Silence and Speech: Esther’s Estimation of When to Use Her Words

It is poetic and proper that we gather for this Hadassah service on the Sabbath preceding Purim. The Scroll of Esther, which we read each year on this holiday, is a poignant reminder about the risks of silence and the power of speech. The Book of Esther is framed by these two opposing ideas. The strange thing about it is that the logic about when to use speech and when to use silence appears utterly paradoxical. In the beginning of the text, when Esther is presented to the King, her uncle Mordechai tells her to keep silent about her identity. Notice that at this point in the narrative there is little or no reason to do so. Haman (may his name be erased) has not even been introduced to us yet. Pr

Esther prepares to enter the King’s chamber, perhaps fighting the urge to turn back, or steeling herself to have the courage to speak the truth. 

ejudice, hatred and violence toward Jews has yet to assert itself. At a time of little to no risk, Mordechai preaches silence and Esther practices it. By the climax of the story the relationship between these things is reversed. Now at a time of tremendous personal risk, Mordechai tells Esther to reveal her identity and rescue her people. It is her wiliness to speak, no matter what the consequences, that makes Esther a heroine. The silence of convenience is powerfully transformed into the courageousness of speech.

Esther embodies the painful truth that courage is as much about standing up to friends as it is to enemies. After all, who cares what our enemies think, say, or feel about us? It is the approval, esteem and respect of good people behaving badly that we are all too often reluctant to put at risk. Why compromise years of friendship over a two second sexist remark? Why make a big deal out of a racist joke when the speaker probably didn’t mean any harm by it? Why call out our supervisor or co-workers over a xenophobic slur if it won’t accomplish anything? Esther reminds us that nobody promised that calling out aggression would be easy. Hadassah, as she is known in Hebrew, admonishes us that reaching a position of privilege requires us to take a stand. Taking a stand, she teaches us, sometimes means feeling frightened and alone. Yet, if we persevere, she assures us, we will be able to look into the mirror, and back on our lives, knowing that we didn’t cower in silence when bigots, braggers and bullies seemed to hold sway.

Purim couldn’t have come a minute too soon this year. We need this Hadassah service right here and right now. May our prayers this Sabbath, and our rejoicing this Purim, inspire us to stand up for what is right, speak out for what we believe in, and look deep inside for the courage to proclaim who we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim!


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