The Sound of Esther’s Silence

amazon esther cover (1)The belief in the eternity of Israel—that the Jews will be saved somehow no matter what—poses a challenge to Mordechai as he urges Esther to place her life in the balance for her people. For if “relief and deliverance” will surely come from elsewhere, then what possible reason can there be for Esther to act at all? It is from just such fatalism that religious quietism arises: The belief that God will take care of everything, that man is in any case too small to alter the course of events, that God’s will is done with or without one’s involvement. Such belief tends toward paralysis.

Against this tendency, Mordechai makes the following argument:

Do not imagine in your heart that you, of all the Jews, will escape because you are in the king’s palace. For if you insist on remaining silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you came into royalty?” (Esther 4.13–14)

The argument he makes with regard to Esther’s destiny as the savior of the Jews, then, is twofold:

(i) Perhaps it is in order to save that Jews that you have risen to power, but—

(ii) if you are silent, you and yours will certainly be lost.

At first glance, Mordechai’s insistence that inaction will lead to Esther’s destruction seems contrived. Of all the Jews in the empire, Esther stands the best chance of being spared. The king adores her and is unlikely to let a second wife go the way of the first. Moreover, no one in the court is aware that she is a Jew. If anything, Esther’s position seems itself to be the best guarantee of the persistence of the Jewish line. In asserting, again against all intuition, that while others may be saved, it will be Esther whose doom will be sealed by her inaction, is he merely trying to scare her into motion?

Mordechai is not just trying to scare her. He is in deadly earnest. For although the fate of the Jewish people as a whole cannot and should not be understood to be in Esther’s hands alone, there is nevertheless a portion whose fate may very well depend on her. After all, had not Joseph’s silence permitted Pharaoh to massacre the Jews in their thousands—this despite the fact that relief and deliverance did eventually come from elsewhere, from Moses? That the Jews as a people will in some way be saved in no way assures that Esther and her father’s house—and even six million of her father’s house—will not be lost through the inaction of those who could have acted but did not. No one can know what will come of his efforts. And yet with hindsight, Esther may find that her deeds saved, not the Jewish people, but her “father’s house” in a large sense, that portion of the Jews that she loves and knows, and that constitutes her people in her time and place. When one recognizes that such power nevertheless does reside in the individual, one has no choice but to consider and reconsider: “Who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that I have been placed here?”

It is precisely the retention of one’s shepherd freedom, the ability to act against the interest of worldly power in the service of something higher, that is the source of man’s greatness. It is not Joseph’s building of Egypt that is unique in history; for there is virtually no man who does not work to build up the place in which he lives. What is unique is Moses’ rejection of Pharaoh’s court, with all the power that it offered him, in order to protect a slave who was being treated unjustly, and in order to lead his people into the wastes of Sinai. Without Moses, Joseph’s empire-building would not even have made a scratch on the collective memory of mankind.

But there is more to it than this. For Mordechai’s words are carefully chosen: If Esther is silent at such a time, then, who knows, perhaps she will have missed the opportunity to save thousands. But one thing is certain: That she herself will be “lost,” and with her, the house of her father Avihail in the literal sense, of which she is the only surviving member. How does Mordechai know this?

Mordechai’s certainty comes from an understanding that the battle of the court Jew is ultimately the struggle to save, not the Jewish people, but himself. Exposing himself to the relentless encroachment of foreign values, allowing himself to become preoccupied with the pursuit of favor, in effect transforming himself into the tool of an alien master rather than of his own conscience, he balances himself on a precipice in the hope that there he will be able to do good. Perhaps, as Joseph claims in Egypt, he will sometimes be able to achieve that good in the course of executing his assigned duties. But the proof that he lives as a Jew comes not when he executes his assigned tasks on the path to worldly power. It comes when he cannot pursue these tasks as expected—when the demands of power, expedience and the interest of the state are opposed to what is Jewish and what is right, when he stands to lose everything as Abraham lost everything in rejecting Mesopotamia. Only then does it become clear whether he is yet fighting the battle of the Jew, or whether this cause has been sacrificed to the enslaving idol. In the rejection of the idol, only in the rejection of the idol, does the Jewish soul persist.

This is why, while Esther may or may not succeed in saving numbers of Jews by interceding with the king, the only one who will be lost for certain through her silence is herself. Remaining unmoved when tens of thousands of innocent people, her own people, stand to die, she will have finally and completely returned to that condition of powerless, spiritless bondage, which as a Jew she should have left behind in Egypt. Remaining unmoved before the cries of the persecuted, her heart like a stone, her face like a carving of wood, she will serve a lie which, by her own subservience, she makes as a god. And this is the meaning of the biblical teaching with regard to the idols: “Mouths have they but they cannot speak; eyes have they but they cannot see; ears have they but they cannot hear…. Like them will be those who make them….” (Psalms 115.5–8, 135.16–18.)

It is when she understands that such is the choice before her that the greatness of the queen is revealed. Esther, who has ever sought the favor of others, who always did as she was told, who would never ask anything for herself, faces the moment of truth. She must choose between building up the horror that has reared itself up before her, the fear of it, the numbing paralysis and amnesia of it; and picking up a stick to swing with all her might, with anything and everything she has ever had in her, to smash it. Recognizing what she must do, she breaks with her past, and for the first time in her life issues the order that Mordechai immediately obeys: “Go assemble all the Jews present in Susa and fast for me. Do not eat and do not drink for three days, night and day, and I and my maids will fast as well. Then I will go in to the king, though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4.16–17)

This was an excerpt From God and Politics in Esther by Yoram Hazony, Published by Cambridge University Press.

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