT is that although one cannot remove uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, by learning to live with them instead of fighting against them, one can thrive more in life. Furthermore, to ensure that one’s life (which, after acceptance, now inevitably includes those difficult thoughts and feelings) is fulfilled and meaningful, one identifies his or her values and commits to living aligned with those values.

For example, students often struggle with anxious thoughts, such as the worry that they are going to fail a test or end up without a job. I work with these students to help them learn to accept their anxiety, without judgment, and “carry” it with them to the classes they signed up for and help them pursue the career they want. Accepting without judgment is not easy, as people tend to have emotional reactions to their feelings, for example, worrying about anxiety, or feeling angry about sadness, but learning to accept thoughts and feelings as they are reduces the harmful effect they have, and allows people to live their lives more fully. When a client shares his lack of interest in getting out of bed and doing anything, we similarly work on accepting the reality that he does not want to engage in the world, and “carrying” that lack of interest with him to his job in order to provide for his family, or to perform hobbies and activities he values. The beauty of this approach is that with time, those thoughts may go away, but even if not, these students and clients are living meaningful and purposeful lives.

In this sense, Shaul (on his level), was unable to appreciate the nuance of ACT. Instead of “carrying” his feelings of compassion while destroying Amalek, he allowed his emotions to overwhelm him to the point that they dictated his behavior.

Now let’s fast forward around five hundred years to Esther. From what we can infer about her, she did not seem to enjoy the limelight. From the pesukim, it seems that Esther was not interested in winning the position of queen of Persia. Twice, she was passively “taken” to the palace—“Va’tilakach Esther”—and before meeting Achashveirosh, she requested minimal use of available perfumes and accessories. Despite her best efforts, she won the position of queen. When Mordechai informed her of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, he requested that she confront Achashveirosh. Esther became flustered by Mordechai’s request and reminded Mordechai of the well-documented death penalty she could receive for wandering into Achashveirosh’s chambers uninvited. Instead, she suggested, she could wait until she was summoned. After all, Haman’s decree to kill the Jews was still 11 months away, and having not seen her husband in 30 days, Esther believed she was due for a call. Esther’s response seems to convey her deep ambivalence. One can almost hear her saying, “Listen Mordechai, I didn’t sign up for this position. I’m happy to help the Jews, but you know me, Mordechai, I’m not that kind of put-it-all-on-the-line confrontational type of person. Let’s let things play out, and when the right moment comes, I’m happy to speak to Achashveirosh. After all, what’s the rush? Why the need to risk my life for this right now?”

Mordechai’s response is among the more powerful lines in the megillah, if not all of Tanach. “Al tidami bi’nafshech,” don’t be silent, “Ki im ha’charesh tacharishi…revach vi’hatzalah…” if you are silent in this exact moment, salvation will surely come from elsewhere. In other words, you may not have asked for it, Esther, but here’s your chance. And then the climax, “u’mi yodeah im la’es ka’zos higa’at la’malchus.” In those seven words, Mordechai emphatically ends his message. “Esther,” he implores, “I understand that this request goes directly against your nature, and you could not be less interested in being the queen in general, and confronting Achashveirosh specifically. But who knows, maybe your behavior in this exact moment is your entire purpose in this world and will be your defining legacy forever.”

In retrospect, this was indeed Esther’s defining moment. Like Shaul, she felt overwhelmed by emotions that were encouraging her to be passive. Like Shaul, she was warned by a prophet to be more active and not allow her emotions to dictate her behavior. Here, though, unlike Shaul, Esther acts consistently with her values, to save the Jewish people, overriding her intense emotions of fear. She tells Mordechai to fast and pray, but then, using the same awe-inspiring word we use on the Yamim Nora’im, “ובכן”, as one can almost hear the fear in her voice, she says she will go to the king, “carrying” her fear with her. And of course, as Mordechai predicted, her decision became part of her positive legacy to this day as the heroine of Purim.

The lesson of Shaul, Esther, and l’havdil, Stephen Hayes, is a very important one. Many times, a client will say, “but I’m not in the mood to go out” or “I’m afraid that X will happen if I do that.” My response, using this technique, is to encourage the client to pack up that anxious thought, fearful feeling, or desire to stay home, and place it into his/her bag, and bring it to the wedding, class, date, gym, beis medrash, or wherever they need to go. We can’t control our thoughts and feelings so when we are stuck with a bad one, we have to make a choice: do we let that thought or feeling overwhelm us and dictate our lives, or do we take it with us while living the lives we want to live?

We only celebrate Purim because when given the chance, Shaul gave in to his emotions and let Agag live, which led to the birth to Haman. This Purim, let us choose to act like Esther, and hold on to our emotions while behaving in accordance with our values.


This article appears with the permission of The Jewish Link.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.