Many things mark the unique holiday of Purim. It is a day given to drinking, feasting, costume wearing and humor. This is remarkable given some of the story’s more serious themes. Haman is of course considered history’s first antisemite, a man who wanted to kill all Jews because he was angry with one Jew. It is also a story about women’s rights.
Let me explain. It all starts at a wild party in which King Ahasuerus demands that his beautiful wife Vashti dance for him and his friends. He instructs his servants to bring her into the party wearing (only) her crown. “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command…” (Esther 1:12) She refuses to dance naked before the king and his friends. Vashti is then banished from the palace and stripped of her crown. (Sorry I could not resist the double entendre.)
The king’s advisors fear a feminist revolt. “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against your majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples… For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands…” (Esther 1:16-17) Vashti’s sin is that she refuses the king’s command. She has a mind of her own. Vashti represents an independent woman. She has thoughts different than her husbands, ideas that are hers alone. She is a woman who refuses to be viewed only as an object of beauty, paraded around for others to admire.
On the other hand, the Jewish heroine of the story, Esther, lives by a different rule. And herein lies the irony of our story. The woman who saves the Jewish people from catastrophe and the genocidal designs of Haman gains this position of power and the title of queen by winning a beauty pageant. The Book of Esther records no words about world peace or platforms about disadvantaged children from our heroine. She is paraded before the king after twelve months of beauty treatments. No words are even spoken between this future queen and her king. She wins his favor by her beauty alone. “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (Esther 2:17)
It is a bitter irony that Esther does what Vashti refuses to do. She parades before the king. Our great heroine is treated as the object that Vashti refuses to become. In fact Esther never acts of her own accord. Even when she comes to the rescue of the Jewish people it is at her uncle Mordecai’s behest. He pleads with her before she agrees to defend her people. He implores her by saying: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace… And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:13-14) In the end it is the woman who is the object of beauty who saves the Jewish people and the independent, thinking woman who is sidelined. No one of course asks the question of them, at what cost to each of their souls.
As I reflect on these past week’s events and Rush Limbaugh’s hateful comments I am reminded of this story. I recall that although we might live thousands of years past the Purim story, and decades since the feminist revolution, we continue to struggle with these very same issues.
And so on this joyous holiday I am reminded again about the hidden meanings in this ancient parody, a story of two beautiful women who live their lives by very different rules. Although my tradition suggests otherwise I turn this year not to Esther for strength. This year I have resolved to choose differently.
I choose instead Vashti. May her courage and independence always be an inspiration.