Sample Story: Queen Esther’s Joy by Rabbi Naomi Steinberg

from Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, Reclaiming Judaism Press

From Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning
Honored by the National Jewish Book Awards!

a story by Rabbi Naomi Steinberg

There was once a poor man who lived only for Purim. No other holiday interested him. In springtime, as the snow melted and families began scrubbing their kitchens for Pesach, the poor man was unconcerned. He lived alone in a dilapidated one-room cottage, which he readied for the festival by lackadaisically sweeping out some crumbs. As a guest at a neighbor’s festive table, the poor man sat yawning. The seder did not hold his attention; the sips of wine brought him no delight. To him the whole experience was as dry as matzah.

After Pesach the villagers counted the omer each day and looked forward to Shavuos, but again, the poor man was indifferent. If it were the tenth day of the omer or the fortieth, what did it matter to him? Others meditated on combinations of the holy sephiros, the mystical emanations, but the poor man found it tedious and uninteresting. On Shavuos evening pious villagers gathered at the shul and studied all night until dawn, but the poor man slept soundly in his bed. Nor did he bother himself to walk into the village to partake of holiday blintzes.

When the summer sunburned down on the village, the community gathered for Tisha B’av to fast and bewail the destruction of the ancient Temple. The poor man fasted as was required, but he shed no tear. What was the ancient Temple to him that he should mourn its loss?

When the month of elul arrived, the shofar was sounded every morning. The villagers hung their heads and counted up their sins. Pious men rose long before dawn to pray, and even the cheder boys grew serious and pensive.  But the poor man made no change in his demeanor. If he had sinned, those sins did not seem to hang heavy on his soul. On Rosh Hashannah the villagers dipped apple slices in honey and wished each other, “l’shanah tovah,” a sweet New Year. But the poor man shrugged and said nothing, as if he gave no thought to the coming year.

On the holy day of Yom Kippur villagers beat their breasts and wept, but the poor man sat among them impassively. If the gates of Heaven opened or if they did not, what difference did it make to him? For the Sukkos festival the villagers decorated their Sukkot and sat singing and making merry, delighting in the harvest of their humble gardens and orchards. The poor man stepped inside his neighbor’s sukkah and sat for an obligatory moment, but he would not stay long. He shivered in the autumn chill and hurried home. Nor did he rouse himself to joy on Simchas Torah. As others eagerly vied for a chance to dance with the holy scroll, the poor man stood watching with a blank expression, as if the Torah celebration meant nothing to him.

In the dark of winter the villagers gathered around the soft glow of their menorahs, singing, spinning the dreidl and frying potato latkes. A goodhearted neighbor invited the poor man over, but he would only enter the house—he never entered the rejoicing. On Tu b’Shevat the villagers shared fruit and nuts lovingly dried and saved for the holiday, the food of the Garden of Eden. They made the blessing for the fruit of the tree and contemplated the mysteries of the supernal Tree of Life. The poor man murmured the blessing and tasted a bit of fruit, but he left the singing and contemplation to others. For him the New Year of the Trees was just a day like any other.

But as Purim approached something seemed to stir in the poor man’s soul, and it was as if he suddenly came to life. His humble cottage held little more than a bed, a chair, and an old trunk, which served as his table for most of the year. A few weeks before Purim the poor man climbed on the chair and reached up to a nail in the rafters, where he kept hidden an old key. Then he climbed down with the key and unlocked the trunk, in which he kept stored all the items needed for the village Purimshpiel. First he took out the tattered scripts and carefully examined each one, copying out new pages where here or there one had been torn or smudged. He then trudged through the frozen streets seeking out the Purim players, delivering the scripts into their hands with the admonishment not to lose them and to diligently learn their lines and practice their gestures.     
He then took out of the trunk all the old costumes, the robes, veils and turbans, carefully examining each one, looking for signs of wear or damage. He spent many hours making repairs, reinforcing the seams, pulling tight any hanging buttons. He went to the village peddlers and begged them for a piece of ribbon or a bit of lace,“for the joy of Purim.” When the costumes were refurbished and hung out to air, the poor man reached into the trunk and took out all the wooden masks: King Ahashverosh and his counselors, wise Mordechai, evil Haman, and lovely Queen Esther. The poor man examined each mask carefully, looking for chips and scratches, and then went to the village artisans to beg a bit of paint “for the joy of Purim.” Then he cleverly repaired and repainted the masks, darkening the furrows of the king’s brow, or applying a fresh blush of red to Queen Esther’s lips and cheeks.

The day before Purim the poor man gathered the players together at the shul and rehearsed them in their parts, exhorting them to speak loudly and clearly and to put passion into their voices and movements.

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The poor man himself acted the part of Queen Esther, which he did with an uncommon gracefulness and a melodious voice.

Every year on the eve of Purim, the villagers crowded eagerly into the shul. Many l’chaims were made, and much schnapps was consumed. The villagers jeered and hissed at the evil Haman, drowning out the sound of his name with their noisy groggers. Whenever Queen Esther appeared, a surge of delight would pass through the crowd. And as Queen Esther spoke, all the people felt the worries and cares of their hard lives fall away as they reveled in a pure and precious experience of joy.

When the holiday was over, the poor man returned the costumes, masks and scripts to the trunk, locked it, hid away the key in the rafters, and returned to his old, indifferent ways. And so it went year after year, and no one thought that it would ever be otherwise. But one year, as Purim approached, the poor man climbed up on his chair to retrieve the key from its hiding place, and as he did so, he experienced a wave of dizziness. As he trudged through the village distributing the scripts, he shivered with chills. And as he sat repairing the masks and costumes, he felt himself falling ill. Each day he grew worse and worse, and, as the holiday drew near, he realized that he would not have the strength to discharge the part of Queen Esther. And so he trudged across the frozen streets and entrusted Queen Esther’s script to a bright village lad. The day before the holiday, the poor man feebly made his way to the shul to deliver the costumes and masks and rehearse the players. Then, exhausted, he returned home and collapsed into his bed.

The next evening the villagers crowded into the shul, and many l’chayims were made, and much schnapps was consumed. The Purimshpiel began and the audience cheered and hooted and shook their groggers. The young lad performed the part of Queen Esther with youthful enthusiasm. His voice was pleasing, and his gestures not unlike those of a queen. Yet, despite the merriment, none of the villagers could feel that special surge of joy, that they had come to expect on Purim. The Purimshpiel progressed, the characters came and went, but the villagers took no pleasure in it. Hoping to raise their spirits, they consumed more and more schnapps. Becoming increasingly intoxicated they bellowed and hooted at the evil Haman with growing fervor, but they could not taste that wonderful joy that for so many years they had felt with the appearance of Queen Esther. Their cares still hung heavy on their hearts. The lad tried his best and declaimed Queen Esther’s lines with passion, but the audience grumbled and shifted uneasily each time he spoke, growing restless and surly, until finally someone pulled the lad down from the stage and took the mask from his face.

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In their drunkenness, the people moaned and cried out, “Queen Esther! Where is she? We must have Queen Esther!”

After much slurred complaining and confusion, someone remembered that Queen Esther’s part had always been played by the poor man who lived on the edge of the village. But where was he? Why was he not playing his part? Then one of the actors recalled that the man was very ill; undoubtedly he lay in his bed, and, who knew, perhaps he had even died?

Hearing this, a roar of alarm went through the crowd. Someone grabbed the mask and costume, and with much jostling and cries of “Queen Esther! We must have Queen Esther!” the drunken crowd surged through the synagogue door and poured into the moonlit street.

Once outdoors the groggy villagers stood blinking and confused, made sober for a few moments by the chill of the night. Then, remembering their mission, the cry, “Queen Esther!” rang out again. They argued and shouted, debating in which direction the poor man lived. And then the crowd lurched forward, rolling along in the moonlight like one great, clumsy animal with dozens of heads and arms and legs. They made their way through the rutted, narrow streets of the village and came to an open field. The full moon shone down on a smooth expanse of snow, and in the distance, the villagers could see the poor man’s cottage standing dark as a tomb, not a wisp of smoke coming from the chimney.

A cry of panic went through the crowd, and the throng charged across the snowy field. They tore open the cottage door and surged inside, people filling every inch of the tiny room while more pressed in the doorway. The light of the full moon streamed in through the small window, and everyone saw the poor man lying motionless on his bed. No one knew if he was alive or dead. People began to weep, moaning and crying, “Queen Esther! Queen Esther!” every heart pounding with hope and dread.

After a few minutes the poor man stirred, and the crowd let out a gasp of relief, and then a cry of excitement as he opened his eyes. His feeble glance took in the crowd of familiar faces, and a faint smile played across his parched lips. Plaintively, like children pleading with their parents, the villagers cried, “Queen Esther! Give us Queen Esther!” They draped Queen Esther’s robe across the bed and pressed the mask into his hands. The poor man smiled again and slowly lifted the mask to his face. And as soon as he had done so, a wave of joy swept through the crowded room, and the villagers watched entranced as, lying there on the bed in the moonlight, the poor man declaimed 
Queen Esther’s lines. And with every word, the people felt their burdens fall away and their spirits rise, until every heart in the room was overflowing with joy!     

When the poor man finished all of Queen Esther’s part, and as he slowly lowered the mask, the villagers saw that his face was lit up with radiance. All the people felt as if they were gazing at the face of Queen Esther herself. And when the poor man spoke, the people knew in their hearts that they were hearing the true voice of Esther the Queen, who addressed them with a passionate, joyful intensity, saying,

“In this world of good and evil, right and wrong, it is necessary for each one of us to wear a mask that conceals our true nature. But there will come a time when all the masks will fall away. The hidden will be revealed, and each of us will appear as we truly are–as pure, limitless souls, forever suspended in joy!”

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Provenance:My stories come to me in an unpredictable flow of inspiration in which I hear the details of the tale unfolding in my mind. Sometimes the process is swift; sometimes the story emerges slowly. “Queen Esther’s Joy” began as a powerful distraction while I was learning in a class taught by Rabbi Miles Krassen at the Aleph Kallah many years ago.  I struggled to push the story out of my mind, but it continued unfolding, demanding my attention. I couldn’t imagine how the story would end, nor what teaching it might contain, because at that time I felt very little connection to Purim. In the last few minutes of the class Reb Miles said with quiet excitement, “I want to give over another teaching that just came to me. It’s not on your handouts. It’s about Purim.” He proceeded to share beautiful insights. As the class came to a close, the story came to its conclusion in my mind, and many of us in the room were weeping.

Naomi Steinberg lives on the Redwood Coast of California where she is active in efforts to protect and restore the forest ecosystem. She serves two congregations and teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Humboldt State University. She received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and other mentors. She and her husband, Saul, are blessed with two children, Miriam, who is a physician, and Berel Alexander, who is a musician. A book of her mystical tales is forthcoming.

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