The spirit of Esther

The spirit of Esther

We are all familiar with the famous epigram of the 19th-century British Catholic historian and politician Lord John Acton, in which he warns: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This memorable and wise insight was first expressed in a letter to a fellow Roman Catholic, Bishop Mandell Creighton, arguing that historians and religious leaders should condemn crime, murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church. In short, Lord Acton argued, powerful leaders enjoy no immunity from the law or from moral responsibility.

As Purim approaches, it is important that we remember the fuller context of Acton’s warning to the bishop — who appears to have been considerably more indulgent of those in power. Lord Acton wrote:

“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you… add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.”

Purim and Megillat Esther offer us an extended study in the ways of power — its responsibilities and its inherent potential for abuse and corruption. It should not be surprising that like Lord Acton, American leaders also have invoked the biblical Book of Esther during particularly consequential periods of our nation’s history.

As many readers may know, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address plays a special role in the congregational life of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey. I invite you also to consider Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Historians theorize that one of the decisive influences impelling Lincoln to issue that proclamation was the lobbying of a leading American minister named William W. Patton, who met with the president and prepared a passionate memo on the topic. In that memo, Patton wrote:

“At the time of the national peril of the Jews, under Ahasuerus, Mordecai spoke in their name to Queen Esther, who hesitated to take the step necessary to their preservation, in these solemn words: ‘Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed; and who knowest whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ And your memorialists believe that in Divine Providence you have been called to the presidency to speak the word of justice and authority which shall free the bondman and save the nation. Our prayer to God is, that by such an act the name of Abraham Lincoln may go down to posterity with that of George Washington, as the second savior of our country.”

It is thus fair to argue that Megillat Esther had a direct impact on Lincoln, and on the course of civil liberty in the United States.

Perhaps Pastor Patton was influenced by an essay published 25 years earlier by an abolitionist — a woman named Angelina Grimke — titled “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South:”

“Is there no Esther among you, who will plead for the poor, devoted slave? Read the history of this Persian Queen; it is full of instruction; she at first refused to plead for the Jews; but, hear the words of Mordecai, ‘Think not within thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house more than all the Jews, for if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shalt there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place: but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.’ Listen, too, to her magnanimous reply to this powerful appeal: ‘I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law, and if I perish, I perish.’”

Grimke concluded: “If there were but one Esther in the South, she might save her country from ruin.”

As we approach Purim in these dark and dangerous days for the State of Israel, we do well to remember that just days before Purim 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a pointed gift to then President Barack Obama: a copy of the Book of Esther, which, he explained, tells a familiar-sounding story: In Persia, an oppressive and vengeful leader sought the total annihilation of the Jewish people.

Netanyahu also reportedly told Obama explicitly that Israel faced a new modern-day Haman. “In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people,” he said. “In this generation, we are blessed to live in an age when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people.”

In the same speech, he pledged that “as prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

That dynamic effectively repeats itself today, in 2024.

Writing in 2012, Yossi Klein Halevi said Netanyahu’s more activist reading of the Purim story was understandable.

“Tradition emphasizes that [the Book of Esther] is the only sacred text in the Hebrew Bible without God’s name in it, and that’s understood as an indication that this is a story that requires human initiative, that saving oneself requires human initiative, and that God’s help is implicit rather than overt,” he said.

“In that sense,” Halevi concluded, “Netanyahu is reading the Purim story correctly when he advocates active Israeli self-defense against a perceived existential threat.”

I would add the caveat that notwithstanding his reading of Esther, the prime minister would do well to consider Lord Acton’s timeless advice carefully.

Over the course of our long history, the holiday of Purim has rarely offered us a more compelling or relevant message. This Purim season is a consequential time not only for prime ministers and presidents, but for all American citizens, for all American voters, and for all Jews. We all share responsibility for the future course of events and for the future of our nation and our people.

With that in mind, this Purim I will be sharing with my congregation a prayer written by educator and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, who died only in 1963. Descended from a slave who fought for the Continental Army during the American Revolution, DuBois offered this prayer, which we wisely make our own:

“Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us — the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty  — all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifices and death. Mercifully grant us, O God, the spirit of Esther, that we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish.”

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser leads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and is the editor of the newly revived Masorti: The New Journal of Conservative Judaism.

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