Esther’s Not-So-Fairy-Tale Ending
“And they lived happily ever after.” That’s how fairy tales end, implying that one can now go to sleep, or rub one’s eyes as the lights come on in the theater. But in real life, this ending is just the beginning.
One of the useful techniques in feminist interpretation is to ask, “And what happens next?” What happens in the part of the story that is not narrated, when the characters walk off into the fading horizon of the sunset (or sunrise), and when the supporting cast disappears without our noticing?
The Book of Esther has a happy ending: the Jews have light and joy, delight and even honor. But it is worth asking what happened to Esther afterwards, when the parties and celebrations were over and life returned to normal.
One of the most exciting moments in the story is the moment of transformation in the consciousness of Esther after Mordecai warns her: “Do not imagine that in the King’s palace you of all the Jews will escape.” (4:13) He knows what she is thinking: she imagines that she is protected. And so Mordecai says to her, “You are mistaken.” Esther comes to understand that her fate is bound up with the fate of all the Jews.
They depend on her and on her intervention with the King. But she also depends upon their prayers, and she asks that they fast for her for three days. And on the basis of these three days, she commits herself: “I will go to the King, even though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (4:16) For a brief moment, it seems to us that she and the people are one.
We usually understand the words, “and if I perish, I perish,” in the sense of the Hebrew expression, “Whatever will be, will be.” But the phrase in Esther may convey a much deeper understanding. At this moment, Esther understands that even if through her actions, “relief and deliverance shall come to the Jews,” and everything returns to normal, she herself will remain in the palace, married to Ahashverosh for the rest of her life.
How did we not think of this, about what happened to Esther after the joy and the victory and the “sending of tasty portions, one to another”? How did we forget that she remained there with Ahashverosh, and continued to have relations with him, and did not return to her community and to her family, and remained her whole life imprisoned in this awful golden cage?
I have understood for a number of years now that Esther did not leave herself protected in the palace while all the Jews were in danger, but rather the opposite. All the Jews were saved and she was left behind alone. I understood this later, but she understood it at a very early stage: “And if I perish, I perish.” The understanding that Esther chooses to rescue the Jewish people while knowing that her own life is lost and that “relief and deliverance” would not be hers magnifies and exalts her character in my eyes.
The reasons for the Fast of Esther are hidden. The first appearance of the fast in the sources dates only from the period of the Geonim. The explanations of the fast are many, and perhaps therefore none is really persuasive. In my view, the Fast of Esther can bear an additional meaning and should be dedicated to a woman who was left behind.
This year when we fast on the Fast of Esther and when we read in the Scroll, “and if I perish, I perish,” let us think about Esther and the sacrifice she made for all of us.