When I was a girl one of my favorite stories was the story of Hadassah, the Jewish girl who grew up to be queen of Persia. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it’s actually a pretty good read. Here’s the story:
King Ahasuerus of Persia has a big party for his pals. There’s wine. There’s women. There’s song. There’s revelry. Things get a bit dicey. And Ahasuerus, who has had a few too many mai tais, gets a bug up his nose about proving to all his pals that a) the Little Woman is a Looker, and b) He Wears the Pants in the Palace.
He calls a servant over and says, “Go tell Vash to get her butt in here and shake it.” And then he high-fives his buddies, leans back on his cushions, slugs back the latest mai tai, and waits.
Meanwhile, Queen Vashti is over in the Ladies Rooms throwing a hissy fit. “The hell I will. Who does he think he is, tellin’ me to come in an’ dance for all his drinking buddies? Am I the queen, or am I not the queen? He wants dancing, he can use some of the dancing girls. That’s what we bought them for.”
The servant slinks back to the party.
“Where’s Vash?” yells the king.
“Uh…she’s…uh…not coming?” says the servant.
“Whaddaya mean, not coming? Am I the king, or am I not the king?” roars Ahasuerus. “Go tell’er to get in here Or Else.”
Trouble. Trouble in River City.
The king’s embarrassed. The Little Woman has dissed him. The queen’s got her back up, and even though she likes dancing, and probably would have been happy to dance at the party if the king had asked her nicely she’s mad that the king’s ordering her around like some..well…some dancing girl. She’s a woman with something to prove, which would be okay, except the king is a man with something to prove, too.
Before you can say “pre-nup”–which they don’t have–they’re in divorce court, slugging it out. Ahasuerus walks away with everything. Vashti walks away with nothing but her pride. She’s lucky to be alive.
Well. The king’s made his point, but now he’s short one queen. Not to worry. He’ll just pick out a new one. The way he goes about this makes his priorities clear. She’s got to be gorgeous, and she’s got to be good in bed. And a nice Persian girl–none of those foreigners. He sends out runners all over his kingdom with strict instructions to bring home the bacon. Or the cheesecake, in this case.
Mordecai, a Jewish guy who works in the palace, gets the bright idea of sneaking his pretty Jewish niece Hadassah into the contest. She’s not keen on the idea, but her uncle insists, and sure enough, when the runner comes to their neighborhood she get put into the cart and hauled back to the palace along with all the other pretty girls.
And then they have a year–a year!–of intensive training in things like bathing, putting on make-up, getting dressed up, and pleasing the king, in bed and out. And then the auditions start. Each girl takes a crack at it, but of course Hadassah (who by now is using the name “Esther” to make herself sound more Persian and less Jewish) wins.
The training program pays off for her; the king is happy. He is Pleased. Esther gets lots of cool stuff.
But outside of the Ladies’ Rooms all is not beer and skittles. Somebody tries to kill the king. Mordecai figures this out, and rats the guy out. The king survives. The would-be assassin doesn’t. An ambitious type named Hamaan starts working at the palace. There’s some tension between him and Mordecai. In the time-honored tradition of brown-nosers everywhere, Hamaan starts hatching plots to advance himself and make Mordecai do humiliating stuff.
The plots always backfire, and Mordecai ends up with the promotions and Hamaan ends up doing the humiliating stuff. Naturally, he hates Mordecai for this, and decides that firing is too good for him; he wants him D.E.A.D. dead.
Hamaan mulls it over, and finally comes up with a surefire plan to get rid of not only Mordecai, but all the uppity Jewish folks in Persia. He drafts a law declaring that all Jews are to be put to death on a certain day, and all their stuff confiscated. He’s not that blunt, of course–he uses code words and legalese, but by the time he’s done the message is clear to discerning minds.
Regrettably, this does not include Ahasuerus. He might be king, but he’s not the sharpest tack in the board. He signs the law and goes back to hanging out with Esther, who is putting all her king-pleasing lessons to good use.
Mordecai, of course, is less happy. He sneaks a message to Esther telling her that she needs to talk to the king and tell him what’s what.
She demurs. The king has been busy with affairs of state, and she hasn’t seen him for a while.
“Well, go to him,” says Mordecai.
“No can do,” says Esther. “I do that and he doesn’t offer me his scepter (how very freudian of him) and I’m dead meat.”
“You’re dead meat anyway,” says Mordecai. And then he says something big. “Who knows?” he says. “You might have been made queen for this very moment.” Remember that–we’ll come back to it.
Well, Esther might be queen and have mad king-pleasing skills, but beneath it all she’s still a nice Jewish girl, so she decides to take the risk. She gets herself all dolled up and heads over to the king’s rooms. She walks in the door and stops.
King Ahasuerus looks up. “Hey! It’s Essie!” he says. “How ya doin’ babe?” And he holds out his scepter. But Esther’s too smart to dump a downer like “you sure you want to kill me and all my family?” on him in public. So she invites him to dinner. And she, clever girl, also invites Hamaan. Not once, but twice.
King Ahasuerus knows something’s up, but he plays along. Hamaan, of course, is elated. He’s been invited to dine privately with the king and queen not once, but twice! Surely that promotion is just around the corner! He’s already decided his first act in his new post is going to be to hang Mordecai. He hires some contractors to start building the gallows right after the first dinner party. And he pays rush charges.
After the second meal Ahasuerus leans back, loosens his belt, belches, rubs his belly, and says, “OK, Essie, what’s this all about?”
And she lays it on him. “Hazy, I beg that you spare my life, and that of my people.”
“Kill you? Who’s planning this?”
“This wicked Hamaan,” says Esther sweetly.
The ending is predictable. The law can’t be rescinded, but the king makes another law saying that the Jews can fight back when they are attacked, so nobody kills anybody. Except the king, who has Hamaan hung on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai.
Happy days are here again. Queen Esther saves the day.
As I said, it’s a great story, but the line in it that I keep thinking about is what Mordecai tells Esther when he’s trying to convince her to risk her life by planning a dinner party. “Who knows but what you were born for this moment?” he asks, or words to that effect.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Maybe we all are like Hadassah, born for a moment. We just don’t know when in our lives that moment will occur, or for how long it will last. We may have been born to give a dollar to a street person, or to found a spiritual movement, or to rock a baby, or to write a book that changes the world, or to cook a meal that feeds a hungry soul, or speak a word that gives hope. Maybe we fail at most of the things we do. Maybe we bomb out in school, raise horrible children, and turn into foul old people who own dogs that bite. Our lives might seem like an absolute waste, but there is one thing, one shining act, that only we can do. We all have a moment.