Fundamental to the idea of the korban, which we begin reading about this week, is the power to change oneself. After all the term korban comes from the word karov, meaning coming closer to God. Yet change is not easily accomplished. On its most basic level, the process involves a belief that one has the capacity to transform.
This capacity is implicit in the Purim story. Note how Queen Esther undergoes a fundamental metamorphosis in chapter four of the megillah.
When told that Mordechai was in sackcloth, she wonders why. At this point, Esther does not even know the Jewish people had been threatened. She had become so insulated in the palace of the king that she did not feel the plight of her fellow Jew. Furthermore, when asked by Mordechai to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people, she refuses, claiming that the rules of the palace did not allow her to come before the king.
Yet when Mordechai rebukes her, declaring that she too would not be able to escape the evil decree, perhaps the most powerful moment of the megillah takes place. Esther courageously declares that she would come before the king, even if it meant she would perish.
Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah. Once she becomes queen, she adopts the Persian name Esther. This name, which means “hidden,” reminds us that at the outset of her rulership she abides by Mordechai’s request that she hide her Jewish identity. But as the narrative in chapter four reveals, she returns to her roots. At a key moment she is ready to speak out powerfully on behalf of her people. Esther provides an important example of how change is possible.
Rabbi David Silber notes that one of the smallest words found in the megillah, dat, is used often and teaches an important lesson about Purim. Dat means law. In Persia, the law was immutable, it could never change. And so when Vashti refused to come before the king, Achashveirosh asks, “according to the law (dat) what shall be done to Queen Vashti?” And when it is decided that a new queen would be selected, the megillah once again uses the term dat – the law of selection. And when Haman accuses the Jews of not keeping the king’s laws, again the word dat is used. Indeed, the decree that the Jews be killed is also referred to as dat.
Even when told of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews, Achashveirosh declares that he cannot change the prior decree that the Jews be killed. The law must remain. All Achashveirosh can do is allow the introduction of a new dat, a new law that stands in contradiction to but cannot take the place of the first.
Rabbi Silber points out that not coincidentally, when Esther agreed to come before Achashveirosh, she declares, “I will go to the king contrary to the law. Esther had been so transformed that she is prepared to defy the immutable law of Persia.Rabbi Avi Weiss
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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