Purim: Esther – an Enigmatic Heroine
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Thursday 26th February 2015

One of the most enigmatic heroines in the Tanach (Bible) is Esther. She has two names, no close family, conceals her national identity and may or may not be beautiful. Yet she is one of the seven named prophetesses and is regarded as the heroine of the Purim story. When discussing Esther, the Talmud (Megilla 13a) tells us ‘She is called Hadassa and she is called Esther’.

A person’s name represents their essence – if Esther had two names,
each name must tell us something significant about her.

Either way, however attractive she was in appearance, Esther would not have won the royal beauty contest based upon her appearance alone. She was blessed with that indefinable quality (known in Hebrew as chein ) which inspires affection in everyone that one meets. She won over Hegai, the guardian of the harem, who provided her with every cosmetic necessity without her having to ask him for it, before capturing the heart of the king. Later in the story, even after fasting for three days, she was still appealing enough that Achashverosh welcomed her unscheduled visit.

Although the word hadassa is used by the prophet Zechariah to refer to righteous people (tzadikim), it also means ‘myrtle’, indicating that Esther’s appearance was average – like that of a myrtle – not tall and not short. More unusually, another opinion recorded in the Talmud (ibid) is that she was actually green like a myrtle! Perhaps this is to be interpreted figuratively – that she was pale or sallow.

On the other hand, the Talmud (ibid) points out that Esther’s name was close to the word Ishtar  – a Babylonian fertility goddess. Local people would recognise the owner of such a name as beautiful, like the moon. This opinion continues that G-d ‘extended to her a strand of kindness’, meaning that people found her appealing. In fact, according to the text of the Megillah itself, Esther was ‘beautiful (of) form and fair to look at’ (2:7).

Above all, Esther’s strength was internal - the name Esther is also rooted in the word meaning ‘to hide’. Once she had accepted the mission of trying to save the Jewish people, she did so with all her might. The Maharal of Prague (d.1609) points out a number of reasons why it was relevant that Esther, as the redeemer, was an orphan. Despite the care of Mordechai, she would undoubtedly have felt lonely and turned to G-d to comfort her, just as the Jewish people cried out to Him when they went into exile in Babylon. She had such a close connection to G-d that she was able to break through the shallow glitter of the King’s palace and use her hidden wisdom and sensitivity to become the catalyst for the redemption of the Jewish people, fulfilling her destiny as Hadassa, a truly righteous person.

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