Shabbat Zakhor 5779 – Esther the Feminist Hero

This morning is known as Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Purim.

Purim is my favorite.  At my shul in San Jose, we bring the bar up front of the sanctuary, right next to the bimah.  It’s so loud we pass out earplugs.  Our costumes give us the opportunity to don our alter-egos, and the partying is unmatched by any other holiday in the Jewish calendar.  Raucous merriment is the norm, and typical social rules are (mostly) set aside for one day.  It is even considered acceptable, I regret to say, to make fun of the Rabbi – but I do not recommend it.  Purim is the Jewish carneval, our opportunity to put a farcical spotlight on the hypocrisies and challenges embedded in society.

Megillat Esther, which we will read this Wednesday night and Thursday, embodies this spirit of farce, addressing some of the same societal challenges that we face today.  But there is so much about this story that we miss by not understanding it in its social context, and by not reading it closely enough.

Esther is unusual as one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible named after a woman (Ruth is the other).

But before Esther enters the scene in chapter two, we meet Queen Vashti.  She hosts a separate women’s banquet during her husband’s six-months-long party.  In his drunken state, the king thinks it would be a good idea to summon Vashti to appear before him and all of his guests wearing her crown.  Vashti refuses.

Furious, the King turns to his closest advisors for counsel on the proper legal response.  The men of the court are terrified that all of the women in the empire will follow the Queen’s brazen example and despise and defy their husbands.  Following the advice of one of his advisors, Achashverosh banishes Vashti. 

In recent years, feminist readers have found a hero in Queen Vashti.  She is a strong, proud woman who stands up to the male establishment with her emphatic refusal to submit to the King’s demeaning command.  

When the boorish King banishes her, Vashti marches out of the palace proudly, head high, leaving behind her legacy as a proto-feminist martyr.

In contrast, Esther seems passive–she is simply an object, used by Mordechai and Achashverosh for her looks.  Many contemporary readers accuse Mordechai of pimping out his niece.  Read the Megillah closely.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is a feminist hero in this story, it is most certainly Esther, not Vashti. 

Adele Berlin, author of the JPS commentary on Esther, explains that to really understand these figures, we need to know something about ancient Persian society.

It is completely inappropriate for husbands to participate in drinking banquets in the presence of their wives.  That is why Vashti hosts a separate women’s banquet.  

When Achashverosh summons her to his party to show off her beauty, he is the one breaking the rules.  In so doing, he places the queen in an impossible situation – she can lower herself to the level of a concubine or slave, or, she can disobey the King.  Either way she loses.

She chooses to disobey and suffer the consequences.  She defends 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 those whom society places in impossible situations:  “Do what is asked of you and stay repressed.  Suffer the consequences if you step out of your role.”  Perhaps that is why we don’t hear Vashti’s voice.  

Think of the billions of people in the world who struggle in societies in which women are repressed, children don’t receive decent education, or poverty, malnutrition, and lack of access to health care limit opportunities to get ahead.  People without basic rights have a tough time challenging the status quo.

Esther is the real feminist hero of the Megillah.  She breaks all the rules, and gets away with it.

When the King sends his soldiers out across the Kingdom to gather all of the young women, Esther, an orphan refugee, is rounded up as well.  

Esther is special in many ways.  While she is described as shapely and beautiful, she has another quality that is frequently repeated in the text.  Chen – best translated as “grace.”  Chen is an inner quality by which Esther charms everyone she meets.  Chen seems to be a combination of emotional intelligence, wisdom, and confidence.

After Esther is taken, Mordechai, who has raised her like a daughter, follows his niece to the palace, hoping to overhear snippets of news.

In the harem, where the young virgins go through an entire year of preparation before appearing before the King, Esther quickly rises to the top.

The time arrives for her to go to Achashverosh.  Although she is entitled to bring anything she wants with her, Esther requests nothing.  All she needs is herself and her chen.  The King is immediately charmed, and crowns her as Queen.

In chapter three, we meet Haman, who bribes King Achashverosh to allow him to kill all of the Jews of Persia in revenge for Mordechai refusing to bow down to him.  At the end of the scene, Haman and the King sit down to drink while the city is dumbfounded by the quickly spreading news.

Thus begins chapter 4, in which Esther takes charge.  Upon hearing the terrible news, Mordechai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and covers his head with ashes – all signs of mourning.

Esther hears about her uncle and sends a eunuch named Hatach to talk to Mordechai, check things out, and bring back a report.  Mordechai tells him the whole story, and even shows him Haman’s decree with the King’s seal.  He sends Hatach to Esther with the message that she must go before the King to appeal for mercy on behalf of her people.  In fact, Mordechai commands her to do so.

Esther does not comply.  “Everyone knows,” she says “that if any person, man or woman, enters the King’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.  Only if the King extends the golden scepter to him may he live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the King for the last thirty days.”

In this episode, we tend to see Mordechai as a paternalistic father-figure trying to convince his young, naive niece to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people.  This is not what is going on.

Esther’s response is not an outright refusal.  In fact, her statement shows deeper thoughtfulness and strategy than her uncle’s.  She understands the intricacies and risks of court life.  Consider her words the opening salvos in a political negotiation.

Mordechai responds, again through Hatach, playing shuttle diplomat.  “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.”

How should we understand this densely packed statement?  Is it a threat?  Is Mordechai trying to appeal to Esther’s ego, dangling the prospect of becoming the hero of the story.  In any event, it seems, on the face of things, that Mordechai has taken Esther’s response as a refusal to act, and now he is trying to change her mind.

Esther responds with a plan.  She sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for three days.  Meanwhile, she will do the same with her court in the palace.  Then she throws in a bit of melodrama, “and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

Esther throws Mordechai’s threats back at him.  She will indeed try to intercede, on her own terms.  She makes sure that Mordechai understands the risks she is taking.

We are now back where we started from.  The chapter opened with Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan in mourning.  Now, Esther has declared her solidarity with the Jews of Shushan by calling for a three day public fast, also an act of mourning.  In the postscript to the chapter, Mordechai returns to the city, and does what Esther has commanded him.

Notice that the exchanges began with Mordechai commanding a resistant Esther.  Now it is Esther who is doing the commanding.  And Mordechai obeys.  Their roles have reversed.  In its subtle way, the Megillah has shown us Esther’s transformation.

Remember Vashti’s big moment of defiance?  She refuses to appear before the King when she is summoned, and suffers the consequences.

Esther now does the exact opposite.  She shows up uninvited—a big no-no—but her boldness is rewarded.  “Even to half the Kingdom, it shall be yours,” offers Achashverosh. 

What is her request?  It’s modest: one small soirée, which is so successful that she follows it with a second.  When the King is good and tipsy, Esther goes for the big reveal.  Listen to how she builds up the tension:

If I have found grace in your eyes—chen—Your Majesty, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request.  For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated.  Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.”

She pauses.  “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” screams the King.

“The adversary and enemy,” replies Esther, drawing it out for maximum impact, “is this evil Haman!”

Her timing is impeccable.  Haman’s fate is sealed.  But Esther is just getting started.

She acquires all of Haman’s property.  She introduces her uncle Mordechai to King Achashverosh.  She puts Mordechai in charge of her new acquisitions, and the King assigns Mordechai to the newly vacated position of Viceroy.

She appeals to the King for permission for the Jews of Persia to defend themselves from their attackers, which he eagerly grants.

When the reports come back, the King himself brings the news to Esther.  The Jews of Shushan have killed 500 of their enemies, including the ten sons of Haman.  The King offers her another request.  She asks not only for permission to defend themselves again the next day, but also to impale the corpses of Haman’s sons and put them on display.

The King grants her request, and the Jews of Shushan kill another 300 people.  Across Persia, Esther’s people kill 75,000 of their enemies.

At this point, we might refer to her as Esther the Bloodthirsty.

By the end of the story, Esther is effectively ruling the Persian Empire.  She has taken down the second most powerful person in the court, and positioned her uncle to be his replacement.  She has put down a rebellion, saved her people, and become fabulously wealthy.

To accomplish all of this, Esther has broken every rule of Persian society, and everyone around her either does not notice, or does not care.  If we are looking for a feminist hero, someone to serve as a model for breaking the rules of a patriarchal society, there is nobody better than Esther.

As we celebrate Purim in a few days, let’s consider the strength of character of Queens Vashti and Queen Esther.  How did they handle a society that restricted their options?  What might they teach us about addressing the inequalities that persist in our world?  And if you are thinking about dressing up like Esther for Purim this year, let me suggest that a Disney Princess dress might not quite capture her essence.

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