Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Conservatism > Esther: Altruism or National Loyalty

Esther: Altruism or National Loyalty

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Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer Editor-in-Chief, "Tzarich Iyun"

Esther's self-sacrifice for the sake of the Jewish People was not an act of altruism, a justice-warrior's fight for the minority victim, but rather an act of national fidelity. Esther teaches us the value of loyalty to one's own people, even under dire circumstanes. It also informs us that in the Jewish case, such loyalty is also the ultimate moral good, as part and parcel of a Divine Covenant that defines Jewish identity.

Adar 5780 / March 2020
 

Esther’s self-sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish People in the story of the Megillah is subject to two distinct paths of interpretation.

One sees Esther’s self-sacrifice as an act of altruism. Esther, an orphaned child belonging to an exiled minority nation, was fortunate enough to reach the zenith of the most powerful empire of its time, and becomes its queen, wife to the ruler over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces. Notwithstanding her meteoric rise, Esther status remains fragile, and at any moment she is liable to lose everything, including her very life—as was the case for her predecessor. In an inspirational act of altruism, the same Esther was prepared to sacrifice herself for the sake of the oppressed. Esther was concerned for justice rather than for herself, and this concern moved her to save a minority people tyrannized and persecuted for no crime. In her effort to save the victimized Jewish People, Esther was ready to forfeit all she had. In today’s terminology, this interpretation would label Esther a “social activist” par excellence, a kind of Rosa Luxemburg of antiquity.

The interest that moved her was a shared, national interest, which transcended self-interest understood in the narrow, individualistic sense

Another approach—one I will argue is the correct approach in the case of the Megillah—is to see the tale of Esther through the prism of Jewish nationalism. In this reading, Esther’s readiness to act for the Jewish People is not a factor of her altruism, but rather self-sacrifice for the sake of her own people. The interest that moved her was a shared, national interest, which transcended self-interest understood in the narrow, individualistic sense. Esther’s trial in performing her act of heroism was thus not a trial of overcoming her selfish streak, but rather a matter of identity. Esther was torn between her Persian identity, whose full adoption could ostensibly have earned her security and individual contentment at the top of the empire’s highest institution, and her original, Jewish identity, and fidelity thereto at the risk of losing everything.

It seems that the prevalent outlook of our times favors the first interpretation. Self-sacrifice for the sake of victims of oppression is considered a worthy moral endeavor. By contrast, denying oneself personal gratification and fulfillment out of loyalty to the national group is deemed today morally neutral at best, and at worst downright wrong. It certainly doesn’t place you on the high moral ground. In the liberal eyes of today, there is hardly room to praise the individual who prefers national fidelity over personal fulfillment. On the contrary, we are perpetually called to defend personal choices, especially those that go against the grain of the greater group identity. The heroic tales of today’s Western society laud the individual who navigates his own journey—be it romantic, professional, academic, political, sporting, and so on—while swimming against the public current.

In the liberal eyes of today, there is hardly room to praise the individual who prefers national fidelity over personal fulfillment

Today’s society tends to consider personal flourishing as a higher calling than the group’s general good. An act that protects the individual wellbeing of a potential victim from his oppressor is therefore morally upright, while giving up personal fulfilment for the group’s sake might be considered morally awry. Yet, in the present article I will argue that Megillas Esther reveals a different set of moral values, in which fidelity to the national group is a foremost moral virtue. But it does not end there. National allegiance itself, as found among all nations, is liable to lead a person to do the wrong over the right; the Nazi case is but an extreme example. It cannot stand alone.  Based on the Megillah story, I will argue that the case of Esther’s loyalty is a paradigm for Jewish national fidelity more broadly. In the Jewish setting, given a correct appraisal of the specific circumstance, the concern of going morally astray does not apply.

 

The Calling of Collective Identity

The tale of Esther in the Megillah that carries her name recalls the Torah account of the Hebrew midwives at the onset of the book of Shemos:

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. (Shemos 1:15-17)

Similar to the decree of Haman against the Jews of the Persian Empire, even Pharaoh wised to eradicate the Jewish People even before their national inception, by means of killing each baby boy at birth. And like Esther, even the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, displayed a remarkable strength of character in standing up against Pharaoh, king of the greatest empire in antiquity.

It seems the ability of the midwives, who are presented as two unknown women, to perform such a heroic deed, draws from their collective identity, and from the sense of calling attendant to it. As individuals, it is difficult to conceive of somebody defying the instruction of an all-powerful monarch; but as a part of a greater collection—a family, a community, a nation—even the individual, small and weak though he might be, can act with heroism on behalf of the greater good.

It seems the ability of the midwives, who are presented as two unknown women, to perform such a heroic deed, draws from their collective identity, and from the sense of calling attendant to it

Such was the case of the midwives. In turn, the reward they received was paid in collective currency: “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20). Even the personal reward they were given, “he made them homes” (1:21), was directed toward the collective. The simple reading indicates that the midwives, presumably barren until then (as was often the case for midwives), were given families: their reward was to have continuity as a part of the Jewish People (the same is true for the Midrashic interpretation, which explains that they were given prominence in establishing the Levite lineage).

The self-sacrifice of Esther, as we will see, was along similar lines.

 

The Jewish Identity of Queen Esther

The tale of the Megillah, and in particular that of Esther herself, is a story of collective Jewish identity. By contrast with Mordechai, who is presented by the Megillah as “a Jewish man” (Ish Yehudi) who traces back to the exile of Yechonya King of Judah, the Megillah refrains from mentioning the genealogy of Esther, noting only that she was orphaned as a child from both her parents. Mordechai, in other words, is presented as being firmly anchored in the Jewish tradition and lineage, while Esther does not merit the same rootedness; a question-mark hovers over her Jewish identity. A further blurring of Esther’s identity draws from the name by which she is called. Although she has a Jewish name, Hadassah, the Megillah uses her non-Jewish name, Esther—the morning star in Old Persian (and also the Persian name of a goddess).

Esther’s success in hiding her Jewish identity and homeland, as Mordechai instructed her, also indicates that her Jewish identity was not entirely distinct. Somebody who is deeply enmeshed in his own national identity and culture will find it virtually impossible to conceal his identity over a long period of time, certainly if engaged, as Esther was, in multiple relationships. After entering the palace as queen to the Persian king, mother of the future lineage of Persian monarchs, it is only natural that Esther should entirely substitute her Jewish identity, which was in any case somewhat blurred, for a full Persian identity.

Esther might be queen of the Persian Empire, yet this does not place her above the law, whose application is universal. Why, indeed, should she place herself in mortal danger for the sake of the Jewish People?

Given her emotional state, Esther’s reply to Mordechai’s demand for her intervention on behalf of the Jewish People is unsurprising. Rather than relate to the danger facing “her people”—as Mordechai refers to the Jews in his demand (Esther 4:8)—Esther simply notes the law of the land that all must comply with:

All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death, unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king. (4:11)

Esther might be queen of the Persian Empire, yet this does not place her above the law, whose application is universal. Why, indeed, should she place herself in mortal danger for the sake of the Jewish People?

The turnaround in Esther’s mindset is catalyzed by Mordechai’s response.

 

An Eternal Name—Better than Sons and Daughter

Mordechai said to reply to Esther: do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position! (Esther 4:12-14)

Esther had become somewhat distanced from her Jewish heritage. Her status as queen of the Persian Empire clearly required her to act as a Persian among Persians—as the “first lady” of Persia—which was surely not conducive to her Jewish sensitivities. Mordechai calls upon Esther to beseech the king for “her nation,” but she makes a clear distinction between her own fate and that of the nation. In response to Mordechai’s call, she does not fully understand why she should put her life at risk.

Mordechai’s basic response is that Esther remains a Jew: this is her fundamental identity, before any other identity, and she should see herself in this light. He thus warns her: “do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews.” He tells her that she is first and foremost a Jew, and therefore her place in the palace cannot save her from the fate of all Jews. Her new Persian identity, even her status as royalty, cannot supplant her original, national identity. She is a part of the Jewish People, and their fate is also hers.

Mordechai told Esther than if she refrains from acting on behalf of her people, clinging to her Persian identity and distancing herself from her Jewish belonging, then she will herself cease to enjoy the Divine protection afforded to the Jewish People

To this argument he adds another layer: “For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish.” An eternal covenant between God and the Jewish People ensures its ultimate survival, its ultimate protection—though the route of salvation remains unknown. Mordechai told Esther than if she refrains from acting on behalf of her people, clinging to her Persian identity and distancing herself from her Jewish belonging, then she will herself cease to enjoy the Divine protection afforded to the Jewish People. The Jews, members of the covenant, will be delivered, while Esther and her father’s house will perish.

Mordechai’s responses mirrors God’s response to those who are barren—those who claim they have no continuity among the Jewish People: “Behold I am a shriveled tree” (Yeshayahu 56:3). Hashem answers them: “For thus said Hashem to the barren ones who observe My Sabbaths and choose what I desire, and cling to My covenant: I shall give them in My house and within My walls a hand and a name, which is better than sons and daughters; I will give them an eternal name, which will never be terminated” (56:4-5).

Esther finds herself in a similar situation. She is fully aware of the fact that her children will not grow up Jewish. She will not have physical continuity among the Jewish People, and therefore she does not initially feel compelled to self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation. Mordechai responds that even if her children will not be counted among the nation, this does not mean that she has no continuity: her actions on behalf of the nation and the covenant will bequeath her with eternal continuity, an “eternal name.”

I shall give them in My house and within My walls a hand and a name, which is better than sons and daughters; I will give them an eternal name, which will never be terminated

Mordechai thus concludes his argument with the words “And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position.” The very reaching of her position of loyalty, which Esther sees as a distancing from Jewish belonging, is perceived by Mordechai as an opportunity for action on behalf of the people. Internalizing her continued national belonging and her place in the covenant between God and the Jewish People, Esther acts accordingly. She even ensures that she will not act alone, but will rather be accompanied by the entire Jewish People:

Esther said to reply to Mordechai: Go, assemble all the Jews that are to be found in Shushan, and fast for me; do not eat and do not drink for three days, night or day: And I, with my maids, will fast also. Thus I will come to the king though it is unlawful; and if I perish, I perish. (4:15-16).

When Esther ultimately beseeches King Achashverosh on behalf of the Jewish People, she is careful to include herself among the nation: “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain and to be exterminated” (7:4). Esther knows well that in a natural sense, she can avoid the fate of her fellow Jews. Even after Haman is executed, Esther is required to beg once again for the sake of the Jews, though Achashverosh will of course not allow her to be killed by the mob. Yet, she emphasizes that she sees herself as included in the evil decree: “let my life be granted to me as my request and my people as my petition” (7:3). She thus speaks to the heart of her husband the king, but at the same time she does so with absolute sincerity: her fate is tied with the fate of her people. Later, she continues to beseech the king in the same vein: “For how can I bear to witness the disaster which will befall my people?! How can I bear to witness the extermination of my kindred?!” (8:6)

 

For Sake of Brothers and Friends

This brings us to the concept of acting on behalf of the group, of those who are close – “for the sake of my brothers and friends” (Tehillim 122:8). Like the midwives of Egypt, Esther acted on behalf of her people. She herself would not merit a physical continuity within the nation, but this fact did not prevent her from acting on behalf of her own brethren. The act itself derived from the closeness she felt. Having internalized that she deeply she remained a part of the Jewish People, Esther was galvanized into acting to save it, even at tremendous risk to herself.

We are used to “family first,” and preference of our own community comes naturally. Esther, however, teaches us a national lesson, one that transcends the personal ties of friends and family

This might seem to obvious to us: surely it comes naturally to prefer the close to the distant, whose we identify with over those we don’t even to the point of significant sacrifice. Indeed, the Yeshayahu tells us to “not hide yourself from your kin” (58:7), and the Sages emphasize that “the poor of your city take precedence” (Bava Basra 71a). Judaism differs in this from the traditional Christian approach. By contrast with the Jewish principle of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), Christianity emphasizes universal love, even of one’s enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Love among one’s own people, as accentuated in the Megillah, very much reflects the Jewish concept of particular love.

Yet the Megillah adds a crucial point. We are used to “family first,” and preference of our own community comes naturally. Esther, however, teaches us a national lesson, one that transcends the personal ties of friends and family. Esther has no father or mother, and as Mordechai stresses, her heroic actions are not on behalf of “her father’s house,” but rather for the benefit of the entire nation—a nation that includes thousands of households, multiple communities, and much diversity. The preference of Esther is a “political preference,” a preference for the entire nation that goes far beyond the local and the familiar.

Differences of opinion, often sharp, between conflicting communities and groups, create no small measure of inter-group tension, so that national love—the type the transcends group divisions—becomes a rarity

Many who recognize the value of preferential love when it comes to family and community nonetheless reject the corresponding nationalistic emotions—especially after the horrors of the 20th Century—out of concern for the reemergence of fascism and Nazism. Alan Bloom, a profound commentator on social trends in the latter part of the 20th Century, noted that the Founding Fathers placed great value in the cultural and religious values of the majority group, which was considered a basic part of the common good. Yet over time, attitudes changed radically:

That dominant majority gave the country a dominant culture with its traditions, its literature, its tastes, its special claim to know and supervise the language and its Protestant religions. Much of the intellectual machinery of twentieth-century American political thought and social science was constructed for the purpose of making an assault on that majority. It treated the founding principles as impediments and tried to overcome the other strand of our political heritage, majoritarianism, in favor of a nation of minorities and groups each following its own beliefs and inclinations. […] The very idea of majority—now understood to be selfish interest—is done away with in order to protect the minorities.

Even among the Jews, national sympathy is not necessarily the most common of commodities. Differences of opinion, often sharp, between conflicting communities and groups, create no small measure of inter-group tension, so that national love—the type the transcends group divisions—becomes a rarity. But Esther teaches us that loyalty to friends goes beyond the local and the familiar, applying to the entire nation, irrespective of differences and divisions. The word that comes up time after time in the Megillah is am, nation. At the moment of truth, Esther displays absolute fidelity to her nation—not to her father’s home, not to her community, but to the entire nation. This was the true source of our salvation.

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Nation

There is another source for the Purim salvation, other than Esther’s dedication and initiative. The second source is God—Divine providence. Esther could not know which page of the book of chronicles Achashverosh would read in his fateful sleepless night. She did not even know if she would survive her uninvited entry to the king’s presence. Yes, she acted in the name of national allegiance; but in doing so, she placed her trust in the special Covenant between God and the Jewish People—the Covenant that Mordechai referenced when he stated that one way or another, “relief and deliverance will come to the Jews.”

The Jewish People is not just another nation in the great family of nations; it is a nation that exists within the framework of a Divine Covenant

The Jewish People is not just another nation in the great family of nations; it is a nation that exists within the framework of a Divine Covenant. By extension, acting on behalf of the nation cannot be compared with everyday national allegiance, worthy as it may be. The Jewish national identity is an identity of being in a covenantal relationship with God. Acting for the Jewish People is acting within and on behalf of the Covenant itself.

This point has special significant in addressing one of the main arguments that is often raised against the principle of national loyalties, which deals with the question of good and evil. Even if we assume that there is a moral quality of fidelity to one’s nation, should this moral good trump issues of good and evil that are unrelated to the national identity? Is there no room to look elsewhere, outside the national boundaries, perhaps to find cultural norms and mores superior to our own? Each nation of course prefers its own common good, though the good of one is often quite the evil of another. When the British colonial powers first saw the practice of burning widows alive on the funeral pyre of their late husbands, they were naturally horrified. But while for the British this was an act of gruesome murder, for Indians it was a noble act of showing ultimate respect and loyalty. What then, outside of a wholesale moral relativism, can justify blind preference for the national good, when there is always a possibility that the preference is in fact morally bankrupt?

[F]rom the perspective of Megillas Esther, the answer is simple: loyalty to the Jewish People and adherence to its national ethos correctly understood (the part that isn’t so simple) is itself fidelity to the Covenant, to a Divinely ordained good

This question has been asked for many a century, ever since the issue was first raised in Plato’s depiction of the short meeting between Socrates and Polemarchus. It has elicited much debate and a range of responses. But from the perspective of Megillas Esther, the answer is simple: loyalty to the Jewish People and adherence to its national ethos correctly understood (the part that isn’t so simple) is itself fidelity to the Covenant, to a Divinely ordained good. Acting on behalf of the Jewish People is thus good by definition. Or in the words of God to Avraham Avinu: “Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed” (Bereishis 27:29).

The same point emerges in a more general way from the story of Esther, in that the salvation of the Jewish People is inextricably tied up with the triumph of good over evil—over Amalek, whose extreme malevolence is quite independent of its enmity toward the Jews. In his killing of Agag, from whom the wicked Haman is descended, Shmuel notes his cruelty: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women” (I Shmuel 15:33). There is no reason to assume that Agag’s murderous acts were specifically directed at the Jewish People (the biblical text does not hint at such happenings). Indeed, the Torah presents Amalek as a murderous people, a nation that takes his antecedent Esau’s culture of “you shall live by your sword” (Bereishis 27:4) to an extreme. Even in the military offensive that targeted the travelling Hebrews in the wilderness, the Torah emphasizes the evil nature of Amalek: “They met you met you on your journey, and attacked all who were lagging behind, while you were weary and worn out; they had no fear of God” (Devarim 25:18). The intentional targeting of the frail and the weak among the nation (and the absence of scruples—without all fear of God), defines the nature of Amalek as evil by standards of all nations and cultures. The war against Amalek—defined as a “war of Hashem against Amalek”—is a war against evil.

In all that concerns the struggle against Amalek, Esther’s loyalty to the national mission was thus a resolute siding with good against evil; the Megillah itself ensures we are fully aware of the moral clarity of the decision

In all that concerns the struggle against Amalek, Esther’s loyalty to the national mission was thus a resolute siding with good against evil; the Megillah itself ensures we are fully aware of the moral clarity of the decision. But the lesson goes further than the context of ancient Persia. If Amalek, with Haman as its local representative, embodies ultimate evil, then the Jewish People, Amalek’s most fundamental enemy, embodies ultimate good. By contrast with the murderous quality of Amalek, the Jewish People represent the values of kindness, charity, justice and peace, and reveal the infinite goodness of God in our world. This is the fundamental content of the Covenant between God and His people. Acting on behalf of the Jewish People is thus acting on the side of good.

***

If in the beginning of the Megillah, Esther is mentioned as an orphaned woman, lacking a clear identity and needing Mordechai to rescue her from her vulnerability, in the end of the Megillah her full lineage is recorded: “Queen Esther, daughter of Avichail, along with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter of Purim” (Esther 9:29). Moreover, she appears in one line with “Mordechai the Jew.” She remains in the house of Achashverosh, yet, this does not blur her Jewish identity. She withstood the trial of loyalty to her people, and her words—even in connection with the Jews’ war against their enemies—are “words of peace and truth” (9:30).

Esther did not merit children who continued her own lineage as part of the Jewish People—she gave up this privilege when she entered the house of Persian royalty—but she lives on within the people through the Megillah called after her heroism

Finally, the Megillah teaches that “Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations about Purim, which were written into the record” (9:32). Chazal (Megillah 7a) explain that Esther herself requested that the Megillah should become a part of Holy Writ. Esther did not merit children who continued her own lineage as part of the Jewish People—she gave up this privilege when she entered the house of Persian royalty—but she lives on within the people through the Megillah called after her heroism. Her name is as eternal as the existence of the Jewish People.

Megillas Esther reminds us of the importance of nationalism—of our being faithful to our national calling. Yes, we each have our own households, as Esther did too, and each of us belongs to one community or another within the nation. Yet our more fundamental loyalty, one that transcends the little platoons in which we reside, is that of the nation itself—the Jewish nation which carries among it the eternal Covenant with God. The Megillah further reminds us that loyalty to our own nation is loyalty to the good itself.

One thought on “Esther: Altruism or National Loyalty

  • As a father I am always saddened by Purim for it is the ultimate tragedy of a father to see a child taken into captivity, forced into the bondage that was Esther’s. Can you imagine, this young, beautiful girl forced to submit to this drunken Goy, “Casher avaditi, avaditi!” Many times we are faced with extreme choices amidst moral confusion, OK, perhaps I’ve lived a more dramatic life, and decisions are made based on our basic orientation. Some are givers, and some are takers in life and this orientation exists within the context of what Jung called the “ collective unconscious “, that matrix of cultural factors in which we are all embedded. For a Jew, especially a religious Jew, this includes a connection to HaShem. We therefore have a strong sense of right and wrong. When push comes to shove and you are pressed up against your own mortality, some rise to the occasion and some don’t. That Esther did reflects on her extraordinary courage and goodness. I can only marvel that HaShem puts into our midst such special people and I cry with Him that they must sometimes make such sacrifices.

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