Purim is rapidly approaching and before we know it we’ll all be sporting costumes, eating hamentashens, and drinking till we don’t know which way is up or down. Just kidding, you don’t have to get that drunk. But of all the amazing things about the day, my favorite may simply be the story behind it all; the events of Megillas Esther.
If you’re not familiar with the story I highly suggest you read through it or at least watch some Youtube summary. But for now, I’ll quickly recap the beginning to highlight an odd moment.
Previously on the Megillah
The story starts out in the city of Shushan as the Persian Empire is at its height, ruled by a King named Ahasuerus. After throwing a 180 day party for the entire nation, the King foolishly demands his wife, Queen Vashti, entertain him and his friends. Things don’t go well and King Ahasuerus has her executed. Go figure.
The next morning, the King wakes up realizing, 1) how bad the hangover of a 180 day binge feels, and 2) he may have over reacted… guess it’s time to start dating again… which pretty much leads to The Bachelorette Shushan edition. King Ahasuerus holds a massive pageant to find his next Queen.
This is where Mordechai and Esther come in. Mordechai is one of the ranking judges of what’s left of the Kingdom of Israel. At this point in history, the first Temple has been destroyed and the Jews are in exile from the holy land (hence why they are in Shushan). Esther is his cousin/adopted daughter/possible wife? (don’t ask). Well, guess who wins Miss Shushan 368 B.C.E.
Now when Esther is taken by the King, Mordechai specifically instructs Esther not to reveal that she’s a Jew.
I’m going to stop the recap and focus on Mordechai’s instruction. Why would it be so important that Mordechai emphasize this? He doesn’t want Esther to be taken. Since the King isn’t terribly fond of Jews, it might ensure she doesn’t get chosen. But if she does get chosen, having a Jewish queen might really help out the Jews via public opinion.
Rabbi Dovid Kaplan gives an interesting answer. Esther isn’t allowed to marry Ahasuerus because she’s a Jew and he isn’t. By being with him, he’s probably going to make her do all sorts of things that are forbidden by Torah law. From eating unkosher food, to breaking Shabbos, etc. Now under normal circumstances, you can break most mitzvahs to save a life. The concept is known as pikuach nefesh and I actually talked about a similar lesson in a previous Purim post. Since King Ahasuerus has been known to kill wives when they don’t do what he says, Esther should be able to transgress such Torah prohibitions no problem.
However, according to Rambam;
However, in times of a decree — i.e., when a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his like will arise and issue a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the mitzvot — one should sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress any of the other mitzvot…(Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 5:3)
Meaning that if you are living in a time of Jewish persecution and someone points a gun to your head and says break Shabbos because you’re a Jew, then you don’t have the benefit of the pikuach nefesh loop hole and you have to die rather than transgress. Pretty heavy stuff.
Mordechai knows King Ahasuerus isn’t too fond of Jews and if he knows she’s a Jew, he may just put her in such a situation. But if he’s ignorant of her heritage, then Esther can transgress without having to give up her life.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Yes keeping Torah is important. But so is the sanctity of life. God forbid any of us find ourselves in a situation where we have to face the choice between life and Torah. But when we are facing anti-semitism, why at that point are we commanded to make the ultimate sacrifice?
Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik gives over the following insight (I’m paraphrasing); It’s one thing to transgress to save a life. But when we’re put on display under scrutiny by an oppressing force, then who we are at our core is being tested. If we give into their demands, they will think us cowards and that we don’t stand for anything and chances are they’re probably going to kill us anyway. But if you don’t give in, then at least it will send a message that you stand for something. You may not live on, but the values certainly will.
Obviously, God had bigger plans for Esther and her keeping her identity secret created a tremendous opportunity to save the Jewish people (perhaps I’ll go into that pay off next week.) But Rabbi Noach Weinberg was often known for saying, “If you don’t know what you’re willing to die for, then you don’t know what you’re living for.” Though it is a tremendous mitzvah to die sanctifying God’s name, it’s never something someone should ever aim to do. But it is essential that one’s values are clear that should such a terrible situation unfold, that person can understand how not living up to those values could be a fate worse than death.