The story opens as King Achashverosh throws a feast to display his own honor, “the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor [yekar in Hebrew] of his excellent majesty” (Est. 1:4). But when the king wants to put his wife, Queen Vashti, on display too, she refuses, doubtless seeing this as a threat to her honor. Normally, the Persians don’t allow women at their feasts, so Vashti hosted a separate event for the women (Es. 1:9). Now, when she’s summoned to appear before the men in her royal diadem (and, according to Midrash Rabbah, in nothing else!), she refuses. Achashverosh and his advisers consider this refusal a great affront to his honor and decide that Vashti must be removed, so that everyone will hear of her disgrace and “all wives will give honor [yekar again] to their husbands, both great and small” (Es. 1:20).
The word yekar, translated “splendor” in verse four, is a less common Hebrew term for honor than kavod. Yekar appears ten times in the book of Esther, and is based on the root word meaning “precious” or “treasured.” So, honor entails ascribing great value to someone or something. Achashverosh wants his subjects to see how much value they should ascribe to him, and somehow thinks that parading his wife before his drunken cohorts will up his net worth. She, on the other hand, refuses to be put on display and protects her own honor, but the all-male court decides this act threatens to devalue all the husbands in the realm, and they give Vashti the boot.
This introduction sets the stage for a battle for honor between Mordecai and Haman. Mordecai saves the king’s life by uncovering an assassination plot . . . and Haman gets honored for no apparent reason at all (Es. 2:21–3:1). This Haman character turns out to be “a glutton for honor” (The Jewish Study Bible), and becomes enraged when Mordecai refuses to feed his appetite. One night, Haman decides to approach the king for permission to do away with Mordecai. When he arrives, the king has just discovered that he forgot to honor the man who saved his life, so he asks Haman to recommend the best way to honor someone. Haman, thinking he’s the guy to honor, suggests an elaborate ritual, and the king orders Haman to perform it on behalf of Mordecai! In the next few verses, we run through seven more instances of the word yekar, and arrive at the first installment of Haman’s downfall: “So Haman took the robe and the horse, arrayed Mordecai and led him on horseback through the city square, and proclaimed before him, ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor!’” (Es. 6:11).
Haman has learned the hard way a basic Mussar lesson about honor—we’re to shun it for ourselves and lavish it upon others: “Who is the one who is honored? The one who honors others, as it is written, ‘For those who honor Me I will honor, and those who scorn Me shall be abased’” (Avot 4:1 citing 1 Sam. 2:30). Mordecai, who was dressed in sackcloth and ashes not long before being draped in the king’s robe (4:1–4), demonstrates another lesson: Hashem honors the lowly, often in a divine reversal of outward circumstances. He who humbles himself will be exalted (1 Pet. 5:6).
The exaltation of the lowly Mordecai after Haman’s final demise brings us to the last appearance of yekar, and to the proper use of honor:
So Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, with a great crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad. The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor [yekar]. (Es. 8:15–16)
Haman is a glutton for honor, but Mordecai gets honor without even looking for it. When honor comes, it doesn’t benefit him alone, but his whole people. The book of Esther defines honor as the recognition of great value in a person. It tells us, first, to bestow this sort of honor upon others ahead of ourselves; and, second, to employ honor, if we receive it ourselves, for the sake of the whole community and not for self alone.