What was the secret of Esther's extraordinary (even supernatural) grace.1 It wasn't her sense of fashion, for she did not primp even before her big night with the king. (Esther 2:15) And it wasn't her physical features, as captivating as they were, 2 for outer beauty, though compelling, always has detractors — it inevitably, also, arouses envy. Not so for Esther, who found grace in everyone's eyes. Before she revealed her Jewish roots, each nation was sure she was one of them. (Megilah 13a)

The Ya'arot D'evash3 discloses her secret: All those that Esther met saw themselves in her, because she would see herself in them.

"Esther inspired affection in all who met her..."

"Esther inspired affection in all who met her because, even though she was the most powerful woman in the world, she related to every person as her equal. This was not a manipulative strategy but the truth of how she saw the world. Esther identified so deeply with the essence of people — all people — that they felt as if she was their soul-sister, cut from the same cloth, reared in the same household. Everyone felt seen, mirrored and drawn to Esther through a mysterious bond of reciprocal affection."

Every soul has a specialty. Each person brings some facet of G‑dliness into focus through the lens of his or her life. It may be the virtue that one values most, or an area where one naturally excels. Sometimes it's glimpsed when one feels "in the zone," but it may be the place where one struggles most. Just as there is a uniform code of spiritual law articulated by the Torah, so do we each have a special assignment that is optional for others but binding on us. R. Isaac Luria (the Ari) teaches that we are obligated to strive toward perfection in the area of our soul specialty, and if we don't it counts as a debit, no less than transgressing the uniform code.

Esther's specialty was her compassionate x-ray vision, the honor she showed toward all mankind. Wherever she looked she saw to the core, to the G‑dly spark embedded there. Esther was utterly dedicated to her people yet lacked all trace of racist taint. It is no surprise that this was her test, to perfect this virtue to an ultimate degree.

Everyone knows that Esther risked her life when she entered the king's chambers unbidden to beg that he retract the decree that called for her people's extinction. Yet in that fateful moment she risked more than death, and was tested on many fronts.

When she passed through that door she forfeit all hope of resuming her marriage to Mordechai.4 Initiating this tryst with the king would irrevocably seal her fate — she must remain forever, now, Ahashverosh's wife.

And still there was another test that stunned her at that doorway.

And still there was another test that stunned her at that doorway. The Talmud recounts:

"Esther...stood in the inner court of the king's palace." (Esther 5:1) R. Levi comments on this verse: As Esther prepared to plead for her people, she reached the chamber of the ts'lamim [usually translated as idols], and felt the Shechinah leave her, fallen and bereft of grace. Broken, she cried out the words of Psalm 22, "My G‑d, My G‑d, why have You forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:2) Continuing her conversation with G‑d and seeking to know why the Shechinah had dropped her, Esther speculates...Perhaps it is because I called Ahashverosh a 'dog', as the psalm reads further on, "Deliver my soul from...the dog." (Psalm 22:21) Straightaway she retracted her words and esteemed him with the title of lion, as the psalm continues, "Save me from the lion's mouth." (Psalm 22:22)

Even in this extreme situation, where the king designated Esther his wife without considering her consent (while in fact her heart belonged to her beloved Mordechai); and even after he crowned her as queen he continued to gather the virgins; and he was in cahoots with Haman the Amalakite and archenemy of the Jewish nation; and had issued a decree for her beloved people's genocidal extinction...even with all these justifications (personal, national, and religious) the Shechinah would not tolerate a disparaging word from Esther about this idolatrous tyrant.

The Talmud employs a term that does not appear in the Biblical tale: it describes Esther approaching the chamber of tslamim, plural of tselem, which means image, and is assumed here to mean idols. The standard interpretation is that the Divine Presence does not dwell in a place of spiritual impurity, and the presence of idols is the ultimate desecration. Since Ahashverosh was an idolater, there were sure to be idols in his throne-room, and they are what caused the Shechinah to leave when Esther crossed that threshold.

Yet, there is another interpretation even more consistent with the original verse and with Esther's successful remedy. Tselem is the term the Bible employs to teach that we humans were "created in the image of G‑d." The chamber of tslamim becomes the inner soul core of human beings, where their spark of G‑dliness dwells. The verse that inspired the Talmud's commentary is thus properly read: "Esther stood in the inner court of the [heavenly] King's palace [the chamber of tslamim, where the image of G‑d resides.]" (Megilla 15b) Esther's job, her Divine mission, is to never lose sight of the holy tselem, the image of G‑d that dwells at the core of all who stand before her.

Only with Esther's humble grace can one enter the chamber of tslamim where a brief lapse of anger or a racist word counts as a full-fledged sin (evidenced by the Shechinah's retreat when she called Ahashverosh a dog). The Shem M'Shmuel notes that her insult equated him to Amalek, which closed all doors to his teshuva and transformation. 5 In contrast, a lion is the noblest of creatures, identified with Judah, and one of the three holy beasts on the heavenly Throne of Glory.6 To label him a lion is to affirm his holy root and the possibility (nay, inevitability) of his teshuva. That is the only viewpoint that is welcomed in the holy of holies where the image of G‑d resides. Smuggle in a racist slur and the Shechina drops you like a leaden idol.

But Esther held the paradox. She didn't turn her gracious heart into a rigid ideology that paralyzed her from employing might to defend her nation if necessary. She commandeered the war with Amalek as the text clearly states. (Esther, chapters 8 and 9) And she even made difficult decisions that increased enemy casualties. Yet her judgment was not skewed by rage or racist hatred, She designed the most spiritually productive battle plan to assure her people's safety and she acted decisively.

...our greatest challenge as a people is to heal the rifts among ourselves.

It is painfully clear that our greatest challenge as a people is to heal the rifts among ourselves. But how? We study the laws of right-speech and try to refrain from slander. We commit ourselves to generous deeds and weave threads of love that way. Our prayers are for the Jewish nation including every one. Yet all these seeds will only sprout if they fall on fertile soil. And for this (literally) ground-breaking work, Esther is our model. Our fierce drive to heal our people must rest upon a universal base. We must cultivate a habit of kindness toward the peoples and creatures of the world.

In Duties of the Heart,7 Rabbi Bechaya brings a teaching tale:

A group of students were walking with their rabbi along a country road. They passed the carcass of a rotting dog that wafted a foul odor. The disciples commented on how putrid the carcass smelled. The old sage answered them, "How white are its teeth!" The pupils immediately regretted their disparaging remark. If it is reprehensible to make a derogatory comment concerning a dead dog, how much more so is it wrong to denigrate a living human being...The goal of this pious rabbi was to instill the habit of viewing the world with a kind eye, even something as lowly as a dead dog.

Ours is a holographic world, which means that every piece contains something of every other piece inside itself. And that means that every nation also embodies aspects of every other nation as well. And that means that if we cannot honor (even celebrate) the diversity of peoples, cultures and creatures on our planet, then we will not succeed in "loving our holy Jewish brethren as ourselves," for when they remind us of a nation for which we feel contempt our love will fast dissolve into disdain.

Let it be that on this holy Purim day, when Esther's lights stream through the world that they wash away our racist taints (individual and collective) so that we fix our gaze on the image of G‑d in all the places it be found. And with Esther's twinkle in our eye, let us pass through all the barriers that block us from our King, and there, within that sanctum, standing face to face, let us pray that every word we speak and every act we do should always bring the greatest good that is possible at that time. And in that way, together all, we should bring Mashiach now. For if we follow Esther's lead, and cleanse our hearts from pride, our prayer is sure to draw down grace, for that's the promise of this day.