Commemorate Me for Future Generations
-Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman-
The Talmud, in tractate Megillah, relates a conversation between Esther, Queen of Persia, and the Jewish sages of her generation: "Esther sent to the Sages saying, Commemorate me for future generations. They replied, You will incite the ill will of the nations against us." Rashi explains that "the nations will claim that we rejoice at the memory of their downfall," to which Esther responded that "I am already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia." The Sages, out of deference to Esther and her dedication and loyalty to the Jewish people, acquiesce to her request. Subsequently, Esther also requests of the Sages to "Write an account of me for posterity." They agree to this as well. In this way, Queen Esther merited that the Megillah of Esther was included among the holy writings in the Bible and is read annually, both at night and during the day.
The Sages understood that Esther's demand that Purim be established as a national holiday and that the Megillah be included in the writings of the Bible was in fact valid. The Jewish people were in physical and existential danger, as Haman sought to "destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, on one day." Yet, the result was that "it was reversed, the Jews should rule over their enemies." It is thus fitting to commemorate the miracle every year and for the Megillah, which depicts these events, to be included in the holy writings of the Bible.
Why, though, did Esther not say "Commemorate us for future generations" and "write an account of us for posterity," as Mordechai was seemingly an equal partner in the volte-face and the miraculous events that took place in Shushan? Why did Esther not take care that Mordechai too be memorialized for eternity? Was it not Mordechai who dressed himself in sack cloth and took it upon himself to approach the king's palace just as disaster was about to strike? Moreover, it was Mordechai who spurred Esther on, as the Megillah relates that he told her "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere." The Sages' actions are even more astonishing, as they acceded to Esther's demand and memorialized Esther alone in the title of the Megillah, and did not entitle it Megillat Mordechai, or at the very least Megillat Esther and Mordechai.
In reading the Megillah we discover that Esther is orphaned of both her father and her mother, and that she was a beautiful young woman raised in the capital city of Shushan as a regular member of Persian society. Her name, Esther, bears witness to her background, as stated by the Talmud in tractate Megillah: "Hadassah was her name. Why then was she called Esther? All peoples called her so after Istahar." Rashi explains that the name refers to the moon, as it is written, "as beautiful as the moon." Esther was taken to the palace and became the Persian Empire's first lady, thus having the pleasure of taking advantage of all that royalty had to offer.
On the other hand, Mordechai was one of the sages of the Sanhedrin. When the king's decree to "destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews" was issued and signed with the royal signet ring, it was only natural that Mordechai would tear his clothes, dress himself in sack cloth, go out to a public place, bemoan his fate and do everything in his power to reverse the decree.
As opposed to Mordechai, Esther, whose Jewish roots were tenuous and who came from what might even have been an assimilated family, and who presently sat tucked away in the palace as the Empire's first lady, could not produce the same expectation. Esther thus surprised when she called Mordechai, ordered him to collect all of the Jews and endangered herself by approaching the king without being summoned. As she testified about herself: "and if I perish, I perish," regarding which Rashi comments: "And just as I have begun to go to destruction [by appearing before Ahasuerus without being summoned], I will go and die."
Esther had reached the highest echelon of society when she chose to act, and urged Mordechai to similarly act, to save her family and the Jewish people. When she approached the king without invitation, she ran the risk of losing not only her glory and status, but also her life. However, through the vigor and transcendence that she displayed by approaching the king, she succeeded in convincing the king to repeal the decree, thus saving the Jewish people and earning the title of savior and redeemer of Israel.
Esther, who assumed great personal risk by approaching the king to ask for mercy for her people, earned the right to claim "commemorate me for future generations" and "write an account of me for posterity." It was for this reason that the Sages acquiesced to her request. Esther merited that the Megillah would be written and preserved for future generations and would bear her name. In this way, the Sages wished to encourage Jews the world over, in every generation, to act for the benefit of their people. By committing acts such as these, the Sages guaranteed that the agents would be enshrined in the annals of the Jewish people for posterity.
Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman is a member of the Executive World Zionist Organization and head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora.