Leadership and Responsibility in Megillat Esther

In Megillat Esther, Esther exhibits strength and leadership, acting out of a sense of responsibility that leads her to act to save her people. In this resource, we’ll learn about leadership and responsibility, inspired by Megillat Esther and by a Jewish figure from the modern era — Hannah Senesh.

Resource Ages: 12-14


Mordechai had this message delivered to Esther: 

“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” 

Then Esther sent back this answer to Mordechai: 

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” 

So Mordechai went about [the city] and did just as Esther had commanded him.

Megillat Esther, Chapter 4, verses 13–17

וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי לְהָשִׁיב אֶל אֶסְתֵּר: 

אַל תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל הַיְּהוּדִים. 

כִּי אִם הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת, רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ. וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.


וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לְהָשִׁיב אֶל מָרְדֳּכָי: 

לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם. גַּם אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי אָצוּם כֵּן. וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא כַדָּת, וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי. וַיַּעֲבֹר מָרְדֳּכָי וַיַּעַשׂ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוְּתָה עָלָיו אֶסְתֵּר.

Nahalal, 17 February 1940

A few days ago, I caught sight of two things: a postcard from Budapest that Eva sent from a party held by a friend and, by chance, my hands, wounded from work. For a moment, I asked myself this question: Was it just stupid romanticism, against instinct, to leave the easy life and choose a life of hard work, the life of a laborer? But, after a moment, my mind was at peace. I could not live the Diaspora life. My place is here in the Land of Israel. The only question is whether, here, I have chosen a good path. I think that I have. I think that I won’t be a simple laborer. I have a desire to search for ways to make things better, to grow, to help, and I hope that I will also have the ability to do that. 


Haifa, 25 December 1943

There are events in light of which human life loses its value. The person is transformed into a worthless plaything or the argument is raised that something must be done, even at the cost of human life.


There is a need for people with daring souls, free of preconceptions. People who can and want to think for themselves and not be mechanical slaves to frozen ideas. This is very hard. It’s easy to enact a rule for people: live like this. It’s harder to live according to patterns of life that have already been carved out. But, the hardest thing is to establish new ways of life for ourselves; self-criticism is constant. It seems to me that this is the only ethical way to make a rule for people to live by. This is the only way to build a new life, a complete life. 

(Excerpts from the Diary of Hannah Senesh)

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What resources support/enable/inspire my growth?
  • How do we make good decisions?
  • What is the individual’s responsibility to the community? What is the community’s responsibility to the individual?
  • What are the factors that move individuals / communities / nations to great sacrifice and what are the consequences?
  • In what ways am I connected to the Jewish People?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How are the different leadership decisions made by the different characters in the megillah important to the plot of the story? 
  • What can we learn from Esther’s leadership transformation? 
  • How is female leadership expressed in the megillah? 
  • What can we learn from inspiring leaders? 

Background for Teacher

Leadership is the ability to make changes or to influence reality by leading others toward a shared goal. Modern psychological theories see leadership as an ability that exists to a greater or lesser degree in each person and see certain traits associated with leadership...

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Leadership is the ability to make changes or to influence reality by leading others toward a shared goal. Modern psychological theories see leadership as an ability that exists to a greater or lesser degree in each person and see certain traits associated with leadership as traits that can be strengthened. Leadership abilities include the ability to present a vision, to serve as a personal example, to make and implement decisions, to lead changes, to enlist others to work toward a goal and to delegate responsibility, as well as courage.

At the start of Megillat Esther, Esther is presented as a passive figure who is taken to the palace against her will and who acts according to the desires and the instructions given by the men in her life. But over the course of the story, she develops leadership abilities and, eventually, becomes a leader of the Jewish people, alongside Mordechai. This transition from passivity to activism is influenced by a conversation with Mordechai, during which he drives home to her the fact that she is in a position to save the Jewish people. Esther takes initiative and, out of a sense of responsibility, is prepared to approach King Achashverosh to advocate for her people, despite the danger inherent in appearing before the king without having been invited.

Positions of leadership often demand courage, as well as taking responsibility in the face of the possible costs of such activity. To that end, Esther delegates responsibility and asks Mordechai to gather the Jewish people in the city of Shushan and to fast for her, as a way of appealing to God’s mercy, before she approaches the king. She also sets a personal example, in that she and her maidservants fast as well. In the end, she succeeds in saving the Jewish people through her leadership abilities and her sense of responsibility for the fate of her people.

Hannah Senesh (1921–1944) was a Jewish fighter who immigrated to the land of Israel from Hungary, out of a sense of Zionism, and joined Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where she did agricultural work. During World War II, she volunteered to fight the Nazis as part of the British army. In 1943, she joined a group of paratroopers that aimed to parachute into European territory. The group parachuted into Europe in 1944. After several months, Senesh was captured by Hungarian soldiers and was executed at the age  of 23. She kept a diary until her last day, in which we can see the personal characteristics that led her to take on such a brave role, out of a sense of mission and responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people.

In the two excerpts from her diary presented in this resource, we can see Senesh’s development as a leader. The first excerpt was written after she immigrated to the land of Israel, as she gave up a life of comfort for the role of a common field laborer. This decision represents courage and decisiveness and, from her words, we learn of the sense of responsibility that she possessed, as well as her desire to act and contribute. The second excerpt expresses the actualization of that aspiration to contribute on an even greater scale, through the heroic and life-endangering act of joining the fight against the Nazis. The beginning of this excerpt is a reminder of the dilemma that Esther faced: to remain a “worthless plaything” or to make a great contribution even at the risk of losing one’s life.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Present the students with pictures of a number of well-known leaders (political leaders, social leaders, Queen Esther, etc.), without telling them that the thing that all of those figures have in common is that they are leaders. Ask the students to discuss, in groups, what all of those figures have in common, what their outstanding traits are, and what they are known for.

Explain to the students that leaders have certain traits. Have them work in pairs and ask each pair of students to come up with a list of characteristics of leaders, to try to define what a leader is and what a person needs to do in order to be a leader. Then, invite the students to share their answers with the whole class.

Question relate to Esther 2: 5–20:

  1. In the beginning of the megillah, before Mordechai tells her about Haman’s plan, is Esther a leader? Explain.
  2. Over the course of the megillah, Esther undergoes a transition from a passive role to an active role. According to the text, what is responsible for this change? In your opinion, what feelings did she experience that led her to change her position?
  3. What things did Esther do after she began to feel a sense of responsibility for the Jewish people that bear witness to her leadership?
  4. What characteristics do you think a leader needs to have? Which characters in the megillah exhibit those traits? 
  5. Do you think that the ability to be a leader is something that people are born with? Are there people who can be heroes and people who can’t? Can leadership ability be developed? Explain your answers.
  6. Not everybody wants to be in a position of leadership. What are some advantages and disadvantages of being in such a position? What risks can may a leader face? How may a leader make mistakes and how do the mistakes made by leaders affect their followers?
  7. A sense of responsibility can lead people to take on positions of leadership. Where else can a sense of responsibility lead people? Bring an example from your own life of a situation in which you felt responsible for something. How did you act to fulfill your responsibility?
  8. What selfish reasons can sometimes lead someone to want to be a leader? What might the consequences of that be?
  9. Is there a difference between leadership associated with an official job (inheriting the role of king or queen, being elected prime minister or being appointed to a position) and leadership based on an individual’s traits and actions?
  10. King Achashverosh was a leader based on his official job, but it appears that he did not possess the characteristics that a leader needs to have and, therefore, it was easy for others to manipulate him. Under what circumstances can a person who does not possess leadership ability end up in a leadership role? What are the problems with that?

Questions related to the excerpts from the diary of Hannah Senesh 

  1. What are the parallels between the story of Hannah Senesh and the story of Esther? How do these stories differ from one another?
  2. For Esther to act on her sense of responsibility for the Jewish people, she needs to sacrifice and to endanger herself by appearing before the king without having been invited. What sacrifice does Hannah Senesh mention in her diary? Why do you think she chose the path that she did, despite the sacrifice involved?
  3. When Hannah Senesh moved to the land of Israel, she didn’t think that she would be taking a leadership role in an operation that would endanger her life. Bring examples of other leaders, like Esther or Senesh, for whom an unexpected development in life led to them taking responsibility and risking a lot, maybe even their own lives, for the greater good.
  • After reading the texts, ask the students: Which of the leadership traits that you wrote down at the start of the lesson do we see exhibited by the two figures? Which traits do we not see? Are those traits necessary?
  • Ask each pair of students to conduct a conversation in which each student represents a different figure: Esther or Hanna Senesh. While the students are in character, ask them to discuss the difficulties they each faced in making decisions and what led them to decide to risk their lives. Bring the whole class back together and discuss the differences between the two figures. Relate to the fact that there are different aspects of leadership. 
  • Invite the students to react to Hannah Senesh’s words in a letter addressed to her. Or, present her words as a post and create a thread of reactions to that post. You can relate to her words in any other creative way, too. As part of the exercise, ask the students to express their ideas about her words: to argue with them or to support them or to express their own ideas about personal responsibility.
  • Compare the two leadership activities and the taking of responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people that Hannah Senesh engages in in the two excerpts from her diary: (1) joining the pioneers and the establishment of the Jewish settlement of the land of Israel and (2) a life-threatening mission to save lives. What is the difference between them? Is one of these activities more important than the other? Under what circumstances is each type of leadership appropriate or necessary?
  • In their own lives, students sometimes face situations in which they need to make leadership decisions. Ask each student to think of an example of such a situation from their own life (from an athletic competition, in the context of being a youth group counselor, as part of a class committee, at home with their siblings, etc.). Have each student take a piece of paper and write their name in the corner. On the top of the page, have the student write a leadership challenge that they have faced or could face in the situation that they chose. Have them pass their paper to at least three classmates, who will each write down some advice about how the student should act in that situation. After each piece of advice has been written down, fold the paper like an accordion so that the next student cannot see the advice that has already been given. At the end of the exercise, each paper should be returned to the original student, so he or she can see the advice that was given and consider how he/she should behave or should have behaved. Ask a few students to present to the whole class the advice that they received and their own thoughts on the matter. Ask them to describe relevant challenges and dilemmas regarding the suggestions given. 
  • Learn more about Hannah Senesh’s story and view a tribute by IDF paratroopers for her.
  • Learn about the differences between authority and leadership in the resource on Power in the Megillah.
  • We recommend connecting this resource to the overarching subject of learning values and behaviors from Jewish history. In this context, you can study the In Every Generation resource, which addresses responsibility toward those who are suffering, as inspired by the Exodus from Egypt; the resource on Kindness in the Book of Ruth, which addresses concern for the needy, as inspired by Ruth’s story and the resource Loyalty to Our Principles, which addresses the preservation of our values and principles in the face of challenges, as inspired by the Hasmoneans.
  • You can learn more about women leaders from the Gallery of Jewish Heroines and the resource Vashti and Esther: Women in Action.
  • Hannah Senesh also wrote beautiful, touching poetry. You can study the poem by Hannah Senesh that appears in the What is Prayer? resource, to learn more about other aspects of her personality.