The star of absence/7 - The threat to the people and the choice of a woman: like a play in five acts
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 15/01/2023
«Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments»
(The Book of Joel, 2,12-13)
Esther's decisive answer constitutes one of the narrative centres of the book, and makes us understand the dignity of actions that put life at risk, and elevate it to infinity.
To ancient man, his own voice and words were not enough when he had to speak of life and death. Instead, he needed to activate his whole body; all the resources of the flesh were needed to shout the first and last words. Screaming without tearing your clothes, without putting on a sack and covering yourself with ashes was too little. Gestures were the sounding board of the voice and made it deafening. We have forgotten the languages of the past, we no longer have the symbolic wealth of the ancient world and the Bible; we have lost too many signs of life. One day, however, when we decide to take to the streets to finally say some decisive words for the lives of women, of men, of the planet, we will not put on everyday clothes, we will print a different shirt, wear it, and try to associate it with our cry so that is heard by more people. Because those ancient sacks, that ash and those tattered clothes are still alive in some hidden corner of our heart, and occasionally they act without our knowledge.
Prime Minister Haman therefore sent the decree of total extermination of the Jews to the whole kingdom. As soon as «When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly» (The Book of Esther 4,1). Like Job (Job 1,20), like the king of Nineveh (John 3,5-7), Mordecai begins his full body lament. The signs that Mordecai activates were used for mourning and penance; it cannot therefore be excluded that Mordecai entered a state of anguish when he realized the very serious consequences that his act of rebellion had produced on his people. Something similar to what happens to us as well, when we realize that our act of dignity and truth has damaged our family or our company, reaching and touching the innocent individuals we love. There, a sharp pain assails us taking our breath away, and we want to erase the past and disappear from the scene. Then we live on, we cry out, we put on the sack, but we will not go back, not for anything in the world because we know we had no choice. Nevertheless, the great pain remains, sometimes it even grows, but it does not leave us alone for the rest of our lives, it is the cost of our dignity and that of everyone else’s.
Mordecai's loud lament spread across the land: «In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes» (Esther 4,3). Esther, on the other hand, does not seem to know anything about the deadly edict. The dramatic centre of this chapter is the long-distance dialogue between Esther and her cousin (and adoptive father) Mordecai, which should be read in its narrative rhythm, like a tragedy.
Act One: «When Esther’s eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them» (Esther 4,4). Like many women in the Bible, Esther acts without delay. Her immediate reaction is to try to dress her cousin again, to "take the sack off" him; (almost) all of us do this, women do it differently and more often. Esther's gesture is part of the repertoire of good primary relationships, but this primary gesture of the heart does not always work, in fact Mordecai does not accept. Sometimes friends do not allow themselves to be "redressed" by us, because while they understand and appreciate the love that drives our gesture, they feel they must remain in their crying nakedness. Moral life advances, every day, because those of our "cousins" who remain naked in the squares, who prefer the warmth of the soul to that of the body. They do not listen to our common sense, and thus raise the moral temperature of the world. That is why when we read this passage, we tell Mordecai: "You are doing well, do not accept any clothes, go ahead and continue your fight wearing your sackcloth". Common good lives and grows thanks to the few men and women who put on their sackcloth to implore the conversion of the powerful and cancel their extermination decrees: they are the "watchmen of the night", who faithfully keep watch in their lookout posts over everyone, pleading for another dawn of the earth.
Act Two. «Then Esther summoned Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why. So Hathak went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him… He also told him to instruct Esther to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people» (Esther 4,5-8). At this point Ester understands that the stakes must be very high, and tries to understand. The wall that exists between the court and the kingdom is very striking: all the Jews know of the extermination decree, while Esther, the king's wife, does not. Power creates invisible but very strong curtains between the powerful and the people. The decadence of the ruling elites almost always depends on the loss of contact with the normal life of regular people. They end up moving away from the dialogue in the trams, from the queues in the supermarkets, from the shopping in the local markets; the ordinary words of women and men are forgotten, especially those of the poor and the young, and incompetence on the decisive aspects that those elites should deal with begins to grow - the decline has already begun. This is the root of the sadness that emanates from the homes of the powerful: because we know that they have many things that we will never have, but we also know that they do not have something essential that we in fact do possess: normality, the extraordinary beauty of the ordinary.
Act Three. «Hathak went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death… But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king”» (Esther 4,9-11). This third act is one of mediation. The dialogues between Ester and Mordecai take place through a third party, Hathak, a mediator who carries out his job as a channel without obstructions perfectly. Nevertheless, there is also an echo of the mediations in the king's relationships, including the intimate ones. We know from Herodotus (Histories I, 99) that no Persian king could be approached directly without a "call" being made first; however, we are surprised that know this system was also applied to the queen, who seems to be treated here like a concubine or like any other random official would be. Perhaps because the wife was still a woman and her condition of subordination weighed more than the privileges of conjugal intimacy – we still see it to this day. In Targum 2 (the Aramaic version of the Bible) Esther says: «I prayed for thirty days that the king would not ask for me and thus not lead me to sin». However, Ester hesitates in complying with Mordecai's request, lingers, and thus opens the decisive fourth act.
Act Four. «When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place… And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”» (4,12-14). Perhaps, in the face of Esther's lingering reaction, the doubt of a possible opportunism from the queen begins to insinuate itself in Mordecai’s mind, who in her condition of power does not feel the danger that weighs on all her Jewish compatriots with regards to herself. We cannot say, however, as this moment of doubt is not at the centre of this scene. Its focal point lies somewhere else. Mordecai tells Esther that she should not feet indispensable to the salvation of her people. It is not convenient to make the other party feel like the only or last resort of our existence, even when it really is. Mordecai is desperate here, but not to the point of crawling like a servant at the queen's feet. And this is where God, who has never been invoked until now in the Book of Esther (in the Hebrew text), makes his presence felt.
Faith is also that last resort resource which in every situation, even in the most terrible and desperate ones, gives us the dignity of children. There are people who know this same kind of dignity even without having faith, but having safeguarded one’s faith for life makes these gestures more natural. Who knows how many forms of dignity, of believers and not, are keeping us alive now by preventing the earth from sinking into nothingness?! Then there is the beautiful sentence that Mordecai says to Esther: "And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this". Sometimes, the meaning of an entire existence, even that of past generations, is discovered in one single decisive moment. A great pain of a grandfather, grandmother, or a mother, is one day lit up thanks to the right answer from a granddaughter, in her moment. Like Mary's pain, the pain of Agar and Rachel, the cry of Tamar sprinkled with ashes and that of Job on the pile of manure, are suddenly lit up and in that moment we understand. Maybe we need to keep a few drops of innocence in our hearts as a precious treasure in order to one day be able to pronounce one of these different “yes” – even if it should turn out to be the very last one.
Final Act. «Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish”» (Esther 4,15-16). Stupendous. Everything became clear to her. We do not know what happened in Esther's soul to turn doubt into an absolute certainty, perhaps because these sudden alchemies are part of the secret repertoire of women. Esther now knows perfectly well what she has to do, and acts with the same prophetic force as Mordecai, she even overcomes him. With this gesture, Esther becomes something she was yet to be. She is no longer Mordecai's cousin-daughter who meekly obeyed his instructions. The right answer given at her decisive moment makes her a Mother of Israel, one of the most beautiful and beloved women in the Bible. And we can still see her today as she "contravenes the law" and repeats together with thousands of her Iranian-Persian sisters today: "If I perish, I perish". And then we do the impossible to keep her alive.
Dedicated to Brother Biagio, sentinel of the dawn, who continues his journey beyond our horizon.