WAYLAND, Mass. (Feb. 25)
I am walking in the woods near my home — the story of Purim, of Esther, is on my mind, as it has been for several days. She and her situation have been troubling me.
Esther was a heroine, right? Of course! She saved the Jews of Shushan! But why did Mordecai have to tell her what to do? Why didn’t she think of it herself? Didn’t she realize that if she kept quiet, her entire people would perish?
Did Esther expect to be spared because no one in the palace knew she was a Jew? Would she have been content to live while all her people died? Did she simply assume that if she went to the king, she would fail, and so she saw no point in doing anything? Was she so thick-headed that she couldn’t see that she was her people’s main hope for the survival?
But she wasn’t stupid! Look how she handled the situation once she knew what she had to do. She asked everyone to support her by fasting, to give her strength. Then she asked the king and Haman to come to a banquet. She fed the two men well and gave them plenty to drink. Only then did she tell the king of Haman’s treachery. It took brains to plan such a strategy!
Then, of course, I think of how Esther reached her position, through her beauty. I know I would never be able to win a beauty contest, even if I had the motivation to enter. It makes it tough to relate.
These thoughts, and more, churn in my mind as I walk the woodland trail. More than simply understanding Esther, I want to understand what she means to me. What can her actions tell me about my own life, my own behavior?
I reach a familiar stream. In August, it is narrow. In April, it spills across its banks and becomes a small river. Today, on a chilly New England winter day, it is something in between.
I stand on the narrow wooden planks that serve as a bridge, and in the silence I watch and listen to the water tumbling along its way. It bubbles and bounces, with no question, no ambiguity about where it is headed — downstream, toward the river, eventually to the sea. Anyone can see it.
I continue on my way, crossing the bridge and leaving behind the bubbling brook. Skirting patches of ice, I continue through the woods, across an open meadow, and down to the river’s edge.
I know this river well. In summer and fall, my canoe and I are its frequent visitors. It has a slow, easy current, flowing northward — it is a tributary to a larger river that will carry its waters to the not-so-distant ocean.
Today, the river is swollen, though by no means flooded. Watching the water, I realize that if I were a stranger to this river, I would tell you that its current flows south, for the ripples on its surface surely indicate that this is so.
But I, who know the river, know differently. I know that the wind is playing tricks, causing the ripples, creating an illusion. I know that if I were to go deeper, beneath the surface, I would find the real current, slow and languid though it may be, flowing north. The current has not flipped directions, it is simply hidden out of sight, beneath the mischievousness of the winter wind.
My thoughts return to Esther. I compare her situation to that of the bubbling brook — straightforward, unambiguous. Really, she had no choice.
How could she do other than save her people, even at the risk of her own life? How could she do other than stand up for what she believed and who she was? Clearly, to my mind, she couldn’t. The stakes were too high.The future of an entire people rested on her shoulders.
I have encountered some such situations in my life — clear-cut, unambiguous, yet not without their risks. I have tried my best to stand up for what I believe and for who I am, and sometimes, like Esther, I have succeeded in changing the course of events. More often, I have come out only with the satisfaction of not having betrayed myself.
But life is rarely so simple. Not every situation is like a bubbling brook or Esther vs. Haman. More often, the metaphor of the slow-moving river with ripples formed by the wind holds sway.
So many situations are ambiguous, with pros and cons to any course of action, with many different possible actions, or with the truth hidden beneath the surface. So many times, my own truth is not clear to me, and I must dig deep to touch the current of my inner self.
I think again of Esther. Yes, she is a heroine. Even if she didn’t really have a choice, it still couldn’t have been easy to face possible death with courage and dignity. I think how much courage it takes me to face situations that are not life and death at all, but more like life and death to the psyche, and my respect for Esther grows.
Many of my questions remain unanswered. Ultimately, I respect her, though I still have some feelings of discomfort about her. She was so incredibly beautiful. I doubt that I will ever be able to identify with that.
And as a woman, I will always wish that she had been able to realize for herself what she needed to do, rather than having to be told by a man. Yes, I know, the story took place long ago. But still…
My thoughts return to the stream and the river. The stream is young, I think. To the young, there is so little ambiguity in life. The river is older, it takes its time. It doesn’t need to tell the world where it is going. It simply goes there.
Perhaps that is, after all, how I need to remember Esther. She did what she needed to do, and she did it in her own way, not someone else’s.
Does anything else really matter?