August 6, 2020

Esther and the Pursuit of Likeability

By Rabbi Wendy Amsellem and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

In this election season, there has been a focus on whether candidates, especially female candidates, are sufficiently likeable. Likeability is a virtue as it indicates whether a candidate is attuned to others and can get them on board to work with them. Likeability can even be translated as חן, an ability to be found gracious by others.

Esther, a heroine of the holiday of Purim (March 10), is the queen of likeability. In Chapter 2 of the Book of Esther, Esther is described as נשאת חן בעיני כל רואיה, she is found graceful by all who see her. At first this seems like an ideal situation – Esther is liked by everyone! Yet, it is also kind of odd. Is it really possible to be liked by all people?

Rabbi Elazar in Talmud Bavli Megillah 13a explains that Esther appeared to each and every person as if she was a member of their nationality. To the Persians, she appeared Persian. To the Medeans, she appeared Medean. They did not see Esther for who she actually was. Instead she became, in their eyes, whomever they wanted her to be. 

Rabbi Yuda in the Midrash Esther Rabbah 6:9 takes this a step further. He explains that Esther was like a statue whom a thousand people can equally admire. In his understanding, Esther did not present as a distinctive personality with independent thoughts, opinions and predilections. Instead she was a blank canvas of a person upon whom others projected their idealized desires.

This is a familiar trap for women. In order to have חן, to move about the world in a state of grace, women are told to be everything to everyone, to blunt the more distinctive aspects of themselves in order to be likeable.

For Esther, this comes at the cost of an expression of selfhood. As long as Esther is a statue, everyone can like her. Esther is afraid that if she gives voice to her own ideas, she will sacrifice her likability. And so the real Esther, as her name implies, remains hidden. 

Esther’s pliability and willingness to be whomever others want her to be reaches grotesque expression in the continuation of the passage in Bavli Megillah 13a.  The Talmud cites Esther 2:17 The King loved Esther more than all of the other women and she found favor in his eyes more than all of the other virgins. Rav explains that Esther is favored above all the women and all the virgins because her body can transform into whatever the King desires. If he wanted the feeling of intercourse with a virgin, Esther could provide that. If he wanted the feeling of being with a sexually experienced woman, Esther could  provide that as well. She is the King’s fantasy, mutable according to his desires.

This is not true חן  .חן is not about scooping yourself out so that you become only a reflection of what others want. חן is about expressing yourself in a way that is cognizant of those around you, while still maintaining your personhood, in relationship with G-d.

Proverbs 31:30 warns  שקר החן והבל היופי, sometimes grace is false and beauty meaningless. חן is not an end in itself. חן that is only fixated on how others see you is שקר, falsehood. It is easy to get caught up in the desire to be well liked. The Ishbitzer Rebbe in Mei HaShiloach, writes that Proverbs 3:4 Find favor in the eyes of G-d and people is followed by Proverbs 3:5 Trust in G-d with all your heart and do not rely on your own wisdom. The Ishbitzer teaches that these verse are juxtaposed because if people are unduly preoccupied with finding favor in the eyes of others, they should focus their intentions on G-d, and fulfilling G-d’s will, and in this way they can achieve חן in the eyes of both G-d and people.

Indeed, this is what Esther does. When she realizes that G-d wants her to save G-d’s people, she is able to find the courage to express her distinctive self. Esther stands before the King as an out Jewish woman and makes a powerful argument to save her people. She asks for something real and important and the King can see her for who she actually is and finds her full of grace.

The story of the book of Esther is how Esther goes from the false חן of Chapter 2 to the true חן of Chapter 7. She stops trying to obey and please everyone and in doing so she finds her voice and her power. Purim celebrates the process of revealing the hidden truth and giving it expression to the outside world. As we read the Book of Esther may we be inspired to find true חן in the eyes of G-d and people, and the strength to persist in doing G-d’s work.

 

 

Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)

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