all that the Lord had done, Mordecai prayed to the Lord
we suffer fear and despair, we can easily forget that anything good ever
happened in our lives, or we can feel that the present griefs have swallowed
them up. Yet recalling blessings that
have gone before, our own or other people’s, can restore hope.
I know that when I have experienced the deepest
depressions, to the point of wanting to die, it has always helped to remember
that I have felt this way before, and yet after that feeling new joy followed,
making me glad to be alive again. I
believe that our trials come and go, but the love of God remains permanent, and
by holding onto that permanence I can get through the transience of misery.
2) and said: “Lord, Lord, King and Ruler of all,
everything is in your power, and there is no one to oppose you when it is your
will to save Israel. 3) You made heaven
and earth and every wonderful thing under heaven. 4) You are Lord of all, and there is no
one who can resist you, the Lord.
often we who believe in God don’t even realize how huge He is, and limit our
vision to mortal capacity. We think, “God
has so much to take care of—how can He even have time for me?” Or “Surely my prayer will get lost among the
billions of prayers going up all over the world!” or “Why bother praying when
plainly nobody could possibly do anything about a mess this big?”
Yet if, as I believe, God is infinite, and capable of
making something as enormous as the universe and as tiny as a subatomic
particle, then surely He must have infinite attention, infinite memory, an
infinite capacity to attend, with great personal interest and compassion, to
every mote of His creation, including me.
God does not burn out. God does
not waver in attention. God does not
reach a limit beyond which He is helpless.
(Granted, He has forbidden Himself to go against free
will, but even there He can take whatever evil human beings dish out, compost
it, and make something good grow from it anyway. He does not command the evil, but He makes
use of it, in defiance of malice.)
So if you pray, do so with confidence that God has the
strength, love, and regard for you to answer.
know all things. You know, Lord, that it was not out of insolence or arrogance
or desire for glory that I acted thus in not bowing down to the arrogant Haman.
we come to another reason that Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes. To reaffirm his humility in the face of
accusations of pride—and perhaps to reinforce it in himself. St. Thomas More, required to wear finery in
the court of Henry VIII, secretly wore a hair shirt under his velvet tunics, to
remind himself that all of this show had nothing to do with who he really was,
and to keep the pomp from going to his head.
Admittedly, a political motive might also have influenced
Mordecai: to try and communicate to Haman, or at least to others at court, that
his refusal to bow had nothing to do with arrogance and insolence, or defying
6) I would have gladly kissed the soles
of his feet for the salvation of Israel.
means even more in the Middle East, where merely exposing the sole of one’s foot
to others insults them. And it
underlines that Mordecai has no problem with submission per se.
Without the above passages of the Deuterocanon, one could rationalize
all kinds of arrogance as “refusing to bow” and quote scripture to back it up.
7) But I acted as I did so as not to
place the honor of a mortal above that of God. I will not bow down to anyone
but you, my Lord. It is not out of arrogance that I am acting thus.
it was the specific posture of the prostration that Mordecai resisted, because
it symbolized worship. Mordecai may have
been, of necessity, a collaborator, but he had his limit.
8) And now, Lord God, King, God of
Abraham, spare your people, for our enemies regard us with deadly envy and are
bent upon destroying the inheritance that was yours from the beginning. 9) Do not spurn your portion, which you
redeemed for yourself out of the land of Egypt.
COMMENTARY: Inheritance, in this sense, means what
belongs to someone. The people of God
belong to God; the creation belongs to the Creator. It is not the other way around. Too often we treat our deity like our
possession, to perform tricks for us on demand.
When we ask something of God, however, it is wise to understand the true
That said, we are not His for
abuse or neglect. If you own a cat, a
cow, or a canary, you owe something to these beings who depend on you. If we believe that God is the source of all
justice and goodness, then we must believe that God would know right from wrong
in regards to those under His care, and would choose right. So Mordecai invokes the bond between Creator
10) Hear my prayer; have pity on your inheritance and turn
our mourning into feasting, that we may live to sing praise to your name, Lord.
Do not silence the mouths of those who praise you.”
COMMENTARY: The courtier-side of Mordecai couldn’t help
but add this appeal to vanity! God, of
course, does not need our praise, any more than the sun needs the unfolding of
a leaf that spreads to receive its rays.
Praising God benefits us. Our ability
to feel happiness depends on gratitude, and praising our Creator provides a
good way to feel that gratitude. It also
helps by putting things in perspective, to believe in a Higher Power with vaster
resources having a vested interest in our well-being and the overall benefit of
the planet—it’s not all on us. I for one
feel more confident if I see my life as part of a greater plan.
11) All Israel, too, cried out with all their strength,
for death was staring them in the face.
COMMENTARY: I find this verse human and moving.
12) Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish, fled to the
Lord for refuge.
COMMENTARY: Esther has made her decision to join Mordecai
in prayer and devotion to the God of Israel, even though she could have dodged
the risk by continuing to hide her heritage (in effect renouncing it by
default) staying docile, and hoping that the secret never slip out. I think we’ve all known people, historically
or personally, who have done just that—shed their heritage, nature, ethics
and/or religion in order to blend in or enjoy the perks of the ruling class, or
the in crowd—living in fear that somebody might find out their secret. And yet their bid for security makes them
perpetually insecure, vulnerable to blackmail.
And they always have something missing inside. But it is the easiest, most passive way to
get through life; one can even slip into it by accident.
I have a lot of white
blood, and blue eyes; I could pass for unmixed white. In many circles it is much better to be
Indian than Mexican; I could simply not mention that my mother’s people came
from Sonora. I am a liberal; I could pass
for pro-choice. I am a Catholic; I could
stay silent about my animism. I am an
animist; I could stay silent about my Catholicism. I sometimes hang out with Protestants; I
could let them mistake me for a Protestant.
I travel often in secular circles; I could conceal my faith and
mysticism among those who deride such things.
I love to engage in intellectual debates among academics; I could just
let them assume that I have a degree. I
have many middle-class friends; I could pretend that I didn’t grow up
All of these little
deceptions would make my life easier...for a little while. And I could rationalize it all so easily,
saying that I didn’t actually tell a lie, I just allowed people to assume what
they wanted to assume. Except that when you
pass, sooner or later someone tells a joke about your kind and expects you to
laugh along, or deplores your category and expects you to join in, and if you’ve
made a habit of passing, you will find yourself doing what others expect of you. At that point the little deceptions cross the
line, and you cannot go back without publicly admitting your deceit. And you can no longer pretend that you haven’t
betrayed your own and yourself.
You probably have a
different list, but we all have temptations to pass for something we are not,
and lose something of who we are in the process. It often seems as if it would be easier to
put on the mask of someone else. But the
mask can suffocate.
13) Taking off her splendid garments, she put on garments
of distress and mourning. In place of her precious ointments she covered her
head with dung and ashes. She afflicted her body severely and in place of her
festive adornments, her tangled hair covered her.
is extreme, even by ancient standards.
But it shows the intensity of her emotion. She makes graphic the secret disgust that she
has always felt for her situation—for it wasn’t of her choosing. If covering one’s head with dung seems crazy
(and probably is) this poor girl has had more than enough to drive her crazy,
as we shall see. Traumatized people
often do self-destructive things, and feel degraded when they’ve done nothing
Mystics also sometimes go to extremes to counteract
extremes elsewhere that threaten to upset the balance of the world. I remember feeling horrified to read of a
saint who spent years crammed into a crack of rock, without enough room to
move. But then I read that in his day his
emperor devoted himself to brutally grabbing more and more territory for
himself. Somebody, on some level, had to
answer that, and this saint felt moved to do so by claiming as little territory
for himself as he possibly could.
14) Then she prayed to the Lord, the God
of Israel, saying: “My Lord, you alone are our King. Help me, who am alone and
have no help but you,
this point she realizes that she doesn’t even have Mordecai, disfavored in the
court and threatened with death.
15) for I am taking my life in my hand.
exposing who you really are literally puts your life on the line. And the wise know that the unauthentic life
is not worth living—better to die as yourself than to drag on as an imitation
of something else. And yet we can so
easily give away this precious gift of who we are, not even for survival, but for
a moment’s acceptance, even among empty people who have lost themselves before
they urge us to follow suit!
16) From birth, I have heard among my
people that you, Lord, chose Israel from among all nations, and our ancestors
from among all their forebears, as a lasting inheritance, and that you
fulfilled all your promises to them.
17) But now we have sinned in your
sight, and you have delivered us into the hands of our enemies, 18) because we worshiped their gods. You
are just, O Lord.
is, as we have seen in other books of the Deuterocanon, the post-exilic
19) But now they are not satisfied with
our bitter servitude, but have sworn an oath to their idols 20) to do away with the decree you have
pronounced, to destroy your inheritance, to close the mouths of those who
praise you, to extinguish the glory of your house and your altar, 21) to open the mouths of the nations to acclaim their
worthless gods, and to extol a mortal king forever. 22) Lord,
do not relinquish your scepter to those who are nothing. Do not let our foes
gloat over our ruin, but turn their own counsel against them and make an
example of the one who began this against us.
deity of the Jews and the pantheon of those around them had quite a bit of
similarities, and some of the tales might have sprung from the same
source. The feature that the Jews felt
distinguished their deity was in not needing physical representation in a human
work, and His followers not confusing the God with the depiction. The wisdom books of the Deuterocanon will
look at idolatry more closely—what it is, what understandable human
inclinations give rise to it, and what the Jews saw wrong with it.
This matters, because many today who decry what they
see as idolatry in others practice it themselves, and many accused of it do
not. The nature of idolatry needs
But for now suffice that Jewish contempt for it, and
Esther’s disgust at “worthless gods” came, at least in part, from their
enslavement in Egypt. The slaves were
forced not only to take care of their living masters, and their monumental
building projects, but also to feed, bathe, clothe and take care of the
household idols, at the same time as meals, baths, dressing and bedtimes
occurred for the human beings—basically doubling their duties. And they did not believe that any deity
actually inhabited these works of clay and wood, but that didn’t matter; they
had to go through the labors anyway or get beaten.
The words for the labor of the Israelites in Egypt, in the Bible, have been
translated into the Christian versions much too mildly; the original Hebrew has
special words for “crushing labor”—the kind of work that can break someone and
is in fact intended to. To add
idol-sitting on top of that made it all the more cruel. More and more I’m learning about how
widespread acts of oppression against a targeted group can traumatize a people
for generations; this was the trauma of the Jews.
23) Be mindful of us, Lord. Make yourself known in the
time of our distress and give me courage, King of gods and Ruler of every power.
Esther needs courage right now more than any other virtue. The pressure on her to submit, no matter
what, has been terrible, even deforming; now she must find it in her to do the
24) Put in my mouth persuasive words in
the presence of the lion, and turn his heart to hatred for our enemy, so that
he and his co-conspirators may perish. 25) Save
us by your power, and help me, who am alone and have no one but you, Lord.
often have I thought that I had to rely on my own words! And how often has that gotten me in
trouble! But the more I pray for
guidance in my words, daily in the morning plus again before especially
delicate situations, the better things work out. It helps me to remember that it’s not all on
me. By myself I am a finite resource,
soon expended. But, as I believe, I or
anyone can tap into the infinite beyond myself.
26) “You know all things. You know that I
hate the pomp of the lawless, and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised or of any
now we come to it. Esther is indeed a
rape victim. The selection of a queen
might have been more courteous than your typical rape, it might have carried on
an illusion of courtship, but in the end she had no say in the matter, in a
match abhorrent to her culture. (Keep in
mind that “Foreigner” here means someone who does not worship the same deity or
keep the same customs as her; it is not a racial distinction.) She wasn’t even supposed to marry outside her
tribe within Israel, according to the beliefs of her day, let alone marry the
conquering enemy of her people.
And even if this barrier didn’t exist, she just plain
doesn’t like Ahasuerus—he’s pompous and lawless. And yet, against her will, she must have sex
with him—as often as he wants it. She’s
expected not only to service him on demand, but also to bear his children, and brace
herself to see them raised outside of her heritage, to become in turn new
oppressors for her people. She lives in
a chronic state of rape.
Without this chapter the Book of Esther seems like the
story of a privileged woman who has decided to use her position to save Israel. Courage can come easily to the privileged;
they have not had anything shake their confidence. But instead we have a woman beaten down,
grown accustomed to daily degradation and erosion of her will, frightened of
the consequences of resistance. Her
deeds become much greater in that light.
27) You know that I am under constraint,
that I abhor the sign of grandeur that rests on my head when I appear in
public. I abhor it like a polluted rag, and do not wear it in private.
rag” is a euphemism for a sanitary napkin.
Menstruation itself, though accounted “unclean”, did not repulse the
Israelites. For evidence take the name
of Edna, mother-in-law of Tobias. I only
recently learned that “Edna”, a popular Jewish name, means both “menstruation”
and “pleasure”, the connection being that menses signaled womanhood and the
ability to enjoy sex.
But nobody wants to keep a sanitary napkin around once
one is done with it! It’s something that
one has to deal with for a time and which one quickly gets rid of when one can. In the same way Esther wants quit of the
ornaments that glorify her degradation, making it appear respectable even as a
sanitary napkin protects one’s outer garments, one’s appearance, from stain.
We’ve touched on the concept of “uncleanness” before
as the unavoidable encounters one has with life-loss on some scale—for
instance, the end of fertility in menstruation (and departure from the body of
blood, which Jews see as a loss of something sacred.) It is not something to be punished but to be
healed, in ritual purification. Esther’s
life has become chronically drained by her unwilling marriage and position.
(Interesting, the layers of meaning in the original
words. Does pleasure require that we
allow some degree of loss, in order, in the long run, to be made still more
full of life? After all, every door we
open closes some other door—we always have to let go of something to have
something. But if we choose nothing at
all, holding onto all possibilities perpetually, we never become pregnant with
the joys of a tangible future.)
28) I your servant, have never eaten at the table of
Haman, nor have I graced the banquet of the king or drunk the wine of
Ahasuerus did learn something from his attempt to command his first wife to
join him! But Esther must have managed
some tricky maneuvering to avoid eating ritually taboo food in his palace.
Regarding the “wine of libations”, that would mean an urn
of wine from which a portion had been drawn to pour before the altar of one of
Ahasuerus’s deities, before sharing the rest with the company. To drink of it would signify worshiping that
29) From the day I was brought here till
now, your servant has had no joy except in you, Lord, God of Abraham.
of her seeming good fortune is, in fact, a bitter charade. Does she say this to steel herself to the
possibility of death?
30) O God, whose power is over all, hear
the voice of those in despair. Save us from the power of the wicked, and
deliver me from my fear.”
COMMENTARY: Fear has dominated her life up till now. It has weighed in on her every decision,
including the decision not to decide.
Notice the two separate things: “Save us from the power of the wicked” (“us” meaning
save her people, through her) and “Deliver me from my fear”, herself alone, not
asking that God save her life if her death saves the others, but only that she
be delivered from the fear that rules her days and makes her sacrifice so hard,
after everything that she has endured in order to survive.
One additional thought has come to me since posting this. Mordecai and Esther have this much in common--that
they have both been forced, sexually, to violate the taboos of their
people--he by suffering castration and she by being forced into this
unwilling marriage. So this is not only about their courage, but also
about not judging people who have, in our eyes, been, apparently,
"degraded" by circumstances beyond their control--especially those who
outwardly appear to have profited from it. We don't know what they cry
out to God behind closed doors.