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Beyond Beauty: Esther’s Flirtation with Haman and Death

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 | Permalink

Rebecca Kanner’s second novel, Esther, is an adaptation of the story of the Megillah. With Purim on the horizon, Rebecca will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

As a young feminist, I was always interested in the story of Esther, the Jewish girl who rises to become queen of Persia and saves her people from genocide. But when I finally read it on my own, I was disappointed. What I found was a reluctant heroine whose success was attributed to her beauty and obedience.

I had a hunch that like many of our stories, the true meaning is hidden beneath a seemingly simple surface. I was further inspired to dig deeper into the character of Esther after seeing paintings of Anne Boleyn and reading descriptions of Cleopatra. While both women are widely believed to have been physically beautiful, I believe it was their personalities--their wit and charm--that accounted for much of their attractiveness. Yet, we have continued to mythologize their beauty as an explanation for their successes (however short-lived it was for Anne Boleyn), instead of focusing on their intellects.

This isn’t to say that Esther wasn’t beautiful. The Book of Esther makes it clear that she was. But so were many thousands of other girls the king would have had access to. I believe she had to have something else that accounted for her success. While initially I didn’t find a lot to admire, when I dug deeper, I saw that what had seemed like weakness and indecision may have been disguising the thoughtful strategizing going on behind the scenes.

When Mordechai finally convinces Esther to go to the king on behalf of her people, she sends word to Mordechai that all the Jews should fast for three days, and then she’ll go to the king. In a story in which G-d isn’t mentioned, it seems likely to me that rather than simply praying she is buying herself time to think about how she will convince the king to save her people. Why delay if she’s simply going to tell the king she’s Jewish and beg for her people’s lives?

I think she realized she was up against a formidable enemy, one who was better versed in oral argument and manipulating the king than she was. Another advantage Haman would have had is that as the king’s trusted advisor, he would have seen the king regularly enough to truly know him. What reason did Esther have to think the king would listen to her instead of his most trusted advisor? The king had already shown that an advisor held enough sway over him to convince him to banish his former queen, Vashti.

For Esther, it seemed to me there was only one battlefield on which she could be sure of besting Haman. If she had carried through with this initial plan, it would have led to their deaths. Her hope would have been that Haman’s plan to kill the Jews would die with him. I explored this possibility in my novel, Esther.

It isn’t because she’s truly afraid the king will put her death for coming to him without being summoned that she says, “If I am to perish, I shall perish!” It’s because of what she plans to make the king think, that she knows she might be put to death.

The first step of her plan was inviting Haman to the feast at which she was supposedly going to ask the king for something. She was seeking to assess the king and arouse his suspicions about the nature of her relationship with Haman.

Later, the king is unable to sleep. Because no reason for his insomnia was given in the Book of Esther, I again explored the possibilities. Was this another time when Esther’s intelligence may have been hidden by the seemingly simple text? Was the king thinking of Esther and Haman? In my novel, Esther has arranged with a eunuch for a noise to disturb his slumber and the story of Mordechai saving his life to be brought to him, in the hopes that reminding the king of his debt to one Jew will lead him closer to a willingness to save all Jews. This was Esther’s last shot at a plan that would save her people without sacrificing her own life. She laid the groundwork for success by having a plan and a back-up plan.

Whatever one’s beliefs about the Book of Esther, one thing is clear: Judaism urges us to look beneath surfaces. I was grateful to find that there’s no shortage of commentary on Esther, and that women’s voices are well-represented in these commentaries. I’m also grateful for the tradition that led me to look with kinder and more careful eyes at a girl who I could have written off as merely attractive. In these times of social media sound bites and ratings-based rushes to judgment, I feel lucky that the Jewish tradition of discussion and exploration has given us the tools to look more deeply and compassionately at the people around us.

Rebecca Kanner is the author of  Esther: A Novel and Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife. You can learn more about her and find links to selected stories, essays, and videos at www.rebeccakanner.com.

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Making Sense of Esther: Beyond Beauty

Monday, March 21, 2016 | Permalink

Rebecca Kanner’s second novel, Esther, is an adaptation of the story of the Megillah. With Purim on the horizon, Rebecca will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

The book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts the genocide of her people. Though it’s read aloud in synagogue each year, the reading is accompanied by so much raucous celebration that I never paid close attention to the details. I listened for Esther’s and her cousin Mordechai’s names so I could cheer, and I listened for the evil Haman’s name so I could shake my noisemaker and boo. The costumes, treats, drunkenness—the experience of the Purim holiday celebration—distracted me from the intricacies of the story.

I thought the story was a simple one: a beautiful Jewish girl wins the king and saves her people with the encouragement of her cousin. I couldn’t understand why it took so long to read. Each year, about a quarter of the way through the reading, my thoughts had already sped ahead to hamentashen, wine and dancing.

To see what was delaying the final phase of the party, I started to read along. Later, I read it again on my own. I was confused. Esther didn’t seem like a true heroine. She seemed to be an indecisive girl who would have allowed the genocide of her people if not for Mordeachai’s harsh prodding. Beauty and obedience are the only assets mentioned. In fact, the king’s choice of Esther from among all the virgins is summed up, “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins,” leaving us to look for the description of her up to this point that may have made her attractive to him. The most telling description of her seems to be that she was “shapely and beautiful.” Beyond that, we have only her deference to the wisdom of Hegai, “She did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch and guardian of the women, advised. Yet Esther won the admiration of all who saw her…” and her deference to Moredechai, “But Esther still did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai’s bidding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.”

When she finally does disobey a man, it’s not due to a new strength and independence. It’s due to cowardice. Mordecai instructs her to go to the king to reveal that she’s a Jew and ask for her people’s lives. She responds that going before the king without being invited is an offense that is punishable by death. Mordechai, upon learning that saving her people is not enough of a reward for risking her life, tells her, “Do not imagine that you, or all the Jews, will escape with your life… if you keep silent… you and your father’s house will perish.” It is only then that she decides that she will go to the king, and issues the most famous quote from the story, “…if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

What sort of heroine is Esther?

To answer this question, I dove more deeply into the story. What I discovered was that on the face of them, a number of Esther’s choices don’t make sense. Beneath the surface, however, is an Esther who is strategic and cunning.

Stay tuned for my next post, in which we’ll dig deeper into what I believe is Esther’s true role in the story: that of an intelligent and courageous girl who learned to think for herself.

Rebecca Kanner is the author of Esther: A Novel and Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife. You can learn more about her and find links to selected stories, essays, and videos at www.rebeccakanner.com.

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