The author as a toddler, when Purim was about dressing up in pretty costumes.
We read the Megillah of Esther on Purim, and every year it’s the same story. (Purim takes place this year on the 14th of Adar, which corresponds to March 16.). The young, beautiful and gracious Esther is handpicked to be queen by the king of Persia, Ahasuerus, after he banished his first wife, Vashti. All is well until the evil Haman plots to destroy the Jewish people and persuades the imprudent king to collaborate with his idea. The brave Queen Esther, guided by her righteous uncle Mordechai, convinces the king to save the Jewish people instead.
As I got older, I saw myself having less interest and connection to the Purim story. It started when I was 10 and no longer wished to dress up as Queen Esther. As the years went by and I became a teenager, I saw the story more as a fairytale rather than an accounting of history. However, last year I discovered a deeper meaning to the story, a lesson that a teenager can relate to: the importance of developing self-confidence.
At the end of the first chapter of the Megillah, King Ahasuerus begins to look for a new queen after he banishes Vashti. He decrees that all women be brought before him. From the moment Esther appears before the King, she is portrayed as a passive character. She’s mentioned very few times before she becomes the heroine of the story, and in those few mentions, she’s inactive and unassertive. Someone is constantly telling her what to do, where to go and what to say. For example, Esther had no choice about becoming queen. No one asked her if she wanted to apply for the position.
In fact, all young virgins were to be brought to the king to spend the night with him. If they were not chosen by Ahasuerus, they would spend the rest of their lives in the house of concubines, according to commentary. Truthfully, if I read just the first few chapters, I would have thought that Mordechai was the star, not Esther.
We find a change in Esther’s persona after she is fed up with the fact that she has no control over her actions. With this change we find ourselves a true hero. When Mordechai discovers the edict proclaiming the extermination of the Jews, he falls into complete despair. He tells Esther that she must go straight to the king and tell him not to destroy the Jews. Based on Esther’s passive behavior I assumed she would follow Mordechai’s instructions when in fact, she doesn’t. She says no! Esther gains the self-confidence that she needed.
She realizes that Mordechai could no longer operate in her shadow, she needed to set up to the plate. Esther understands that she needs to change her ways. She was queen, but had no power. If she could not initiate her own actions, how was she to influence others and save an entire nation?
She explains to Mordechai that the king doesn’t want her anymore because he hasn’t seen her in 30 days. She can’t just show up and tell him what’s going on. Mordechai’s plan was not going to work and she had to find a way to save the Jews. Esther had been a passive character up to this point because she had no faith in herself. But now, this was her opportunity to be brave. Mordechai tells her if she doesn’t defend the Jews, someone else will. Esther’s timidity turns to courage and she understands that to save a nation, she’s going to need confidence in herself.
After I discovered this part of the Megillah, I realized that the Purim story offers so much for teenagers. Most of us are self-conscious and think we’re not good enough. We all lack self-confidence and fixate on our supposed unattractive appearance, lack of brains and inability to do anything well. As teenagers we’re pressured to be the best of the best, and at the same time we put ourselves down and let our shyness inhibit us. It’s ironic that we lack morale because we are capable of so much.
What I love about Esther is she reminds us of the abilities we possess and how much we can make a difference by being ourselves. So this year, when I listen to the Megillah I’ll be hearing the story of a confident teenager who made a difference and saved the Jewish people.