Why Did Esther Hide Her Jewish Identity? – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
Last week we began to discuss the question of why Mordechai instructed Esther to hide her Jewish identity. We analyzed Rashi’s approach to this issue and the many lessons we may derive from his approach. This week we will analyze three explanations offered by the Ibn Ezra. Last week’s essay is available at www.koltorah.org.
The First Approach of the Ibn Ezra
The Ibn Ezra (in his commentary to Esther 2:9) offers three explanations for Esther’s behavior. We should note that while the Ibn Ezra (as he often states in his commentary to Tanach) is exceedingly respectful of Chazal and would never challenge an interpretation that Chazal have received by a tradition that originates in Hashem’s Revelation at Sinai. However, he often suggests alternate approaches to biblical interpretations of Chazal that do not originate in divine revelation (see the Ibn Ezra’s introduction to his commentary to Chumash). Rav Hayyim Angel of Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel and Yeshiva University explained (in a guest Shiur at TABC) that although in regard to practical Halachic matters we are not authorized to deviate from Chazal’s interpretations, many Rishonim and Acharonim often suggest alternative explanations to Chazal in their interpretations to the Tanach, especially in the realm of Peshuto Shel Mikra, the straightforward reading of Tanach.
Ibn Ezra’s first suggestion is the somewhat radical suggestion that Mordechai acted inappropriately in his advice to Esther to conceal her Jewish identity. The Ibn Ezra suggests that Mordechai wanted her to conceal her Jewish identity in order that she would be chosen as queen. This interpretation views the story of Megillat Esther as a story of the Teshuvah of a Jewish community and leadership (Mordechai was clearly the recognized leader of the Jews; see Esther 5:1-3) that was far too comfortable and assimilated into Persian society. We should note that such an approach to Megillat Esther does seem to have some basis in Chazal, see Rav Yaakov Meidan’s (Esther Hee Hadassah pp. 163-166) interpretation of the Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni Esther 956.
The Second Approach of the Ibn Ezra
The Ibn Ezra’s second approach is that Mordechai advised Esther to conceal her identity based on a prophecy or dream that informed him that the Jews would be saved in this manner. Indeed, Esther’s revealing her identity at precisely the correct moment and in precisely the correct manner helped create the emotional momentum that swept Achashveirosh into ordering Haman’s execution.
This approach highlights Chazal’s assertion (Megillah 13b) that Hashem planted the seeds for the salvation of Am Yisrael even before the crisis began. This also teaches us that Am Yisrael must imitate Hashem (recall the Mitzvah of Vihalachta Bidrachav) and never be complacent during the Exile. Even during times of calm we should be sowing the seeds of salvation for potential times of trouble in the future. Indeed, I recall with distress the fact that there were not enough people to fill even one bus during many of the NORPAC missions to Washington during the late 1990’s. Megillat Esther teaches that we must be ever vigilant in our efforts on behalf of Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael (a point that Ben Choake, the president of NORPAC, correctly emphasizes in NORPAC’S monthly newsletters).
It is possible to suggest a variation on this suggestion of the Ibn Ezra. It might be that whatever the motivation of Mordechai and Esther, Hashem wanted Esther to conceal her Jewish identity in order for Him to subtly orchestrate the salvation of Am Yisrael. Although the future salvation of Am Yisrael might not have been Mordechai’s motivation when he advised Esther to conceal her Jewish identity, it was certainly Hashem’s motivation.
This does not negate in any manner the free will of either Mordechai or Esther. The story of Esther reflects what is referred to as “dual causality” (see the Da’at Mikra introduction to Megillat Esther p. 18). We have free will to choose our paths but nevertheless Hashem quietly and concurrently orchestrates the unfolding of events. For example, Yaakov Avinu’s children clearly exercised their free will in their decision to sell Yosef as a slave to Egypt (or cast him in a pit). Nevertheless, Yosef states (Bereshit 45:7 and 50:20) that Hashem sent him to Egypt as a slave. Similarly, Achashveirosh exercised his free will to execute Vashti, yet Hashem had other motivations for having Vashti killed. Accordingly, Mordechai and Hashem were not necessarily “on the same page” when it was decided that Esther should not reveal her Jewish identity.
My TABC students suggested another variation of the Ibn Ezra’s second suggestion. They suggest that Mordechai in his foresight and sense of Jewish history (such as the events recorded in Sefer Shemot) and continuity understood that a Jew’s place in Exile is always insecure and subject to radical change without any warning. Thus, one can view Mordechai’s strategy as placing a “sleeper agent” in Achashveirosh’s palace that can potentially be “awoken” in times of distress. This approach understands the gripping dialogue between Mordechai and Esther in Chapter 4 of the Megillah as Mordechai’s efforts to “wake up” Esther, the “sleeper agent” in Achashveirosh’s palace, to act on behalf of her people. This approach cogently explains Esther 4:15, where Mordechai tells Esther “and who knows whether you became the queen for such a moment.”
The Third Approach of the Ibn Ezra
The Ibn Ezra suggests a third approach that Esther sought to hide her Jewish identity in order to enable her to observe Kashrut and Shabbat while in Achashveirosh’s palace. This approach is rooted in Chazal’s assertion (Megillah 13a) that Esther indeed observed Kashrut and Shabbat while in Achashveirosh’s palace. This approach seems to be rooted in the first chapter of the book of Daniel that records that Daniel managed to adroitly (and miraculously) arrange for his observance of the laws of Kashrut while in the palace of the Babylonian king Nevuchadnetzar. We should note that there are numerous parallels between the books of Esther and Daniel and numerous questions regarding the book of Esther that can be clarified by referring to the book of Daniel (see the Da’at Mikra introduction to Esther pp. 14-16).
This teaches us the important lesson that we often have to strategize in advance on how to observe Mitzvot in a hostile environment. We must plan and place ourselves in situations where we can observe Mitzvot (see Tosafot Pesachim 113b s.v. Ve’ein). We cannot excuse ourselves by claiming that we are acting against our will if we do not fulfill Mitzvot because of our failure to plan in advance (see Rambam Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 5:4 and Baal Hamaor to Shabbat 7a and 53a in the pages of the Rif). Interestingly, some of our students at TABC this week heard from an observant Jew who is a World War Two veteran, who during the war years ate only bread and peanut butter, despite the incredible difficulty for a combat soldier to do so.
Interestingly, Achashveirosh and his advisors chose the Jewish candidate for queen, unbeknownst to them that they chose a Jew. This teaches that when they are not biased, even hostile Nochrim will recognize the special character of Am Yisrael. This might be why the Megillah in Chapter 2 repeatedly emphasizes that Esther found favor in the eyes of everyone whom she encountered in the king’s palace. Indeed, the Megillah (6:13) specifically records the conversation of Zeresh and Haman’s wise men, who confided their recognition of Am Yisrael’s special qualities. Thus, an important goal of Megillat Esther is to illustrate the special nature of Am Yisrael that even hostile Nochrim recognize. We should note that we find in the Tanach that sometimes we Jews need to hear that Nochrim, such as Yitro, Bilam (a hostile Nochri) and Rachav recognize the special stature of Am Yisrael. Rav Yoel Bin Nun once noted insightfully, that when a Jew proclaims that we are a special people, many of us are not receptive to the message.
Rav Shama’s Approach
Rav Shama suggests that there were different motivations behind the concealment of Esther’s Jewish identity before and after she was chosen as queen. Before she was chosen, Mordechai advised her not to reveal her Jewish identity because he feared for her safety in a Nochri environment. Rav Shama notes that the Pasuk that follows Mordechai’s advice to conceal Esther’s Jewish identity states (2:11) that Mordechai visited the courtyard of the house of the king’s women every day to check on Esther’s welfare and see if she was being harmed. The context of these Pesukim indicates that Mordechai was concerned for Esther’s welfare in a Nochri environment where other Jews could not help her. This concern stems from the wisdom of Yaakov Avinu and Yosef who wanted the Jews to live together in one place in Egypt. The Netziv (commenting on Shemot 1:7) notes that when the Jews ignored this advice and spread out throughout Egypt, they endangered themselves by exposing themselves to the caprices of the Egyptian government.
Rav Shama explains that after Esther was chosen as queen and the concern for her physical safety diminished (it might “look bad” for Achashveirosh if he killed two of his queens) Mordechai wanted to advise her how to benefit Am Yisrael in her position. Had Achashveirosh known that Esther was Mordechai’s relative, Achashveirosh would probably not have let Esther and Mordechai maintain close contact. Since Esther and Mordechai had not yet fully proven their loyalty to Achashveirosh, the latter would be concerned that Mordechai would advise her to act in the best interests of the Jews and not of the Persian Empire.
Rav Shama notes the subtleties of the Pesukim as proof of his explanation. Before she was selected the Pasuk states that she did not reveal her “nation and descent.” After her selection she concealed her “descent and nation.” Rav Shama interprets this to indicate that before her selection the fear was it would be known that she was Jewish. After her selection the fear was that her descent, i.e. her familial connection to Mordechai, would be revealed.
The Megillah concludes (10:3) that Mordechai advocated for his people and “was good for the Jews.” However, he simultaneously helped the Persian Empire, as he appears to have solidified Achashveirosh’s rule to the extent that the latter was able to raise taxes (Esther 10:1). This is an especially impressive accomplishment if one accepts the assertion (see the Da’at Mikra introduction to Megillat Esther) that Achashveirosh is the Persian King Xerxes (Xerxes is the Greek equivalent of the Persian Chashirash, and Achachveirsoh seems to be the Hebrew equivalent of Chashirash) who led his nation into a disastrous war against the Greeks (possibly referred to in Esther 10:2) before Mordechai was appointed as the Mishneh Lamelech. Indeed, Mordechai’s contribution to the Persian Empire as the Mishneh Lamelech is foreshadowed by his saving Achashveirosh from the plot of Bigtan and Teresh. Similarly, pro-Israel political activism should be good both for America as well as Am Yisrael (see Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s “Community, Covenant, and Commitment pages 241-242). Moreover, pro-Israel activists must follow Mordechai’s example and advocate and act in a manner that is both for the good of America and Am Yisrael.
Finally, it is important to note that Am Yisrael was saved by virtue of the fact that the Jews remained silent and did not reveal Esther’s Jewish identity to Achashveirosh, despite the short-term rewards for someone who would do so. This parallels the Jews’ not revealing Moshe Rabbeinu’s intention to permanently leave Egypt (instead of a three day desert excursion), which facilitated Am Yisrael’s salvation from Mitzrayim (see Ibn Ezra, in his abbreviated commentary to Shemot 11:4). In certain situations, the responsibility to remain silent is so crucial, because the survival of entire communities and even all of Am Yisrael may depend on it. The reward for remaining silent will certainly outweigh any short-term benefit of revealing secrets.