וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ: הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, הַמֹּלֵךְ מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד-כּוּשׁ--שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה, and it was in the days of Achashvairosh, he was Achashvairosh, who ruled from Hodu to Kush, one hundred and twenty seven provinces (Esther 1:1).
In an age-old narrative that we are all familiar with, King Achashvairosh, a ruthless, fickle, volatile and indecisive ruler, kills his first wife, Vashti, after she refuses to come unclothed to his grand party. Ultimately, his loneliness overtakes him and he desires a new queen.
אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, כְּשֹׁךְ, חֲמַת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ זָכַר אֶת-וַשְׁתִּי וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂתָה, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-נִגְזַר עָלֶיהָ - and it was after these things, that the wrath of the king subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done, and what was decreed against her (ibid, 2:1). After a kingdom-wide beauty pageant, Esther is chosen as queen (ibid, v.17).
When the wrath of Haman, the prime minister of the empire, flares against Mordechai the Jew, who refuses to bow down to him, Haman devises a plan to kill all the Jews on the 13th of Adar in the following year. With Achashvairosh’s ring and royal permission, the letters are sent to each and every province, in each and every language, for the people to be ready for the day of annihilation and plunder against the Jews. With disaster imminent, Mordechai sends a message to Queen Esther (his former wife, as per BT Megillah 13a) that she must go to the king and plead for her life, and the life of her nation.
After a three-day fast, Esther - at great risk to her own life - dresses in royal garb and presents herself, without having been summoned, before the king.
As for the end of the story, Haman’s plans were thwarted, the Jews were saved, and till this very day we celebrate the holiday of Purim in commemoration of the miraculous turn of events. In fact, the events surrounding the miracle of Purim, along with its message of Divine salvation when all hope seems lost, are so enduring that the Rambam incredibly teaches: כָּל סִפְרֵי הַנְּבִיאִים וְכָל הַכְּתוּבִים עֲתִידִין לִבָּטֵל לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ חוּץ מִמְּגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר וַהֲרֵי הִיא קַיֶּמֶת כַּחֲמִשָּׁה חֻמְּשֵׁי תּוֹרָה וְכַהֲלָכוֹת שֶׁל תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה שֶׁאֵינָן בְּטֵלִין לְעוֹלָם - all the books of the Prophets and all of Writings in the future will be nullified in the days of Moshiach, except for the Scroll of Esther, which is as enduring as the Five Books of Torah and the teachings of the Oral Law, which will never be nullified (Hilchos Megillah 2:18).
Esther’s courage, bravery, self-sacrifice, beauty, charm, and wit are recorded for all time, as the name of the scroll itself is called in her name, Megillat Esther. What was it about this Jewish maiden that so captivated the ruthless king? What powers did she possess that turned his heart to her favor? Why did he hearken to her pleas, while his first wife he killed? Why was Esther, one lonely Jewish maiden, chosen as the agent for our salvation?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “וַתְּהִי אֶסְתֵּר נֹשֵׂאת חֵן, בְּעֵינֵי כָּל-רֹאֶיהָ, and Esther carried grace in the eyes of all who saw her (Esther 2:15). The Hebrew word, חֵן, grace, refers to the attribute of charm, in contradistinction to beauty. While beauty is usually a result of combinations of several physical factors, of external features, charm comes from within. It flows from the deep recesses of the spiritual personality. Charm is engendered by the presence of G-d in the human being. It is the reflection of the divine presence within man. One radiates charm, for the imago Dei is the source of charm. The symmetry of the body, the complexion, and the color of the eyes are all irrelevant to the charm-personality. What is important is the divine in man.
“The two clauses: ‘The L-rd was with Joseph’ and ‘Joseph found grace in his [master’s] sight’, constitute an equation: Joseph found grace in Potiphar’s sight because G-d was with him. The same is true of Esther. She carried grace with everyone because G-d was with her. She fascinated, she had an impact upon all she met. There was something different and peculiar about her. She was unique.
“In light of this, we can comprehend a strange verse: ‘Do not eat and do not drink for three whole days, day or night; I and my maids shall fast also. And so shall I come to the king’ (Esther 4:16). Why did Esther fast for seventy-two hours? This fast could have had fatal results. Here she was ready to commit a crime, to violate a royal statute that no one must enter the inner court without express permission from the king. Her hope probably rested upon the fact that the king, who is in love with her, will hold out the golden scepter to her. Prima facie, she should have concentrated upon one aspect: to be as lovely and as physically attractive as possible. A fast of seventy-two continuous hours is hardly helpful to one’s fair looks. Instead, during the last three days she should have taken care of herself, undergone beauty treatments, and planned the proper diet. Yet she acted differently. Why?
“Esther’s attraction was not due to beauty but to charm, to inner strength, to the divine charisma in her - things that a G-d-focused fast and fervent prayer might improve and enhance. How wonderfully did the Sages say (Megillah 14b): ‘On the third day, Esther dressed herself in royalty’ (5:1). It should have been phrased ‘royal apparel’! Rather, [this teaches that] she was garbed in ruach ha’kodesh, divine inspiration. On the third day, Esther rose from her ashes and sackcloth and she dressed in her regal garments. She was inspired; she became an exalted personality; she was wrapped in divine inspiration; she was powerful, captivating everybody’s imagination” (Megillat Esther Mesorat HaRav, p.70, 73).
By the grace of G-d, Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her, and it was this Divinely inspired חֵן, this charm, that endeared her to King Achashvairosh, and she became an agent of salvation for our nation. May this very grace be bestowed our people in our day, and may we too be worthy to merit miracles and salvation, as did the Jews of Shushan millennia ago.
לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר - For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16)… kein ti’hi’yeh lanu.
- Yom ha-Atzmaut from the Mekoros, part 2: Chagiga, Sanhedrin and an Abundance of Nevuos