Hello, my name is Esther. You all probably know my story. How I was taken as a young woman from my home on the order King Ahasuerus of Persia, to go the royal compound in Shushan, to compete with many beautiful women to become the new queen. You may also know that I kept it secret who my family was I and that it was only after I became queen that I revealed that I was a Jew.
But, here, in this sukkah tonight, I want to introduce the real me. Esther, you see, is my Persian name, a name I was given when I arrived that day at the royal compound. Up until that day, I was known by my real name, my Hebrew name, Hadassah.
Hadassah means myrtle. When I was little, my mother and father went to the eternal and so I lived with my father’s cousin Mordecai. The whole family was very kind to me and loved me greatly. They even spoiled me and affectionately referred to as “our little myrtle blossom”.
As soon as I was old enough to go walking in the hills and the wadis, I would pick myrtle blossoms and bring them home as gifts for my family. Here is Haddasah with the Haddash blossoms! I thought it was so funny. One day, my cousin, who I called sister, showed me how to open the myrtle blossom and look deep inside it so see a little star shape. After that, I spent countless hours as a child, one by one, looking for those hidden stars.
One day Mordecai told me the story of Abraham and how he was the first Jew. He told me of God’s promise to Abraham: that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars. He told me that we were Jewish. That there had been 12 tribes descended from Israel and that we were from the tribe of Benjamin. He also told me that our kinsman used to live in Yerushalaim but had been taken captive by the Babylonians and brought, here, to Persia. I was always to remember, wherever our family went, that we were Jews and would remain Jews but sometimes we had to blend in where we were living. I remember being a little afraid when he told me this. Would we be taken away again? Was it bad to be Jewish? Was it bad to be different? Mordecai could see that his words had worried me. He tried to soothe me at once and told me I was never to worry because of the promise to Abraham. He told me: If you feel worry coming, just count the stars and remember the promise. Yes, I told him. I will do that. Satisfied that he had given me more than enough of a Jewish lesson for one day, he arose to go back to work. Suddenly, I worried again: But Uncle Mordecai (that’s what I called him) what if I worry in the daytime? What if I worry then? He looked at me for a time and said “Do not worry, Hadassah, just count the stars in your myrtle blossoms” and he was on his way.
Now how can this story of my childhood be so important?
Well, when I was given the name Esther when I arrived at the royal compound, I laughed to myself. Esther, you see, means “Little star” in Persian but I told no one this little joke because, on the advice of Mordecai, I kept secret who I really was.
And so it was that as Esther I stayed with all the other women who were brought to compete for favor of the king.
The baths in the women’s house were exquisite. We were to take a full year to prepare ourselves for our individual meeting with the king. We ate like we were already queens and rested whenever we wanted. There were precious ointments, oils and perfumes for our bodies and ground colors for our cosmetics including crushed kohl for our eyes that had been brought from Egypt. We had silk scarves of every size and color and chains of gold medallions to be worn around the neck or as a sash on our hips. There were strands of precious beads and large beautiful feathers. In alcoves were mirrors of polished metal where we were encouraged to review our many choices of adornment.
At first I had fun with the other woman trying out all these things. A year seemed liked a very long time. Some of the women, I liked very much. But as the time came near to call the first of us before the king for an evening it was not so fun anymore. The king’s chamberman, Hagai approved all that we took with us, or on us, before left the women’s house. The first woman, named Roya, was approved by Hagai but changed her mind at the last minute and put more kohl on her eyes. It was too much! She ceased to look like Roya to me. The next woman, Kiza, who was approved to wear two scarves, one of red and one of orange, added a green one at the last minute and fluttered to the king like a parrot! This was not the Kiza I had come to know!
When I saw these other women panic, I started to panic, too. Stop, I said, and think. Why do I feel like I do? I asked myself: If Roya is not Roya and Kiza is not Kiza, then who am I? I tried to think of a time when I was the most happy . . . a time when panic was the farthest thing from my mind. It was when I was with my family. . .
At that moment, I knew that not only was I not Esther but that I could never be. Not on the inside. As soon as I said this to myself, I felt like Haddasah again and I started to tell myself the truth. This was going to be over soon, anyway, and the king would be choosing his queen very soon and I’d be going home.
Finally, I could feel my day was drawing near. The eunuch told me: Tomorrow at dusk, you will be sent to the king. Again, I was nervous. I reviewed what I had chosen to adorn myself and take with me. I had a hard time sleeping so went out to the courtyard, lay down on a couch and counted the stars and became peaceful as I thought of all of my kinsman and I fell into a restful sleep.
The next afternoon, I dispatched the eunuchs and all the attendants I could. There was still the matter of my appearance being approved by Hagai before I went to the king. I chose a simple tunic made of fine fabric and one large scarf the color of myrtle blossoms. Hagai instructed me to put nine gold bangles on my wrist, which I did. I then removed all but three because, well, the three pleased me. Hagai nodded. I placed one tiny drop of myrrh, as tiny as 10 grains of sand over my heart. I allowed khol to be heavily applied to my eyes but then chose to remove it. I wiped it off with a cloth but before I put water to them, noticed that the trace left behind enhanced my eyes but did not hide them, so I left it. I asked that my hair not be braided let the curls of my hair flow down my back and I set out to be escorted to the palace.
I was taken to the king’s chamber door and it was announced in Persian: “It is with pleasure that we offer Little Star of Shushan”. Yes, I thought to myself, you will meet a little star: a little star in the myrtle blossom. And with that Hadassah walked in to stand before the king.
Ahasuerus and I would spend the rest of our lives recounting the moment of our meeting. He said that even before we lay down he knew he would choose me as his queen. He told me that although I was not the most beautiful woman to come before him, he could not take his eyes from me. He told me I was intriguing to him. To this day he still has not fully explained what it was . . . he says he cannot; words fail him. But when I ask him to try, he says that he he liked the way I stood within myself – that it was just not me, a woman, before him, but my presence was there with me- in me. . . . It brought comfort to his heart that I was not too shy and not too bold. He sensed I had the strength of someone who knew to be herself.
And, of course, he was right. But, I did not tell him who I really was until I had to – later, when I asked him to grant safety to the Jews of his empire. It was only after I revealed that I, in fact, stood before him as a Jewess named Hadassah that he understood how it was I stood strongly. After that, he called me Hadassah in private (and I called him Ossy) and together we discovered that love is a growing thing.
And so you can call me whatever you wish. Within my tribe, I still like to be known as Hadassah. Because the one thing I learned while here and the one lesson I would like to impart from the eternal is that in order to be truly loved, one has to make herself known.