Reading Esther in Today's America | Opinion

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A deeply narcissistic man somehow becomes the ruler of a large and wealthy empire. He seems primarily concerned with his own personal wealth and power, so all around him the nation goes to the dogs. Half the government is busy pleasing the temperamental boss; the other half is seized with fantasies of overthrowing his regime. Everywhere you look, you see nothing but sickening groupthink, with decency and courage nowhere to be found.

Except, that is, in one remarkable young woman: Esther.

The Biblical book that bears her name is always a pleasure to read, but this year her tale ought to resonate much more with weary Americans in search of a drop of hope in an otherwise grim year.

If it's been a while since you've had the pleasure of Esther's company, here's a summary of her achievements: Tapped to participate in a kingdom-wide search for a new queen, she outshines all other candidates not only with her beauty and brilliance but with her humility, asking for no expensive gifts. She wins, of course, and when she learns that Haman, the king's wicked adviser, has condemned all the Jews to death, she risks her own life to speak up on behalf of her people. Being brilliant, she devises a plan so inspired that before long Haman hangs on the same tree he'd prepared for Esther's cousin, Mordecai.

There are many reasons to cheer for such a strong and resourceful heroine, but, read in our current political and cultural climate, Esther's story packs a particular poignancy. She reminds us that even when a society seems to have succumbed to intolerance, even as people allow their partisan affiliations and ideological hatreds to cloud their judgment and veil their humanity, even as government seems all-around incompetent to stop the descent into violence, all it takes is one decent and committed person to save the day.

Were we to take heart and find comfort in Esther's bravery, we would not be the first Americans to do so. Walking into a hall packed to the gills with a hostile rabble on September 7, 1853—during a women's rights gathering crashed by so many disruptors that history has dubbed it the "Mob Convention"—Sojourner Truth evoked the Biblical heroine who inspired her to stand up to her hissing, racist detractors.

"There was a king in the Scriptures," Truth said, "and then it was the kings of the earth would kill a woman if she come into their presence; but Queen Esther come forth, for she was oppressed, and felt there was a great wrong, and she said 'I will die or I will bring my complaint before the king.'"

Rembrandt Esther
'Assuerus, Haman and Esther' by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1660. From the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty

Sojourner Truth won not only the evening's debate, but, more importantly, her historical mission for justice and equality.

It's little wonder, then, that Esther's story resonated with Abraham Lincoln as well. Nine days before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was approached by a pastor from Chicago named William Weston Patton, accompanied by a group of other clergymen. Patton, citing Mordecai's call to Esther to risk everything to ensure the survival of her people, told the president:

"Who knoweth 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.

Lincoln listened, finding courage of his own and, like Esther, abolished a great evil.

Admiration for Esther has extended into the modern era and across the political aisle. In recent years, both Hillary Clinton and Mike Pence have expressed their esteem for her story.

And so, as government agencies, big businesses and cultural institutions struggle to chart a path forward for an anxious and discontent republic, Americans can return to the Bible for solace, as they have since our country's earliest days. In Esther they will find the story of an ordinary believer thrust into extraordinary circumstances, daring to defend divergent points of view and defy the powerful and malicious. Loyal to her people and dedicated to saving her society from its own depredations, her courageous choices continue to urge us to find strength and redemptive possibility in the least expected of places.

Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern is the Senior Advisor to the Provost and Senior Program Officer of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. He is the editor of Esther in America (Maggid Books), the first full-length treatment of the biblical story's impact on United States history and culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.