There’s an interesting Midrash at the beginning of the Parsha (it also turns up in Esther Rabbah): R’ Akiva was sitting and lecturing, and the people were falling asleep. He said to them, “What did Esther see that enabled her to rule over 127 provinces? Let the granddaughter of Sarah who lived 127 years come and rule over 127 provinces.
I find this Midrash to be extremely fertile for contemplating the situation of galut. The generation of Rabbi Akiva and the generation of Esther have that in common – they are situated at the beginning of exiles. In R’ Akiva’s generation, the people ‘fell asleep’ –they became afflicted by spiritual depression and ennui. It was a generation that had lost the Temple and become subject to Roman domination. In this setting, R’ Akiva turns to Esther (whose very identity, in the Rabbinic mind, is rooted in the state of Hester Panim – the hiding of God’s Face) as a role model for someone who can inspire a generation that had fallen asleep.
R’ Akiva, in this Midrash, emphasizes Esther’s ability to ‘rule’ over 127 provinces. Despite the lack of God’s palpable presence, Esther doesn’t let the situation control her, doesn’t allow herself to be a victim of circumstance, and doesn’t lapse into the apathetic default state of galut. Rather, she determines her own destiny.
R’ Akiva and Esther both lived in generations of breakdown. By what right does one try to pick up the pieces and forge a new whole from them? By what right can the Torah be made to strike roots in a new environment?
If Avraham represents a universal moral intuition, the Sarah represents a particular Jewish morality. It is she who insists, to Avraham’s dismay, on the purity of the environment in which Yitzchak is raised. She is the one who insists that we remain distinctively ‘Jewish’. The Patriarchs in general operate according to a ‘pre-Torah’, acting out the values which later would be enshrined in the laws of the Torah, but still in their unarticulated form. When new situations arise, it becomes mandatory to fall back upon that intuition, the heritage of the Partiarchs and Matriarchs, to reconstitute how one is to live as a Jew in this new reality. It is this intuition, embodied by the lives of the Avot, which enables Esther, and later R’ Akiva, to thrive in galut (based loosely on the Chiddushei Ha-Ri”m).