The book of Ester is a small book, a mere ten chapters.  Most of us can relate the main events by heart.  We imagine ourselves as Queen Ester, convinced we share her courage and faith.

Do we?  In our fast food immediate gratification mindset, we can quickly lose our resolve.  We get anxious when we wait a year, a month, or even a week for Hashem’s response.  The timeline for the book of Ester spans eleven years!  

The book opens with Aḥashverosh holding a six-month feast followed by a seven-day banquet.  Vashti refuses to appear when beckoned, and the search for a new queen begins.  

The search takes four years.  Each girl undergoes a one-year preparation period prior to being presented to King Aḥashverosh; six months treatment with oil of myrrh, followed by six months with perfumes and other cosmetics.  Ester is brought to King Aḥashverosh at the end of this period and is crowned queen.  

Haman’s power and influence over King Aḥashverosh – along with his hatred toward Mordeḥai and the Jewish people – intensifies during the next five years.  Haman and the king’s servants spend the entire tenth year of the timeline casting lots – “throwing pur” – and Adar 13 is selected for the date of destruction.  Haman convinces King Aḥashverosh to issue the decree – and the eleventh year begins.

The first month is packed with events.  After her three day fast, Ester approaches King Aḥashverosh and he & Haman attend the two feasts she hosts for them.  Ester exposes Haman’s plot and he is killed on the very gallows he had built for hanging Ester’s Uncle Mordeḥai.

Ester’s task is not yet complete; a month later she approaches King Aḥashverosh regarding the upcoming day of destruction.  Prohibited from nullifying his decree, King Aḥashverosh does what he can; he grants the Jewish people the right to fight back.  Purim is proclaimed for an annual commemoration of our victory.

The sheer length of time which it took for Ester’s story to play out is a challenge to modern sensibilities.  Who has such endless patience?  Who has such unwavering faith?  

We picture Biblical personalities as larger than life.  We imagine them in continuous communication with the Ruaḥ, unwaveringly focused on their Divine task.  By contrast, the only revelation Ester received was the familiar “for such a time as this” admonition from her Uncle Mordeḥai.

Ester’s response was impressive.  She risked death – twice – by approaching the king without being summoned.  She risked death when she revealed her Jewishness.  Ester had no guarantee that Haman, after vigilantly cultivating his influence over the king, would so instantly and completely fall from power simply because of King Aḥashverosh’s desire toward her.

Ester is the most ordinary of heroines.  All she had was a lifelong understanding that she was part of something bigger than herself – the Jewish nation.  She did not win her royal position to live in comfort, but to ensure her nation’s existence.  May we all have her courage and faith, especially in the midst of ordinary days which in retrospect may well be the most extraordinary of days.

Mah Tovu

“How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov, your dwelling places O Yisra’el. As for me, through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your House; I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You. O Hashem, I love the House where You dwell, and the place where Your glory resides. I shall prostrate myself and bow, I shall kneel before Hashem my Maker. As for me, may my prayer to You, Hashem, be at an opportune time; O Hashem, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.”

B’Midbar 24:5

This prayer, traditionally sung as we enter synagogue for services, is a combination of five separate verses; one from B’Midbar and the rest from four different Tehillim. This simple device is a clarion call to us, urging us to pause and to look carefully at this prayer and to study the source context of the individual verses to better understand the prayer’s overall intent.

The first verse quotes Bil’am, a gentile prophet. Hired by Balak, king of Mo’av, to curse Yisra’el, Bil’am instead blesses Yisra’el. This was not due to any special affinity he had toward Yisra’el; rather, Bil’am was given a vision of Yisra’el from Hashem – the praise and blessings then poured forth.

This is a beautiful and compassionate prelude for worshippers entering Schul. Jewish worshipers rejoice in Hashem’s sovereignty over all creation as they recount Bil’am’s words praising The Nation. Any apprehension gentiles may feel by entering an unfamiliar setting is eased as they join with the gentile prophet Bil’am in praising and blessing Yisra’el.

The next four verses are from Tehillim 5, 26, 95, and 69. All four of these Tehillim are fraught with wicked and violent images. The particular verses cited in Mah Tovu are warm rays of sunshine from the midst of darkness, shining in stark contrast to the dangers and worldly concerns which otherwise abound in these Tehillim.

The beginning of the final verse, “As for me, may my prayer to You . . . ” can also be translated, “I am my prayer to You.” This is a humbling reminder that, while we may at times attempt to detach our secular lives from our prayers, Hashem draws no such distinction. The totality of our lives, our choices, our actions, is our prayer to Hashem.

These are the words and images which prepare us as we enter synagogue for services. We are entering a special place; we are entering a special time. Mah Tovu re-aligns our minds, our thoughts, and our hearts so we can worship Hashem without distraction or hesitation.

Mah Tovu is our gentle stroll as we enter synagogue, bringing to mind the worshipers who centuries ago climbed the Southern steps of the Har HaBayit in Yerushalayim. The steps, intentionally varied in height and depth, forced worshipers to pause and reflect on the holiness of the place they were about to enter. Some scholars connect the fifteen interspersed long steps to the fifteen Tehillim of Ascent (120 – 134). Worshipers would sing the Tehillim, one by one, as they paused on each of the long steps.

Mah Tovu, in essence, offers us a time of preparation. Our challenge, and our joy, is to embrace the period of quiet reflection as we and those around us get ready to worship with The Nation.

May He answer us with the truth of His Salvation.