The book or megillah of Esther a very odd book to be included in sacred scriptures, for a couple of reasons. First, it never mentions God, not once. Second, it is a farce, full of exaggeration and a ridiculous king who would much prefer to party than rule and who depends on his advisors for all decisions. The book displays silly—but dangerous—rules and behavior, and lots—I mean lots—of sexual innuendoes. In the bible.
It is also the story of powerless people—immigrants, outsiders who are victorious over genocide, by using irregular methods, the methods available to powerless people.
But it is also in some ways the most feminist book in the bible. First, it’s actually named for a woman, Esther. Second, she’s a true heroine, even if she’s a beauty pageant winner. It’s the perfect book of the bible for the #MeToo movement and moment. While it is a feminist story, misogyny runs rampant through the Book of Esther, hard to ignore.
The book starts with a big drinking party that goes on for 180 days, and then is extended for another week, so that the locals can come.
On the last day, King Achashverosh sends his minions with a command that his Queen, Vashti, who had been partying separately with the women, come to his party, wearing her royal diadem. The assumption of the ancient rabbis is that the diadem is all she is to wear. All. She. Is. To. Wear.
We’re not told why. We can imagine. What would you do if you were a queen, and you were commanded to enter a room full of drunken men wearing nothing by a royal diadem?
Maybe she had had enough.
Maybe she was happy with her women.
Maybe she was modest and the idea—even clothed—disgusted her.
Whatever her reason, her answer doesn’t go over well. The king is enraged, as only a drunken, buffoon king can be, and calls in his advisers.
They tell him if he lets her get away with it, then revolution will spread through the land and all wives will refuse to submit to their husbands. Imagine!
Can’t let that happen.
So Vashti is sent away.
Banished from his presence.
Commentary used to paint Vashti as evil, self-centered, and important to replace. Commentary nowadays gives her a place as a woman who sticks up for herself, who won’t allow herself to be paraded around, especially while her husband is drunk with his drunken friends. We women all know better than to get ourselves into that situation, or at least we try. Vashti said no.
I want to share a modern poem/commentary about Vashti’s refusal to come, by Erika Dreifus:
But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment… therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.—Esther 1:12
These silks, and jewels?
He told me to strip them off
and to show myself, naked,
before his friends.
You can only go so long
as obedient servant
when you are a person
with pride, and self-worth.
I was cast out,
the royal stage cleared for another,
whose name would live on in light
while mine receded.
To replace her, the king ordered, as it says, that “officers in every province of your realm to assemble all the beautiful young virgins at the fortress Shushan, in the harem under the supervision of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women. Let them be provided with their cosmetics. 4And let the maiden who pleases Your Majesty be queen instead of Vashti.” The proposal pleased the king, and he acted upon it. (Esther 2:3–4).
This is probably no stranger than how wives were found for kings anywhere, any time. Assembled by appointed officers. All the beautiful young virgins (who checked?). They lived in a harem, beautified, made up, and competing for the king’s approval.
Esther, Mordecai’s foster daughter, was among the women “taken” to the palace. (By the way, Esther means “hidden”.) The text is actually silent on how she got there… She “was taken”.
Mordecai had told her to hide her Jewishness—based on Haman’s role, presumably for her own safety. And her foster father came to see her every day.
She made friends with Hegai, the eunuch in charge—who better to be in charge of your harem, after all? He made sure she had the best ointments and treatments. Yes, the women spent a year receiving spa treatments… I imagine it wasn’t so bad being in the palace. Food, hot tubs, massages, facials, whatever they wanted…Hopefully, the young women became friends.
Esther won the beauty contest, and the night she went to be with the king, she won the admiration of everyone…And he chose her to be his new queen, and gave her the royal diadem.
But the rules were clear: no one goes to the king without him calling for you by name. Under penalty of death. Did I mention that?
In the meantime, we have the whole story of the conflict between Haman, the king’s advisor, and Mordecai: Haman wanted him to bow, Mordecai wouldn’t, and Haman threw a major hissy fit, and convinced the king to let him kill all the Jews.
Let me tell you a bit about Haman… First, in Jewish practice, he is considered the prototype of all villains—Hitler is said to descend from him. And he is said to descend from the Amalekites—that tribe that tried to kill the weakest among us on our way from the Red Sea to Sinai. So every time his name is spoken, we try to drown it out…
So the edict has been issued that the Jews—whose laws, Haman claimed, were different from those of any other people and who would not obey the king’s laws (fake news); and it was not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them (Es 3:8). And the king, as was his wont, casually agreed to the genocide.
As soon as Mordecai heard the edict condemning his people to death, he hot footed it to the palace to ask Esther to intervene. However, he was wearing sackcloth and ashes and apparently the king could not abide such clothing–SAD, so he was denied entrance. A messenger carries the word to Esther instead.
She replies, “All the king’s courtiers and the people of the king’s provinces know 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.” (Es 4:11).
[Golden scepter. Extends the golden scepter. Imagine the golden scepter.]
13Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. 14On 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.”(Es 4:13–14).
I love that question, and last year, I asked the welcoming Shabbat group that question—When were you in the right place at the right time to affect an outcome? Some of the answers were breathtaking. My three favorites were that one person was a freedom rider with MLK, Jr. Another encouraged his bank to hire more women in management. And the third learned to read one day when he was five—all the letters came together. And that afternoon, he came home from kindergarten and a three year old boy was sitting on his stoop with a book and asked if he could read the book. And he could!
How might you answer that question?
Esther prays for a few days and invites the king and Haman to a dinner party. They come and she can’t quite muster her courage to speak, and so invites them back the next night. The king and Haman happily return. And here is the text, which I encourage you to see in your mind’s eye:
2On the second day, the king again asked Esther at the wine feast, “What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. 4For 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.”
5Thereupon King Ahasuerus demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” 6“The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. 7The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him. 8When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. “Does he mean,” cried the king, “to ravish the queen in my own palace?” No sooner did these words leave the king’s lips than Haman’s face was covered. (Es 7:2–8).
And Haman was taken away and hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.
Esther could easily have responded #MeToo. Taken into a harem. Fearing death just for approaching her husband unbidden, because SHE wanted to see HIM. Assaulted by the very man who planned to kill her people. Fearing again for her life.
And yet she stood up, and did what was required of her. She rose to the occasion and acted with courage. She saved her people. Quietly, without a lot of fuss and bravado. Undoubtedly using the cosmetics and clothing she had been taught to use. Using her feminine wiles.
Because that’s how it’s been for thousands of years. We worked behind the scenes. We accepted indignities and assaults and worse, because that’s how society was built. Stacked. Against women.
But sometimes, sometimes, probably more often than these brief glimpses I’ve been sharing show, we shine.
And so, this year, as we think about the vulnerable we will help, may we all join Esther and Vashti in the revolution to change society. And may we strengthen our friendships through the gifts of presence, witnessing, speaking up, as well as treats and laughter and courage.