Recently, pedestrians on lower Manhattan beheld a new sculpture in Bowling Green. The sculpture entitled Fearless Girl, features a young girl – hands on her hips, hair swept by the wind – facing off with the iconic Wall Street Charging Bull. This sculpture was installed by State Street Global Advisors as a clarion call for more women to serve on company boards and in positions of senior leadership.
Why? According to the firm, it makes financial sense. Research has shown that strong female leadership generated a “return on equity of 10.1 percent per year, versus 7.4 percent for those without a critical mass of women at the top.”
In constructing a symbol of strong female leadership, the artist Kristen Visbal wanted to create someone to whom everyone could relate — a seven year old girl in a simple dress, sporting high-tops, with her hair in a ponytail. Her face, its tilt and angle, and her “power pose” were designed to convey confidence and self assuredness (and specifically not anger). At her feet is a plaque that reads ‘‘Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.”
What interests me is that the image Visbal sculpted was of the fearlessness embodied in a young girl, a seven year old, someone to whom we can all relate. Would Visbal have been able to convey that same message of fearlessness with a teenage girl? How about a woman in her 20’s? Or her 30’s? Perhaps it is harder to relate to an image of a teenager standing fearless.
In fact, teenage girls are more likely to be fearful. As Mary Pipher writes in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, “Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves.”
Unfortunately it is that fear and the consequences of that fear that they will grapple with into adulthood. Fears in teenage girls manifest themselves in many ways: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, alcohol and drug use. Young women, fixated on their looks and thinness, will lose themselves while trying to gain approval from both peers and adults alike.
We don’t really know very much about Esther of the Purim Story as a little girl. Did she start out fearless like this seven year old bronze captured by Visbal? By the time we meet her in the story, Esther had much to fear, and for good reason too, as she was forcibly taken into Ahasuerus’s institutionalized brothel – his harem.
The midrash relates that Esther succeeded in hiding for four years from Ahasuerus’s agents but was eventually found and brought to the royal palace (Seder Olam Rabbah 29; Midrash Panim Aherim, version B, para. 20). One can only imagine Esther’s fear of being caught as she hid all that time and her utter horror at being captured, forcibly taken to the harem and required to participate in the depraved beauty contest. Yet Esther wins the admiration of all who saw her (Esther 2:15). Rabbi Eleazar comments “This informs us that every man took her for a member of his own people.” (Megillah 16b)
One wonders whether Esther actually desired to appear nondescript, if her fears of being discovered drove her to conform to the larger culture. We know that the most common response to anxiety is conformity. Esther is telling us, “I want to look like everyone else, I want to stay under the radar. I am afraid.”
Esther also pushes back strongly to Mordechai, surely out of fear of possible death, when he tells her that she must go visit the king to plead for the lives of the Jews.
“All the king’s courtiers and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any person, man or woman, enters the king’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.” (Esther 4:11)
And then Esther’s fear reaches its pinnacle when she finally goes to meet Ahasuerus at Mordechai’s urging:
“On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.” (Esther 5:1)
Midrash Esther Rabbah (9:1) describes that Esther had indeed incurred Ahasuerus’s wrath: “The queen recognized the extreme degree of the King’s anger and she became very frightened, her spirit became faint and she placed her head on the maid servant who was supporting her right hand.”
The gemara in Megilla 15b describes a more metaphysical intervention. Three ministering angels were appointed to aid her at that moment: one made her head erect, one endowed her with charm, and one stretched out the scepter. Esther, recognizing Ahasuerus’s anger, could barely hold herself up.
And yet, Esther does not turn around. As terrified as she is, she remains standing – much like the Fearless Girl, forever facing off with the Charging Bull. This moment is full of both possibilities and imminent danger. How does Esther confront her fear? What allows her to move forward?
The answer lies in what she does prior to meeting Ahasuerus. Let’s look more closely at the first verse in Chapter 5, quoted above. First, she wears “royal apparel.” Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: “This teaches that she clothed herself with a divine spirit” (Megillah 15b). What did she clothe herself with? Possibly G-d’s protection, or divine inspiration. So Esther wears divine inspiration but it is not enough.
The verse then points out that she stands, “And she stood in the inner court of the king’s palace.” Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, in his commentary to Megillat Esther, Menos HaLevi, writes that ”standing” always connotes prayer. Thus Esther, cloaked with divine inspiration, makes a final prayer before she proceeds forward. Esther will do Avodat Halev, the necessary inner work, that will allow her to confront her fears, and face down her demons.
Writes Arianna Huffington, author of On Becoming Fearless, in her blog:
“Fearlessness is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s the mastery of fear.
There’s no time at which we will have completely eliminated fear from our life, but there definitely can be a time at which we are not stopped by our fears from daring to think new thoughts, try new things, take risks, fail, and start again.
When we know who we are, in the spirit of our being, we overcome our fears and insecurities. We surpass our smaller selves who suffer — and submit to — the slings and arrows of our conditioned reality and we move to the unconditional truth of our larger selves.”
Esther has moved to the unconditional truth of her larger self, her purpose being the survival of the Jewish people. Her fears notwithstanding, she is ready to tame the charging bull and eventually partner with him. At her feet is a plaque that reads ‘‘Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.”
Dr. Carmella Abraham is in her final year at Yeshivat Maharat.
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