In competition with the many wild ups and downs in the Book of Esther, arguably the most significant is Mordechai’s harsh rebuke of Esther’s hesitations. This comes after her failure to heed his instructions and use her special position to plead for the Jews. The bottom line is that he tells her that she must act, and act now. But there is much more going on here: Among some of the fascinating details in Mordechai’s message is his statement (4:14), “who knows if you attained royalty for such a time.”
This open ended question shows that while Mordechai had just expressed confidence that the Jews will be saved, he admits his ignorance about the details of God’s plan. From Esther’s perspective, this must have been unnerving. He tells her that if she doesn’t act, she will pay the price; but he doesn’t say that if she acts, she will necessarily succeed.
Mordechai was apparently not a prophet. And even if he was, prophecy generally only takes place in Israel. (Moreover, even if we accept the Talmud’s [Megillah 14b] claim that Esther was a prophetess at face value, it is highly unlikely that God revealed the immediate future to her at this point.) As such, he was largely in the same situation that we are all in today. Granted, his knowledge and wisdom allowed him to see the likely outcome and devise a good working strategy in how to get there. But at the end of the day, all he could tell Esther was, “Who knows.”
What is critical here is to note that this “who knows,” did not freeze Mordechai into inaction. We should bear in mind that this comes in spite of the Rabbis’ sage advice that when in doubt, “shev ve’al ta’aseh adif” – less damage will be caused by inaction. The reason Mordechai bypasses such an approach is that he understands that this is only when the doubt is between two almost equal probabilities. In other words, inaction should only come after a protracted but inconclusive analysis of which option is more desirable.
Yet, if Mordechai teaches us that doubt is no reason for inaction, it is Esther that teaches us that it is actually a reason for even more effort. It is true that Esther may have originally been frozen by her doubts. However once she understands the wisdom of Mordechai’s position – not only does she accept the risk Mordechai places in front of her – she realizes that the nature of such a proposition is that it is largely up to her to make it work. So she moves from playing a very passive role to working out a complex and multi-layered plan with many moving parts. That move was endorsed by Mordechai, who presumably hoped for such a reaction. But his continuing guidance notwithstanding, the success of the plan would largely depend on Esther’s initiative and skill.
Hence Megillat Esther is a story of what to do when God leaves it up to us. Since that is the case nearly of the time, it is a very important story indeed. For even at times when Israel benefitted from the greatest amount of prophecy, we should be aware that the vast majority of outcomes were still not revealed. All the more so, when we are without prophecy. And when God does not tell us the outcome, it makes sense to be in doubt. If there is anything we have learned this year, it is that there are very few things we can be certain about.
In short, doubt is really an intrinsic part of the human condition, only waived on very rare occasions. And yet – among other things – Megillat Esther is teaching us the very simple but fundamental lesson that far from stopping us from acting, doubt should only make us act even more.
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast, Esther’s Da’as Torah (and ours)!