Purim 5773 – Vashti, Esther, and Breaking the Rules

The Book of Esther is unusual as one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible named after a woman (Ruth is the other). But Esther is not the first woman whom we meet when we unroll the Megillah scroll.

Those familiar with the basic storyline of Purim know that, before Esther, we are first introduced to Queen Vashti. In chapter one, while King Ahasueros is playing host to a party that has lasted for more than half a year, Vashti is hosting her own women’s banquet in the royal palace. In his drunken state, the king sends his seven eunuchs to fetch Vashti and bring her before him and all of his guests wearing her crown. Vashti refuses to obey the king’s command, and Ahasueros becomes infuriated.

He turns to his closest advisors for counsel on the proper legal response for someone who has disobeyed the king’s order. Memukhan, one of the advisors, steps forward and warns the king that Vashti’s refusal will make all wives throughout the Persian empire begin to hate and disobey their husbands. So he advises the king to order Vashti’s banishment and replacement, and the king complies.

This important episode sets the stage for Esther’s elevation to the royal harem, a position from which she will be situated to heroically save her people in their time of need. But we should not overlook Vashti’s prominent role in the first chapter. The problem is that she has no dialogue. We never hear her voice.

Who is Vashti really?

As many of you know if you have been to our Megillah reading over the past few years, or if you saw the Purim video that my wife Dana and I made, there is a special place in my heart for Vashti. Her story is so ridiculous and over the top that the door is wide open for creative interpretation.

Ancient rabbinic depictions of her are ambivalent. One midrash describes her as wicked, and traces her lineage to Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who destroyed the first Temple and sent the Israelites into exile.

Another midrash explains that when the king summons Vashti to come wearing her crown, he intends for her to be wearing nothing else. A critical version of this midrash describes the king’s request as punishment for Vashti having previously forced Jewish women to work naked in the fields. A more sympathetic version of the midrash praises Vashti for resisting her husband’s immodest demands.

In more recent times, feminist readers have found a hero in Queen Vashti. She is a strong, proud woman who stands up to the king with her emphatic refusal to submit to his demeaning command. Her strength strikes terror into the King’s advisors, who worry that all of the women in the empire will follow Vashti’s brazen example and defy their husbands.

When the boorish King banishes her at the recommendation of his drunken male advisors, Vashti marches out of the palace proudly, head held high. She leaves behind her legacy as a proto-feminist martyr.

In contrast, Esther seems passive – she allows herself to be taken into the harem and she obediently does what her uncle Mordechai tells her. She becomes queen based on her looks, not her brains.

Adele Berlin, author of the illuminating and scholarly JPS commentary on Esther, understands Vashti and Esther’s characters differently. To really understand these figures, we need to know something about ancient Persian society.

It was completely inappropriate for husbands to participate in drinking banquets in the presence of their wives. This explains why Vashti hosts a separate banquet for the women. When Ahasueros summons her to appear at his party to show off her beauty before all of his guests, he is the one breaking the rules. In so doing, he places the queen in an impossible situation – she has to either lower herself to the level of a concubine or a slave, or, she has to disobey the king.

Vashti, who is a heroic figure, even if she does not actually rise above the norms of her society, chooses to disobey and suffer the consequences. She defends existing social norms by insisting that the queen should not be put on display. In refusing, she maintains her dignity as her husband loses his. Adele Berlin describes Vashti as playing the role of “the strong-willed royal woman.”

But really, Vashti represents all people whom society places in impossible situations. Do what is asked of you and stay repressed, or suffer the consequences if you try to step out of your role of powerlessness. Perhaps that is why we don’t hear her voice. She does not want to maintain her position in the social order, but she does not have the power to break out of her situation. Think of the billions of people in the world who struggle to break out of societies in which women are repressed, or children don’t receive decent education, or people are trafficked as slaves. People without basic rights have a tough time challenging the status quo.

That is why Esther is the real hero of this story. She has that rare ability to break all the rules, and be adored for it. Whereas Vashti refuses to appear before the king when she is summoned, Esther shows up uninvited. Vashti is punished for her disobedience, while Esther is rewarded for her boldness. And nobody seems to recognize that she has broken the rules. Achashverosh and the rest of Persian society are so enthralled by Esther that they will follow her anywhere. The King gives her everything she asks for, and the Jews rise from obscurity into prominence on Esther’s coattails.

“Breaking the rules” is how we have celebrated Purim ever since. Raucous merriment is the norm, and typical social rules are (mostly) set aside for one day. The bar is brought up on the bimah. Our costumes give us the opportunity to don our alter-egos, and the partying is unmatched by any other holiday in the Jewish calendar. It is even considered acceptable, I regret to say, to make fun of the Rabbi – but I do not recommend it.

As we celebrate Purim this year, I invite us to consider the strength of character of Queens Esther and Vashti. What might they have to teach us? Perhaps a few of us will even take on Vashti as our alter-ego for the day, and give her back her voice.

Terumah 5773 – Our Life Can Be The Spelling Of An Answer

In Parshat Terumah, God begins to give Moses the detailed blueprints for the mishkan, the Tabernacle, or portable sanctuary that the Israelites will build and carry with them in the wilderness. The section is introduced by a fundraising appeal, identifying all of the precious stones, metals, fabrics and other materials that will be used. Then, we read the famous line v’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. “Make for Me a sanctuary that I might dwell amongst them.”*1*

And then, a final instruction before the details:

“Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.”*2* v’khen ta’asu.

The commentator Rashi asks a question. Why, immediately after telling Moses “Make Me a sanctuary…” does God declare “…so shall you make it”?

The Torah is usually so conservative with words. Doesn’t this seem redundant?

To answer the question, Rashi cites the Talmud. It is not redundant, after all. In fact, it is a separate commandment, l’dorot, he explains, “for the generations.” If, God forbid, one of the numerous vessels or holy items that the Israelites are about to build becomes damaged or lost at some point in the future, these blueprints here in the Book of Exodus must be followed precisely, and in exactly the right sequence, when building the replacement.

The Chassidic master Rabbi Simchah Bunim takes this explanation in a different direction.  He applies the idea of following a process systematically, in the right order, to us today, even though we do not have a Tabernacle.

In every generation, when Jews set out to do holy work, we must do it systematically, recognizing that spiritual growth happens mi-madrega l’madrega, from one step to the next. There is no elevator. We can’t skip steps in the spiritual journey.

Even though Reb Bunim lived in early 19th century Poland, his comment is especially applicable today.

We live in a an increasingly impatient era. Things that used to take a long time now happen in an instant.

Until the invention of the telegraph, for example, if a person wanted to communicate with someone far away, he or she would have to hand write a letter and physically send it with another person. It could take months for a message to reach its recipient. Now, communication is instantaneous.

Until just the last two decades, if I wanted to learn something about an obscure topic, I had to go to the library and actually open books. Now, in the era of Google and Wikipedia, I have instant results in my pocket.

If I want to buy something, I don’t even have to go to the store any more. I can order a case of my favorite cereal at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Instant gratification certainly has its benefits. But I fear that we have also become a less patient society. Things are expected immediately, whether we are talking about work deadlines, a new purchase, or research.

But when it comes to serving God, patience is a virtue. Reb Bunim’s teaching reminds us that there is no such thing as instant gratification in the religious life. Rather, progress is slow as in the metaphor he uses of ascending one step after the next, in order. No skipping.

Despite the impatience of modern life, we still understand that reaching goals takes a lot of systematic effort.

If you want to become a good cook, you can’t just open a cookbook and create a gourmet meal. Learning to handle a knife, understanding how different flavors complement one another, and mastering sauces only comes through experience, and many failed attempts.

The same is true of learning to play a musical instrument. Nobody is going to pick up an instrument for the first time and be able to play the song in his mind that inspired him to pick it up in the first place.

What about starting an exercise regimen? Whether the goal is to lose weight, or increase strength and endurance, it is going to take serious commitment. It will take regular workouts, and lots of time.

Whenever we start something new, there will always be a gap between our goals and what it will take to reach them. Progress requires us to go in a certain order. It is impossible to master more difficult techniques before mastering the basics.

And so, we know and accept that anything worth mastering requires a serious commitment. So why would we expect this to be any different when it comes to religion?

Think back to Reb Bunim’s staircase. To get up to the next step requires a large expenditure of energy. Then, we plateau for a while. That is what happens for someone trying to master a skill, and it can also be true in the spiritual life. There are times when we don’t feel connected. When performing mitzvot does not feel like serving God. This can be discouraging. In an age of so much impatience, we are tempted to look for shortcuts.

I worry that organized religion today has succumbed to the era of instant gratification. We plan shul activities as if they are stand-alone events. When planning anything for the synagogue, I am always asking myself, “what is going to attract somebody to this program.” We have to think about marketing and advertising to attract people to religion. Shuls nowadays need to have slick websites, and Facebook pages. We have to be able to get our vision and mission out there, so that the general public will get what we are all about in five seconds or less.

The pressure is on for our religious services to be spiritually moving for everyone who walks through the door.

But spirituality is not something that we consume in single servings. Our innate human curiosity about what is out there, and where we come from, and what the purpose of our lives is, is not going to be answered in one program.

We are all spiritual beings. But to be engaged in these questions requires a lifelong commitment. It is like learning to master an instrument. The more we play, the more music we can create. And the more complicated the music we create, the more variables come into being.

Journeying down the spiritual path will only lead us to more questions. But they are precisely the questions that make our lives matter.

In Man is Not Alone, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes “our life can be the spelling of an answer.”*3*  So we should not be discouraged. Whatever step each of us finds ourselves on, we can strive to reach the next step.

For someone, that may be learning how to read Hebrew to keep up in the service. For someone else, the next step might be taking some time to meditate on the meaning of certain prayers.  In other aspects of Jewish life, it might mean trying to increase the amount of charity that a person gives. Or it could mean finding opportunities to volunteer.  Maybe the step for someone is starting to introduce kashrut into his or her life. Maybe for someone else it is trying to cut back on gossip.

Notice that some of the examples I gave were in the ritual sphere, and some were more in the ethical sphere. Being on a spiritual journey requires us to recognize that everything we do has to do with God.

When the Israelites received the instructions to build the Tabernacle, they were given something special. It was not only at Mount Sinai that our ancestors could experience something spiritual. They were invited to be engaged with God wherever they went, at every moment.

And here we are thousands of years later, also invited to be engaged with the questions that matter, and to strive to have the patience to take the next step up the staircase.

*1*Exodus 25:8

*2*Exodus 25:9

*3*Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, p. 78.