Reviewing: “Esther in America” by Stu Halpern. Maggid Books. 2020. English. Hardcover. 424 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592645619.
Who wants to be Queen Esther? Would you stand ready to volunteer? While this sounds like a question for preschool children, it is also worthy for each of us to consider. Beyond the child’s fantasy to be the chosen princess, beyond the crown and the royal gowns, beyond the masquerades and the costumes, Esther the heroine is a role model for each of us.
The relatively short narrative of Megillat Esther describes diasporic Jewry confronting an existential threat with resolute faith, clear communal values and self sacrifice. Many mefarshim note that Hashem’s name is wholly absent from the text. In this manner, the megillah is reflecting the conditions of exile when Am Yisrael experiences a loss of Hashem’s presence and our fate seems to rest on the whims of political favor. In the megillah we have both dramatic political intrigue and the makings of great danger to Am Yisrael: a hapless king and a ruthless adviser, the villain and the hero/heroine, the wise counselor, the evil plot, and ultimately the faithful vanquishing the corrupt! The megillah highlights the resolute faith in Hashem’s hashgacha behind the scenes of history. Along the way, amidst twists and turns in the text and plot, Esther and Mordechai emerge as leaders who don’t hide from the dangers they face. Instead, they size up the crisis facing Am Yisrael and take action to protect their people even at great risk to themselves. There are critical moments sprinkled dramatically throughout the megillah that I call “Esther Moments.” Exemplified by Mordechai’s searing invocation to Esther “וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת” (Esther 4:14), these moments capture the tension to choose to act on faith and to face danger—to trust in God and to accept personal responsibility for the fate of your people. These “Esther moments” are each critical turns in the unfolding events of the megillah: Esther revealing her identity, Mordechai refusing deference to Haman, Esther’s dinner party intrigues, the case for self defense, the execution of Haman and his family and the demands for rights and restitution. Esther and Mordechai are players who actively advance the story. They understood that their actions were key to bringing Hashem’s redemption and salvation to the fore. What a valuable model for us to consider as we face communal political dangers and threats. How are we each sizing up the political or societal scenes around us? Are we actively advancing history to defend Am Yisrael from the risks we face as a minority in America and as a people of faith in an era of secular relativism? Are we ready, or even preparing, for our own “Esther moments”?
These discomforting questions were front and center for me as I read Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern’s newly released book “Esther in America.” In this compilation of 28 essays, Halpern discloses a new and surprisingly varied appreciation for Esther that inspired political activism and American idealism from pre-revolutionary times to our contemporary setting. Together these essays stake a claim that Esther, both the character and the full narrative, has inspired political thinkers, activists, and leaders, grappling with critical moments in the pursuit of the American project. There are Esther moments to discover from the pulpit to the soap box, from the presidential suite to the pages of American fiction, from Cotton Mathers to Sojourner Truth and from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, to the halachic considerations of Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l. The book explores the inspiration that these varied historical figures each drew forth lessons from Megillat Esther about core values guiding their impassioned positions. The reenactment and restatement of the “Esther moments” and the Esther values revolve around the following themes: speaking truth to power, acting to pursue divine justice, understanding that Hashem needs us to be His active agents, facing existential threats, putting people and community before self. What a powerful set of guiding principles. Reading these insightful essays, I was struck by the way Megillat Esther served to catalyze so many thinkers and policy makers who sought to make a difference and who understood that they were facing an Esther moment that demanded their attention. There are lighter essays in the book, as well, exploring the Esther-like reactions of Jews facing rejection as a minority in 20th-century America. Dara Horn explores how Jews facing anti-Semitism as immigrants rushed to change their names and Dr. Shaina Trapedo describes the embrace of Jewish beauty contests around the same time. Each essay is a valuable deep dive into the ways that Megillat Esther has impacted and inspired ideas, leaders, trends and movements during incredibly varied moments in U.S. history.
Reading these essays reminded me that just as our mesorah has always served to inspire us and challenge us, it is also a source of moral inspiration and obligation for the world. I admit that I was surprised to discover the impact of Megillat Esther in such varied contexts of American history. The depth and range of the essays made a compelling case for Esther as an inspiring catalyst. Personally, I have always read Megillat Esther with a twinge of jealousy: oh, to be that person who acted decisively, with courage and self sacrifice and who saved the Jewish nation. “Esther in America” reminded me that while we live our lives most often as private individuals, and not likely in the spotlight, our values and actions in private must also be preparations readying us to act when called upon, to embrace our “Esther moments.” With faith we protest and speak truth to power; with faith we look at our surroundings and wonder what is our obligation to this moment; with faith we are more than actors on a stage; we are, instead, following the lead of the greatest director, we are recognizing that Hashem’s plans also need us to choose to act, and to choose to make a difference. Are you ready?
CB Neugroschl is head of school at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.