Many Jews interpret the story of Purim as a series of fortuitous, coincidental events that happen to have unfolded in an order that achieved salvation—or at least relief—for the Jewish people. Yet this reading diminishes the active role Mordechai and Esther play in the story. Although God was working behind the scenes, we should not overlook the existential choices Mordechai and Esther made throughout the narrative of Purim. God is eternal and unchanging, but the heroes of his biblical narrative grow and mature, offering us examples to imitate.
One dialogue in the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) deserves careful consideration. At the end of chapter four, Esther tells Mordechai of Haman's decree to destroy all the Jews in the Persian kingdom—except those to whom King Achashverosh gives the sharvit ha-zahav, the golden scepter, which serves as an executive pardon. Though Esther has not received the scepter, Mordechai tells her: “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. And who knows if for a time such as this you have come to the kingship.”
The crux of the verse is the phrase le-et ka-zot, “for a time such as this.” The medieval commentator Rashi believes this refers to the forthcoming massacre: The conversation between Mordechai and Esther occurred in the month of Nisan, and the massacre was scheduled eleven months hence, in Adar. According to Rashi’s reading, Mordechai is saying, “And who knows if you will be able to come to the king at a time similar to this [when the mass execution is scheduled eleven months later]?” Another way to read this phrase is as a reminder to Esther that her station in the king’s palace is precarious; after all, Vashti had once held the same position and title.
But there is a third shade of meaning in this passage. Mordechai is telling Esther that if she does not act, then salvation will arise from “another source.” In effect, he says: “You, Esther, are responsible for your decisions in the palace, and those decisions can have dramatic consequences.” Modern academics have rightly identified the supreme importance of this verse. Sandra Beth Berg writes that this passage “presents the central passage of the book. This passage points to Mordecai’s compete confidence that assistance was forthcoming.”
This interpretation helps us understand the development of Esther's character throughout the story. When she first comes on the scene in chapter 2, she is an orphan, a silent, even pitiable character. In chapter 2, the text uses only two active verbs, and even those are not really active: She “attracted the attention” of everyone she saw, and she told Achashverosh of the thwarted rebellion, in the name of Mordechai.
In chapter 4, Esther begins to show initiative. When she hears about Haman's order of destruction, she calls for Hathach, one of the king's servants, to communicate with Mordechai and determine the exact nature of the decree. Yet even here, she is still relying on Mordechai for what to do.
Mordechai’s response is key. Though he had previously told Esther to keep quiet, now he changes his message. Now that Esther is queen, in this moment of crisis for the Jews, she can no longer remain silent. In the rest of the Megillah, Esther is a much more active character, and develops into one of the great Jewish heroines.
Mordechai’s message was that in this particular moment of crisis, only you, Esther, are capable of bringing about change and deliverance. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes,
The day-by-day service has the universal character to which Micah referred when he asked his famous question, “What does the Lord require of you” (Mic. 6:8). … In this service, one finds fulfillment. The service requested of Esther was of a singular nature, one that only she could accomplish.
After this rebuke from Mordechai, Esther leaps into action and takes the lead. She ordains a fast for the entire Jewish people, and intervenes with the king on their behalf, even imperiling her own life for the sake of her coreligionists. With this newfound courage, intelligence, and forethought, she led the Jewish people out of a perilous chapter in their history.
Purim is the silent salvation. Esther risked her life just as Moses did when he slayed the Egyptian, and as the Maccabees did when they defended their religion, but unlike these heroic acts, her work was done in private. She entered Achashverosh’s chamber, quiet and alone, concealed from the public eye. The personal risks were great, and there was no way for her to know her heroism would be publicized.
Though the events God worked in this story are often interpreted as natural, coincidental occurrences, it is crucial to note how he achieved them through human intervention. The name of God never appears in the Megillah, and while his role should be stressed even in a story that lacks his name, we must not overlook its human element. When we consider the Purim story, we must note how God's victory was won through developing Esther's character, and through the sagacious guidance Mordechai supplied along the way. As Dickens wrote, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Alec Goldstein received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and is the founder of Kodesh Press.