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March 13, 2003

Who Will Be Esther?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/who_will_be_esther_20030314

I've always had an affinity for Esther, the Persian queen who saved the Jews and had an entire megillah named for her.

So connected did I feel to this Jewish heroine that, as a child, I always made it my business to pray and fast on Ta'anit Esther (the Fast of Esther), which takes place the day before Purim (on Monday, this year), even though it wasn't as strictly required as say Yom Kippur.

I felt for Esther not only because my Hebrew name is the same as hers, nor as my siblings would say, because I had aspirations to royalty. For young Jewish girls, Esther was our customized fairy tale, the Israelites' Cinderella, or to put it in more modern terms, our own reality show: "Persian Idol." Esther was plucked from obscurity -- perhaps against her will -- to join a beauty pageant whose winner would marry King Ahashuerus and receive almost half of the 127 lands he ruled (take that "Joe Millionaire").

She possessed all the qualities of a "good" Jewish girl -- modesty, beauty, fear of God, femininity -- and still she won the contest, got her man and later saved her people. And although we costumed grade-schoolers vied to be the best beauty contest winner at Purim carnivals, it was the later Esther we admired: the one who fasted, prayed, went before the king, risked her life, pulled a fast one on the evil Haman, all in order to save her people.

Meek, modest Esther quietly saved the day.

After the decree was sent out from Shushan to "kill, cause to perish, all Jews both young and old, little children and women, in one day," the king and Haman sat down to drink, Viha'ir Shushan Navocha -- but the city of Shushan was bewildered; commentators say that the Jews cried and wailed loudly while, simultaneously, the Persians rejoiced at the new decree. Listeners were bewildered trying to differentiate between the cries of anguish and the shouts of joy.

I find it prescient that America prepares for war as we prepare for the Fast of Esther. Although the fast turned out well -- ultimately ending in the holiday of Purim -- the Jews had no way of knowing that at the time; their fate was hovering on the brink of destruction.

Esther fasted and prayed for three days before she went to her husband, the king, to ask him to reverse the decree.

As we hear our government's decrees, see our security codes go on to high alert and hear both the drums of war and the drumbeats of those blaming Israel for the war, it doesn't seem that far off from Esther's and the Jews' plight so many years ago in the very same gulf region.

Who will be our Esther? Who will save us this time? There is no Esther around, female or male, ready to save the day. It is up to us: we can fast, we can pray, we can make ourselves heard, acting as courageously as Esther did when the Jewish people descended into a state of darkness and confusion after Haman called for the Jews' destruction.

As we hear Megillat Esther this week, I'm sure our thoughts will be elsewhere, to more imminent dangers. But perhaps our prayers will be answered as Esther's were, and our story, for now, will end as hers did: La'yehudim hayta ora v'simcha, v'sasson, v'ykar."

"The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor."  

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