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.

Telephone Terrorism and Bomb Threats – Purim 5777

As you most likely know, our local Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos was evacuated on Thursday due to a bomb threat that came in via email sent to the general information address of the JCC.  We should all be proud of how professionally the staff of the four agencies that are housed in the JCC handled everything.

The JCC, Yavneh Day School, Jewish Family Services, and The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley have undertaken extensive preparations, including practice drills.  When the real thing happened, therefore, they were prepared.

Ironically, there was an open meeting the previous night in which the security protocols were shared with the community.

As a Yavneh parent, I received notifications by text, email and recorded phone call, notifying me that the evacuation had taken place successfully, and that I needed to come pick up my children from the church next to the JCC.

From the moment I pulled up, I was impressed with the response.  The first person I saw, wearing a bright orange vest, was Mindy Berkowitz, the Director of JFS.  She was standing at the corner of Oka and Lark directing traffic and answering questions from Yavneh and JCC preschool parents who were coming to pick up their children.

Other staff were strategically placed to direct us in and answer questions.  The students were inside the church sanctuary.  They were calm and well-behaved.

On our way home, my kids had questions, but they were not scared or stressed.  I am grateful that there has been such thoughtful preparation.

I am also angry.

This whole episode, and the more than one hundred other evacuations of JCC’s, schools, museums, and Jewish organizations that have taken place over the past two months are infuriating.

I imagine that the perpetrator is some person or small group of people sitting around in a basement, googling “Jewish Community Center,” and randomly sending out these threats.  It is too easy.  And we have no choice but to take it seriously, because “what if…?”

A term that has been used to describe what is going on is “telephone terrorism.”  A simple phone call or email can prompt a huge, potentially scary response.  We must remember that this is the goal of terrorism – to provoke irrational terror in a population.  So to counter it, we must find a way to respond appropriately and realistically, recognizing that antisemitism is real, but also recognizing that the actual risk is low, and our need to continue living is great.

In trying to navigate my way through these experiences, I try to balance two opposing inclinations: naivety and fear.

I am struck by the timing, just a few days before Purim.  The story of Megillat Esther is the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy.  Every detail in it is an extreme exaggeration.  It serves as a satirical parody of life in the Diaspora.  Consider if the themes in Megillat Esther have parallels to other periods in Jewish history, including our own.

The story of Purim is set in the Diaspora.  The Jews are a minority living among many other religious and ethnic groups.  They are not part of the dominant culture.

In the story, the government, at first, is ambivalent towards the Jews.  King Achashverosh does not even know they exist.  In the Megillah’s caricature of him, he is a buffoon who only wants to party.  Neither Haman nor Esther ever identify the Jews by name to the King.  Both of them refer simply to “a certain people.”

Haman, of course, is the wicked one.  Driven by personal hatred and jealousy, he sets out to exterminate the Jewish people from the Persian Empire.  He does it through lies and manipulation.

He tells the King that there is a certain people who are not to be trusted.  Their loyalties are divided.  They place their own laws above those of the King.  They are dispersed throughout the Empire, and thus represent a threat to his very rule.

Then, Haman promises to deposit ten thousand talents of silver, about 333 tons, a ridiculously impossible sum of money, into the royal coffers if the King will permit him to kill them all.  The King is so impressed by Haman’s report of this imminent danger, that he authorizes his scheme and declines the bribe.

Antisemitism rears its ugly head, and the Jews are powerless.  The Empire is partying and displaying its excesses, while Mordechai and his fellow refugees are struggling to eke out a living, still in shock over the Temple’s destruction.  Now, they face extermination within the year.

But then, in a miraculous turn of events, the Jews gain entry into the halls of power.  Esther, an orphan, is selected to be Queen.  She rises straight to the top.  Through her cleverness, she manages to turn the tables on Haman – in most bloody fashion.

The King claims to not be able to overturn his own decree.  Instead, he authorizes Esther’s executive order granting Jews throughout the Persian Empire permission to defend themselves against their enemies.  We don’t know who these enemies are, but they seem to be pervasive.  In two days, the Jewish people kill Haman, his ten sons, and 800 people in the capital city of Shushan.  They kill 75,000 of their enemies throughout the rest of the Empire.  Meanwhile, terror descends upon the other peoples of the lands, and a great many of them become Jews, or at least claim to be Jewish.

The story ends with Esther, Mordechai, and the rest of the Jewish people living happily ever after.

A detail that makes Megillat Esther particularly poignant is the absence of God’s name anywhere in the Megillah.  There are not even any references.  A midrash identifies the beginning of chapter six, when King Achashverosh cannot sleep, as a hidden allusion.  Nadedah sh’nat haMelekh.  The King’s sleep was disturbed.  Not King Achashverosh, but The King.  This is the turning point in the story, when things start to go well for the Jews.  Similarly, there is a tradition in many megillot for a scribe to start each column, beginning with column number two, with the word HaMelekh, putting God into the story.

We also live in a time in which God’s Presence is hidden.  It takes an act of interpretation and faith on our part to recognize God in the world.

At the end of the Megillah, Esther and Mordechai issue instructions for the annual observance of Purim, to celebrate the victory over their enemies.  How is it celebrated?  Through acts of violence to replicate the story in the Megillah?  No, quite the opposite.  Four mitzvot: reading the megillah – mikra megillah, having a Purim feast – seudat Purim, giving gifts of food to one another – mishloach manot, and giving gifts of food to the poor – matanot la-evyonim.

These are wonderful, community activities.  They bring us together in joy and merriment.  For a holiday that celebrates our violent deliverance from near annihilation, it’s pretty tame, if you ask me.  But it sets up two extreme responses to the precariousness of Diaspora life: violence and bloodshed on the one hand – and costume parties and feasting with our community, on the other.  The daily reality of Diaspora life lies somewhere in the middle.

Antisemitism is real.  We can’t be naive or complacent about that.  On the other hand, we cannot allow it to prevent us from celebrating together, from building community.

That is why our observance of Purim is so important, especially with what has been going on recently.  It helps us give voice to our fear, but also enables us to put it in context.

Thursday night, after the police announced the “all-clear” and the JCC reopened, the Yavneh school musical, Golden Dream, went ahead as scheduled.  There were so many audience members there that extra rows of seats had to be added in the back.  The musical was great.  The kids did a wonderful job.  But the evening was even more powerful given what everyone there had experienced earlier in the day.

It was a celebration of life, a celebration of our commitment to be engaged in the world despite uncertainty.

That is why I am so excited for Purim tonight and tomorrow.  I look forward to reading the Megillah together, dancing, singing, feasting, and sharing.  I hope you’ll join me.

Chag Purim Sameach.