The Shared Leadership Qualities of Purim’s Queen Esther and Abraham Lincoln

March 3, 2020
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik; Photo by Ryan Torok

“Esther, a woman, is the first statesman in Jewish history.” 

This is how Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik introduced the Jewish heroine of the Purim story at Beth Jacob Congregation on Feb. 26.

The Wednesday night lecture was the first in a three-part series titled, “American Jewish Experience Through the Prism of the Holidays.”

The remaining two lectures are “Three Civil War Seders: A Story of North, South and Jewish Identity” on March 31 and “From Cyrus to Truman: A Biblical History of Gentile Zionism” on May 18.

Discussing the history of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation through the lens of Megillat Esther, the rabbi from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel said Lincoln and Queen Esther shared leadership qualities that enabled them to navigate political obstacles to achieve their respective goals.

He said both were great leaders because of their “balance of the real and
the ideal in order to achieve what can be accomplished.” 

Speaking on “Lincoln’s Megilla: An Amazing Tale of Esther and the Emancipation Proclamation,” Soloveichik discussed how Esther was told by her Uncle Mordecai about the genocide awaiting the Jews. She had the choice to confront her husband, King Ahasuerus, but instead opted for a politically savvy route to thwart Haman’s plans. 

Mordecai, Soloveichik said, was a prophet in the sense that the “job of the prophet is to proclaim true north and do it without compromise.” Once she knew what was the right thing to do, “Esther surveys the political scene to get where she needs to go,” Soloveichik explained. 

“The Book of Esther is one of politics and statecraft. The Megillah, like American history, contains lessons for leaders today.” 

—Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik

He then went on to say Lincoln faced a comparable situation when assessing when and how to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. While he knew what was morally right, as Esther knew what was right, Lincoln was pragmatic enough to know that the proclamation would face political pitfalls. 

Lincoln, Soloveichik said, subsequently employed a mix of idealism and realism. Just as Esther had to determine without God’s help how to prevent the genocide
of the Jews, “Lincoln had only himself when determining what the right course
of action was to abolish slavery,” Soloveichik said. “This is Lincoln’s greatness,” he added. “Lincoln pondering the inscrutability of the divine will.”

Ultimately, Esther and Lincoln “possessed greatness combined with goodness,” Soloveichik said. “Of true north with statesmanship.”

He added that Lincoln was well versed in the story of Esther. He read from an 1848 letter that Lincoln — then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives — wrote referencing, “the gallows of Haman,” in regard to the Mexican War.

Soloveichik said modern-day political leaders could learn from the Purim heroine. “The Book of Esther is one of politics and statecraft,” he said. “The Megillah, like American history, contains lessons for leaders today.”

Lincoln, Soloveichik argued, is “deserving of reverence of Jews.” He said an improved understanding of Lincoln’s greatness could be achieved by delving deeper into the story of the Megillah.

Soloveichik then recounted an obscure moment in U.S. history, when abolitionist Rev. William Weston Patton visited the White House to urge Lincoln to free slaves in the South. Patton, he said, drew on the text of the Megillah and told Lincoln he was in the role that Esther was in upon learning about Haman’s plans for the Jews. 

Summing up the legends of Esther and Lincoln, Soloveichik said with people holding Lincoln in such high regard he is often considered without fault. However, he added, “had Lincoln been a saint he would not have been a great president.” 

Similarly, Soloveichik argued, Esther is unique among protagonists in Jewish literature, because the Megillah came at a time when the age of prophecy or divine intervention was no longer common. Therefore, he said, it fell to human beings to make the miraculous happen. 

Soloveichik drew in the audience with his detailed analysis of the queen and the president. A self-described Civil War aficionado, Soloveichik offered his best impression of Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film of the same name. 

He then recounted a trip he took with his son to Gettysburg, during which he took a Segway tour around the grounds and fell off his vehicle. He then quipped he could say with honesty that he was injured at Gettysburg.

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