Purim is about concealment and that which is concealed during the story of Purim as told in the Megillah. The Megillah, which we read twice on Purim, is named after Queen Esther – it’s her story. Esther manifested a character trait that embodies hiddenness, that most misunderstood of traits – modesty. Esther’s modesty was notably expressed by her special ability, her good judgment, to know when to keep silent and when to speak out.
Kept for all intents and purposes as a prisoner in King Achashveirosh’s harem, Esther concealed the fact that she was Jewish. When genocide was threatened, she was able to remain silent while she waited for the most opportune time to reveal Haman’s treachery and save the Jewish people. Her humility enabled her to hang in there for nearly nine years as the Purim story unfolded.
In order to do this, Esther had to have confidence in herself; she had to believe in herself and in her good points. She had to believe that her life had a holy purpose. She had to spend time in hitobodedut, deep prayerful conversations with Hashem, about whatever was on her mind and in her heart, perhaps hinted to by the private, secret meetings she had with her Uncle Mordechai who met with her to give her encouragement.
A Family Affair
Where did Esther get this extraordinary ability to keep quiet despite being under tremendous pressure? The midrash reveals that her silence was an innate part of her spiritual genetics. Esther was a descendant of King Shaul, who was a descendant of Binyamin, son of Rachel. And the midda that Queen Esther inherited from her great great grandmother Rachel was tzniut, modesty and all that it embodies, especially silence and discretion.
Our sages tell us that In order to fulfill prophecy and avoid shaming her sister Leah, Rachel did not reveal to Yaacov, her groom, that it was Leah standing under the wedding chupah, and not Rachel. It must have pained her greatly, for we know she loved Yaacov. Yet somehow she was able to remain quiet, not revealing, not demanding her way, even helping her sister in the process.
Many cultures, especially today, teach that we should scream, shout, and stand up for what we want, without giving thought to whether or not our wants are healthy, holy, or wise. But Rachel did what she knew was right . She was able to be silent because she was able to listen to her inner voice, the inner self that connects to Hashem, and therefore she was able to be quiet in the face of what must have felt like unfairness and humiliation. Rachel’s story is not only relevant to her descendant, Esther, but also to each of us.
Rebbe Nachman tells us that when faced with a humiliating situation, it’s a great achievement to do our best to live with emunah and be both dom and shtok, silent with our mouths and quiet in our hearts. We’ll not only effect a soul correction for ourselves but we’ll also be able to have the equanimity and presence of mind to do the right thing without lashing out.
Yaacov and Rachel’s first son Yosef, famed for his modesty, used the power of silence he inherited from his mother. Upon reuniting with his father Yaacov, our sages tell us that Yosef went so far as to make sure never to be alone with him, thereby avoiding questions about his earlier disappearance. In this way, he was able to be silent and not talk lashon hara about his brothers’ selling him into slavery.
Rachel’s second son, Binyamin, a forbear of Shaul, is represented by a symbol of silence. The Torah portion Pekudei describes choshen hamishpat, the breastplate of judgment worn by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. Adorned with four rows of three stones, each stone in the choshen represents one of the tribes. The stone of Binyomin is called yoshfeh (jaspar.) We can read yoshfeh as yesh peh, “there is a mouth.” The quality of yesh-peh is knowing when to speak and when to not speak.
Some suggest that Binyamin displayed noble silence by not discussing with his father his own pain over losing Yosef. With his lack of complaint, he protected Yaacov from even more of a father’s anguish. Rashi, citing the Talmud, tells us that Binyamin knew Yosef was alive (the Talmud tells us he named each of his sons to reflect Yosef’s story) but we do know that he never discussed this with Yaacov, either.
Perhaps Binyamin also knew prophetically that allowing events to unfold was spiritually necessary, so that Yosef could become Pharaoh’s right hand man and eventually save Yaacov and his sons from famine. So he kept quiet, much as it pained him to see his father’s grief.
Later, Yosef held Binyamin hostage for stealing his goblet, an act Binyamin never would have engaged in. Then Binyamin was also able to keep quiet, accepting Hashem’s decree that he remain behind, maybe to avoid further paining his brothers.
We’re told that the Shechinah (Hashem’s inner, “feminine” Presence), dwells only in the tribe of Binyamin’s land. Binyamin was the only brother born in the land of Israel. His was also the tribe known for modesty, the hidden, quiet trait associated with the Shechinah.
Enter Amalek, Haman’s Forbear
King Shaul was known for his modesty – we’re told that was why he merited having Queen Esther descend from him. In fact, Shaul did not want to be king at first because of his great modesty.
But King Shaul was flawed and this is related to his descendant’s struggle. King Shaul was appointed by Shmuel the prophet who told him in the name of Hashem to wipe out the Amalekites and their flocks. The Amalekites were unremittingly evil, immoral, and mocked all that was holy and innocent, and to keep any of them alive would have perpetuated their cruelty. But Shaul spared the life of their king, Agag as well as the Amalekites’ sheep. When Shmuel Hanavi saw that Shaul had not fulfilled his mission, he said, imitating the sound of sheep:
B’oznai hazeh hatzon kol umeh? (Meeehhhh is a bleating sound.) What is this bleating sound of sheep that I hear?*
Even the sheep’s bleating sound mocked Shaul for not having the emunah necessary to complete his mission. In the Megillah the saga continues. Esther inherits Amalek, her ancestor Shaul’s enemy, as well as his unfinished business, and she faces Amalek in the person of Haman, a descendant of King Agag.
Esther’s Uncle Mordechai was her trusted advisor. When the time was right, he encouraged Esther to confront King Achashveirosh about Haman’s plan to wipe out the Jews. He tells Esther that if she does not act, “…relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another time and place while you and your father’s house will die…” alluding to her duty to complete the task (eliminate Amalek) that Shaul (from her father’s house) failed to do.
Esther eventually was able to defeat Haman-Amalek because of her great faith in Hashem, her belief in herself, and her understanding of her soul-mission.
Azamra Vs. Amalek Today
Esther’s faith in herself and her ability to carry out her personal (and national) mission reflect an important aspect of Azamra, one of Breslov’s foundational teachings – a recognition of our ability to be and do good, an understanding of our deepest, essential nature.
In Likutey Moharan, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov begins this vital lesson (#282) with the directive to look for the good points in others. Only after he’s explained the mystical and mundane hows and whys of this, does he tell us to look for the good points in ourselves, too.
In the Kitzur Likutey Moharan (Reb Noson’s compilation of the Rebbe’s lessons containing the practical material which is most easily applied) we cut to the chase. Here, Azamra begins by asking us to search for the good points within ourselves.
Today, we live during a time in which the focus on self is of paramount importance. Moshiach will soon be revealed. There is an urgent need for soul-correction. Amalek isn’t just an external nation or force in the world, it’s an internal energy that drags us down. It’s the cold energy of doubt about Hashem and our relationship with Him; it’s the slick energy of avoidance of responsibility; it’s the flame of arrogance, too, that leaps and burns others without discretion. Belief in Hashem is how we must begin to defeat Amalek, but in order for us to have the strength necessary for this battle, we need to believe in ourselves, too. We need to believe that we have a soul that is a spark of the Divine, that our lives matter, and that Hashem wants us to have a relationship with Him. Though we must look for the good in our brothers and sisters, we must remember to go inwards and look for the good in ourselves as well.
For Esther, surrounded by villains in whom it was nearly impossible to find good, there was no choice but to begin within. Queen Esther’s Azamra, like many other aspects of the Purim story, remains under-the-radar and character-driven. The bulk of the Purim plot is the result of the inner movement of Esther’s soul which drives her actions towards the end of the story. After all, it took her many years of being encouraged by the Mordechai the Tzaddik, silently remaining a dedicated yet secret Jew in an alien, repugnant atmosphere, until she was able to carry out her brilliant plan.
Today, we battle Amalek on many levels. The inner battle is about the Amalek who causes us to doubt in Hashem and doubt in ourselves. Amalek destroys our faith, and a person without faith has to shout, grasp, push, and shove to feel alive. A person with faith, can silently, quietly, carry out her mission, knowing exactly when it’s time to speak out.
Knowing who you are, recognizing your neshama-based good points, and building on them, is Azamra-jitsu against your enemies (inner or outer) and Azamra provides the nourishment for your personal spiritual development.