The Star of absence/5 - Understanding predilections, knowing how to stay close to rejected people.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 18/12/2022
"Esther wasn't exactly beautiful. She certainly did not have the grace of youth, given that she was 75 years old when she arrived at court. For all those years, the sovereign had kept Vashti's portrait hanging in his room, as soon as he saw Esther, her portrait took the place of the one with Vashti: the new queen carried both the grace of a virgin and the charm of a mature woman within."
Louis Ginzberg, The legends of the Jews, VI
The king choosing Esther and her pardon to conquer his subjects add new words on essential dimensions of life to our lexicon.
The value of the gifts during Christmas and Epiphany depends on the quality of the gifts during Epiphany and Christmas. The Christmas pudding we bring to our distant elderly aunt expresses something good and beautiful if during the year that Christmas present was also preceded by a few phone calls, a visit, time spent, and hugs and kind words given. We talk to things as well, words are sometimes not enough, and so we free objects from their commercial cages and turn them into bottles to which we entrust family, friendly and emotional messages. Gifts are the verbs that connect and give meaning to our presents, and enabling them to enter our most beautiful speeches. The God of the Bible filled humanity with gifts: the Covenant, the promise, the Law, the prophets, wisdom, Job, Ruth; and so, one day, God's discourse of love with us (logos) turned into the gift of a child - and the discourse of God's gratuitousness with the earth continues in every child who is born.
«She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem. Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so» (The Book of Esther 2,9-10). These first details regarding the figure of Esther bring her closer to the related figures of Joseph and Daniel. Esther, like her two compatriots, wins the favor of the "chiefs". The Bible praises martyrdom as a witness to faith (for example, the mother and the Maccabee brothers), but it also appreciates prudence and the ability to transform an unfavorable situation into a propitious one. The non-ideological gaze of the Bible on human actions returns: there is great value in giving one's life for being faithful to one’s identity, but there is another value in seeking a good way out of a complicated situation. In the Bible, we find both values, and neither of them should be discarded. We can choose which side to be on, sometimes we have to choose. However, biblical humanism reminds us that both values have the right to their citizenship within the same story, and thus tells us not to use our choice as a weapon to condemn the different choice made by others.
Unlike her two illustrious compatriots, Esther does not immediately reveal her nationality, she does not say her true Jewish "name" and she does not reveal her most intimate identity. This is also an aspect of being a woman found in Esther: among the many forms of poverty of women in the ancient world (and, sometimes, in ours as well) one was also the difficulty of revealing the truth about themselves. This identity related poverty is the condition of many "exiles", but for women (and for the poor) it is even more so and in a different way. They often do not have the "luxury" of being able to tell the whole truth, not out of cowardice but simply because certain societies do not provide them with a minimum of public freedom necessary to be able to exercise the "freedom of a name" in the private sphere. The most serious lack of freedom is in fact the impossibility of being able to lose it, because we simply do not have it, because we are in fact slaves. This is why being imprisoned and even killed to demand a freedom that does not yet exist, paradoxically, serves to say that we are already beginning a process of liberation, that we are emerging from slavery.
«When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her» (Esther 2,15). Like Joseph and Daniel, Esther easily conquers the sympathy of those around her. The eunuch gives her some advice. The previous verses had in fact told us that when it was her turn to enter the king's alcove, each girl «anything she wanted was given her» (Esther 2,13). It is not a simple verse. It is not clear what that "everything" that the girls could ask for was, and the interpreters (males) have gone wild with their imagination over time (clothes, aphrodisiac perfumes, gifts?) There is probably a hidden reference here to some ancient Persian practice known to the author (and his audience) but not to us. Perhaps the girl of the harem had the right to bring something to that first decisive meeting, part of her dowry, to be used in competition with other women, a legitimate expedient for winning the competition.
However, the text is clearly interested in highlighting the different choice made by Esther, who only asks for what her guardian advises her. Why? The choice seems intelligent to us: in an unprecedented context for her, the optimal choice is to follow the indications of those who know both the king's preferences and the rules of the game well. Esther trusts because she has good reasons to trust, and her choice turns out to be right: «Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti» (Esther 2,17). Esther seems more shrewd than modest – this is how she appears to us in the text. A shrewdness that interests the book more than the uncertain and highly questionable moral context. To us, on the other hand, the ethical environment must inevitably be of far greater interest. It strikes us that Esther should unite with a pagan king, that she should be chosen as his "favourite" because she is "loved" (ahab) more than all the others - loved by way of eros, certainly not by virtue of agape. Today, however, we must think of Queen Vashti, mentioned here for the last time, of her gesture of refusal, which we appreciated, and which makes it difficult for us to rejoice in her replacement with the docile Esther.
Then there is a second important detail. In the entire Bible, the text is never afraid to highlight predilections. The king chooses Esther, whom he "loved more than other women". Rebekah also loved Jacob more than Esau and «Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons» (Genesis 37,3). We do not say these things; above all, we do not admit them within family relationships, although life is full of predilections. The Bible knows the human heart, thus it also sees predilections within it. In general, however, it does not give any kind of explanation or legitimation: it simply registers them as a fact. We, on the other hand, do not accept predilections without explanations, we look for reasons, and we find them even when they are not there. Back in the day, those reasons were blood line, nobility, lineage, education; today it is merit and its ideology (meritocracy) that does everything to convince us that what are actually predilections (perhaps of life and fortune) are instead choices guided by just and fair reasons. We do not know if Esther deserved his predilection: we only know that the king loved her more than he loved any other.
What really matters to the Bible is that a mysterious history of salvation of the oppressed people began to be written with that choice. The morality of the king, the fate of the other girls and of the pietas shown towards them is of little interest to the Bible here. However, all this can and must be of great interest to us. Because after two and a half millennia of humanism, in part fertilized by seeds planted by the Bible, we must stand beside the rejected girls, accompany them as they return to the women's house from which they will never come back out again. And from there ask the author of the text some difficult questions: why did you chose to make Esther the winner of such an inhuman competition in order to introduce her to us? Why did you chose to discard all the others ("four hundred girls", adds the version of Esther reported by Josephus) in order to elect her? Was it narratively impossible to imagine any other entry of Esther into the history of salvation that was more respectful of the dignity of women? Perhaps the author would reply that he wanted to make Esther a "flower of evil" of Persia, a shining star in the middle of an ethically and spiritually dark night. This is why he introduced her to us know her within the walls of the alcove of a bizarre and lascivious king, where she had been "conducted", "brought": deported. And then, in the end, we understand: that ancient author is not describing a romantic scene to us, he is not only speaking of a king and his trade with his harem: instead, he is speaking to us of a people in exile, deported and enslaved, just like those girls. The Jewish people (especially women) who heard this story perhaps identified more with the girls who were not chosen and sent back to the menagerie; perhaps they sympathized with the slave girls who were defeated, not with the new queen.
What follows is a valuable teaching. It is fundamental, in every biblical reading, to decide where to place one's gaze and heart. Every day different readers read the same biblical texts and draw opposite conclusions from them because their points of observation of the text and of life are diametrically opposite. There are those who identify with Esther, some with the concubines, some with the eunuch, and others with the king. Different points of view, all present in the text, not all good, and not all lawful. I only place my heart and gaze in one place: today's Iran and Afghanistan, alongside women who are still too similar to those ancient Persian women. «And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality» (Esther 2,18). Pardons and gifts. Presents look good next to gifts, but they look terrible next to pardons. Because back in the day as well as today, amnesties were and are the anti-gift, they are its antidote, because they undermine the good gifts at the basis of the social pact. They are the means of cheaply obtaining future approval from the subjects and thus reducing their freedom and autonomy. Kings are very fond of pardons because they are terrified of gifts.
Human history run through with the conflict between gifts from the poor and pardons from kings. Among which, are the Magi who are looking for the child to honour him with gifts and Herod who would like to kill that child who will depose him from the throne with his gratuity. Angels, however, love children and gifts, and visit the Magi in their dreams thereby saving us.