Do you ever look at your life and not recognize it at all?
Do you catch yourself wondering why you live in Minnesota when you always envisioned living in Jerusalem? Who is this little boy I gave birth to? How did I end up with her as my neighbor?
What is this weird stuff, this mask, these unfamiliar surprises, and why are they interfering with my life?
Three weeks before Purim, at the most recent BC retreat, I attended a class about Esther. You know, Esther from the Purim story. After all these years I thought I knew her but boy did I learn a thing or two!
Did you know that Esther lived in the palace with Achashveirosh for nine years before Haman even thought of wiping out the Jews?
Did you know Esther was married to Mordechai at that time?
Did you know that in the end, after the battles were won and the celebration died down Esther remained behind those walls for the rest of her life?
How did a nice Jewish girl from an observant family deal with all that? The woman with a perfect life, married to a Rabbi, an inspiration to her peers… how did she give it all up to live with Achashveirosh; a vile, temperamental lowlife?
What helped Esther keep her sanity?
When Esther was taken to the king’s palace against her will there was nothing she could do to avoid her predicament. The commentaries teach us that during those years, Esther would regularly go back to be with her husband Mordechai. According to Jewish law she was allowed to do this because she never went willingly to Achashveirosh. She was forced.
In fact there is an interesting Zohar explaining that Esther was never actually intimate with Achashveirosh at all. Because of her vast knowledge of Kabbalah, when the king called her she would summon a look-alike spirit to be with him instead of her.
Whether she was actually with the king or sent a spirit in her place, the important thing is that during those long years of isolation in Achaveirosh’s palace, she always had one thing. She had her relationship with her beloved Mordechai.
And suddenly there was a moment when all of that changed forever.
In the ninth year of Esther’s stay at the palace Haman decided he’d had enough of Mordechai the Jew. Killing Mordechai alone would not satisfy him though. Haman wanted all the Jews to go down with him.
Now, in an attempt to save the Jewish people Mordechai turned to Esther. “Go to the king, Esther. Please plead on our behalf and save your people!” (Megillah 4: 14)
Esther’s response was not as expected. After explaining the dangers of approaching the king uninvited Esther added, “But I have not been called to the king for thirty days.” (Megilla 4:11)
What was she trying to say?
With these few words Esther was implying that Achashveirosh would call for her any day now. She’ll be summoned to the king shortly and maybe she should wait and talk to him then. In this way she could maintain her halachik status as a helpless victim and nothing would be lost as far as her personal relationship with Mordechai.
If Esther listened to Mordechai, it would be the first time she approached the king on her own initiative. Her status would instantly change to that of ‘willing participant’ and she would never be allowed to return to Mordechai again. That was simply too painful to imagine.
Mordechai heard her. He knew what she meant. Yet with all of these implications Mordechai responded that “The lives of your people are at stake.” This is not the time to make calculations.
Fully aware that she might bring capital punishment upon herself, both according to halacha and according to Persian law, Esther chose to go. In her own words she responded, “…and if I am lost, I am lost.” (Megillah 4:16)Just as I will be lost from my people, so too I recognize that I will be lost from you, Mordechai.
It was at that moment that Esther gave up everything. She gave up her clean slate, gave up her reputation, went against halacha, and did everything she could possibly do to save her Jewish brothers and sisters. She did it for us.
When Esther went to the king voluntarily it was the first time in nine years that she was a willing and active participant in her own life. She was neither forced nor did she send a replacement. Esther threw herself wholeheartedly into her mission and sacrificed everything for one reason: to save the lives of her people – to make sure that you and I would be here today.
How did Esther have the strength?
The last words Mordechai said to Esther before she went to the king were, “Who knows whether it wasn’t for a time like this that you were brought to royalty?” (Megilla 4:14)
To Esther, hearing these words from Mordechai – her Rebbe – was like hearing, “Who knows whether it wasn’t for a time like this that you were brought to the world? Maybe this is your life mission, your purpose.”
So here was Esther, also known as Hadassah – meaning hidden, whose whole life in the palace was a mask. She looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognize herself. What is that crown? What are these garments? What are these walls I wear around myself? For years she fought against the mask, fought against the foreign circumstances wrapped around her.
Yet when it came time to save her people Esther surrendered fully to her mission. The very circumstances she saw as wrong and ill fitting up until now, she finally embraced as her life’s purpose. What she previously saw as a mask, she chose to wear with confidence.
Certain events in our lives are “masked” – we tend think of them as interfering with the lives that we were meant to live. Painful, difficult moments are like that; their true purpose is so masked that they actually feel foreign. “This shouldn’t be happening to me!”
Embracing these masked moments as ours, as intricately tied up with our unique purpose, puts us more in touch with our true selves.
Do you ever look at your life and not recognize it at all?
Do you catch yourself wondering why you live in Brooklyn when you always envisioned living in Hawaii?
The baby spits up on your sheets, and the doorbell rings at the wrong time of day, your nephew is in the hospital and it seems like life is interfering with the life you envision in your head. But today, can you hear that added little voice?
“I might not have (m)asked for this, but can it be that for this very moment…?”
Entry coauthored by Chayale Udkoff and the BC blogger