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.