As an outsider looking in, Ash Wednesday has always struck me as the most inspiring day of the Christian calendar. Marking the beginning of the Lenten season, as it did last week, Ash Wednesday is observed by a variety of Christian denominations forty-six days (forty days plus six Sundays) prior to Easter Sunday. The ritual involves marking the forehead of the believer with ashes in the sign of a cross on as the verse from Genesis is recited: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19) As is the case with wafers, wine, and a variety of other sacraments, the imposition of ashes carries with it profound symbolic meaning to all religions, dating back as far as the burnt offerings in the Tabernacle described in this week’s Torah reading. As my friend Reverend Matthew Heyd of the Church of Heavenly Rest explained to me, the ashes are intended as a memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death, a reminder to be alert to the ephemeral versus the eternal, and a call to repentance, good deeds, and devotion to God.
As an American Jew, however, it is not just the theology of the day that I find intriguing. What impressed me this past Ash Wednesday and every Ash Wednesday is the personal, physical, and public aspect to the ritual. The fact that we live in a majority Christian country often goes unnoticed in a New Yorker’s day-to-day life. The faith and observances of our Christian brethren are practiced in their hearts, homes, or churches. Christian and Jew alike can drink coffee from the same Christmas-themed Starbucks cup without knowing who’s who. Not so with Ash Wednesday. The imposing of ashes on the forehead is an intentional physical act of religious self-identification. For my Christian friends, even and especially those with lapsed faith, it is a critically important and sometimes last remaining marker – literally – of religious identity. A ritual whose power is situated, at least in part, in how it connects a person to his or her faith community. When an individual, ashes on forehead, takes the subway, sits in their dentist’s waiting room, or goes up an elevator and sees someone else with the same ashes, there exists an tacit bond, expressed as one Christian gives the other an almost imperceptible head nod that he knows that she knows that they both know that they are part of the same faith community confronting the same question of how to live a life of meaning. Whatever the crisis of American Christianity may be, the observance of Ash Wednesday is as strong as ever, with long lines at churches, along with pandemic-safe drive-throughs, an “ashes to go” option, pastors stationed at subway entrances, and other innovations that would make a Chabad rabbi blush. The public display of one’s faith connected to others who share the same commitments.
Yesterday, the Jewish people began the month of Adar II and with it, preparation for the upcoming festival of Purim with its retelling of the story of Esther. The heroic tale of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai who overcome the dastardly plans of wicked Haman to save the Jews of Shushan. As Erica Brown teaches, depending on the year and the reader, the story can be read in a variety of ways – a drama, a satire, a post-modernist text on gender, or a political treatise on diaspora life. Part palace intrigue, part burlesque comedy, part meditation on the perennial threat of antisemitism. Every year we pick up the story and see something new and find something new in ourselves. This year, for reasons that will become clear, I kept returning to the question of the public display of identity, like the Ash Wednesday ritual. How the fate of each protagonist and the plot line as a whole hang on the question of whether to conceal or reveal one’s identity in the company of others.
As the name of the scroll indicates, our story is about Esther, and we will return to her momentarily. But before we do, we would do well to note the narrative cues the author provides, clues that hint at the terms by which this story will take shape.
Chapter one begins with Queen Vashti, who is important at first glance only insofar as her demise serves to create the royal vacancy that we know Esther will eventually fill. But the significance of Vashti runs deeper. Summoned to appear before King Ahasuerus and his men wearing the royal diadem, Vashti famously refuses. In maintaining her principles, Vashti loses her crown and perhaps her life. The fallout over Vashti’s actions is felt not only by Vashti, but by all the women in every province of the land. The king issues a decree that henceforth all women must obey the will of their husbands.
On the heels of Vashti’s refusal comes a second act of civil disobedience, this time by Mordecai. In this instance, the question revolves not around gender identity but religious identity. Haman calls on everyone in the royal court to bow down, but Mordecai the Jew does not do so, resulting in Haman’s wrath being aroused and a harsh decree levied against all the Jews on the day which we all now call Purim. There is, the antisemitic Haman explains to the king, a people hidden within the population, whose laws and loyalties are different from everyone else – their concealed nature their threat – a fifth column that must be rooted out.
And while both Vashti’s and Mordecai’s refusals can be understood on their own terms, by putting them in proximity with one another, I believe the author is trying to tell us something. Two principled refusals, one by a woman, another by a Jew, that both place the individual in peril and that both come at a price to the people whom that individual represents. It is almost as if, if not exactly as if, the author is urging us to ask what price one is willing to pay for the public assertion of one’s identity. Will the individual choose the comfort and complacency that comes with hiddenness, or will the person remain true to their identity even if that act comes at a high, possibly ultimate, cost?
In Hebrew, Esther’s name means “hidden” – which is exactly how she keeps her identity. Between Vashti’s refusal in chapter one and Mordecai’s refusal in chapter three, chapter two describes Esther’s acquiescence on both fronts. Like Vashti, Esther is repeatedly summoned before the king, but unlike Vashti, Esther willingly goes. Unlike Mordecai who publicly identifies as a Jew, Esther, the text explains twice over, keeps her religious identity hidden. Usually, we excuse Esther for suppressing this aspect of her identity; after all, this is what her uncle has told her to do, and besides, who wouldn’t want to be queen? This year I read Esther’s choices less generously. Vashti after all, took agency for her identity, as did Mordecai. Is it not reasonable, the author is asking without asking, to expect Esther to exercise the same moral responsibility? Esther had every opportunity to stand firm in her identity like Vashti, to stand proudly as a Jew like Mordecai, but she chose not to – at least for the time being.
The turning point comes, as we know, in chapter four. The decree comes down, the fate of the Jews hangs in the balance, and Esther must decide whether she will risk her skin to save her kin. From outside the palace Mordecai sends her a message: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.” Mordecai implores Esther not to remain silent, delivering the rhetorical knockout punch: “Who knows if it was not for just this moment that you achieved your stature?” Moved, Esther responds by calling on her Jewish community to fast on her behalf, and then she will plead her people’s case before the king – even if doing so means she will perish. One cannot help but appreciate Esther’s “coming out” story framed by the earlier actions of Vashti and Mordecai. Unlike Vashti, Esther’s heroism is the act of appearing before the king, not refusing to appear. Unlike Mordecai, whose public display of religious identity jeopardizes his kinsmen, Esther’s public display of her religious identity will save her people.
There is far more to say about the story of Esther; we have only covered the first four of its ten chapters. At its core, I believe both the person and the book of Esther call us to account regarding the public display of one’s identity. Will she, will we – dulled to the exigencies of the hour – assimilate into our host culture and hide our identities? Esther is one of the very few biblical stories that take place in the diaspora, and Haman aside, life wasn’t all bad for Jews. The Jews of Shushan could blend in. Mordecai could have kneeled. Vashti could have kept her throne. At first Esther suppressed her identity and then she didn’t, and that change of heart made all the difference. The moral thread is there for all to see in the book of Esther and long before it. Would Moses step beyond the comforts of Pharoah’s palace, identify with his Hebrew kinsmen, and put himself at great risk? Would Joseph shed his royal identity and reveal himself to his brothers, no matter the cost? Would Abraham put himself at risk on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? Esther is neither the first nor the last Jew to face the question of whether to camouflage her identity. Esther is just the biblical book and person that ask the question in its fullness and answers it directly. And the answer is clear: In a world of chance and upheaval, with the ever present allure of conformity, redemption comes only when we refuse the easy out of silence and complacency. Esther put herself “out there” even if it came at a cost. And so, the book and holiday seem to be teaching, must we.
We all feel it these past days. An awareness that we are living through dark times. The horrors of today that will become the memorials of tomorrow. The events of these weeks will one day be recorded in history books, and our grandchildren will ask us how we responded in this desperate hour. Did we avert our eyes from the suffering that abounds and take flight from our moral calling? Or did we support the displaced, help resettle the refugee, and soften the affliction of those in pain? People are asking how to support the over two hundred thousand Ukrainian Jews in need. JDC, UJA, HIAS, the synagogues (as we heard last night) that are serving as shelters, the Hillel house that was destroyed, the Holocaust memorial that was bombed. And at risk of stating the obvious, this crisis is not just a Jewish one but a humanitarian one. When Abraham stood before God to stay the divine wrath, when Jonah called on the city of Nineveh to repent, these were not Jewish cities being saved. To be a Jew is to live with the awareness that because we were once strangers in a strange land, we must be attentive to those in peril today. To be a Jew is to know that one never stands idly by the blood of another. To be a Jew means that in a place where there are no upstanders, we choose to be one. To be a Jew is to manifest our identity publicly – for ourselves and for humanity – to live with Mordecai’s haunting question ever present in our consciousness: “Who knows if it was not for just this moment that you achieved your position?” It is why, I imagine, a congregant emailed this week with a fully costed out proposal to support the JDC. It is why, I imagine, a leading family of the community committed $100,000 to relief efforts after services last night. It is why we are directing this year’s PAS Purim Drive towards relief for Ukraine, and I am confident we can reach a one-million-dollar goal by Purim. Frankly, I bet we could get there by Adon Olam.
This is our Esther moment. This is our window to decide whether we remain hidden or whether – with humanity hanging in the balance – we publicly affirm our identity and values. It is our time to manifest our faith outwardly as a community and, with philanthropic generosity, to leverage the blessings of our fleeting lives toward a cause bigger than any of us and all of us. To proudly reveal our identities and respond publicly as Jews in this perilous hour – on behalf of our people, on behalf of the people of Ukraine, on behalf of a humanity in desperate need of saving.
Brown, Erica. Esther: Power, Faith and Fragility in Exile. Maggid Studies in Tanakh. (Jerusalem: The Toby Press, 2020)