Nurture your Inner Esther and Vashti By Dasee Berkowitz
Dasee Berkowitz is a writer living in Jerusalem with her husband and kids. She is a frequent contributor to JTA, Times of Israel, Forward.com and Kveller.com.
Did you ever have a knee jerk reaction when faced with a situation that was such an affront to your sense of right and wrong? You might have reacted strongly, directly or impetuously, and then you probably had to live with the consequences. That’s what Vashti represents to me in the Purim story.
In reading the Megillah this year, I realize that we don’t know much about Vashti’s character. She is presented as a stand-alone character, known mainly by her title. The King and Queen probably lived parallel lives. When Ahasuerus made a feast for the men, she made a parallel one for the women. When she is confronted with King Ahasuerus’ drunken request to parade herself in front of his guests wearing (only! read the rabbis) her crown, she refused and is banished from his kingdom. No discussion. No “processing” between them. No… relationship.
What’s clear is that the King objectifies her and she rejects being the object of his drunken desires (Esther 1:10-11). Her behavior reflects a Vashti who is headstrong, decisive and confident. What’s also clear is that Vashti operates outside of a thick weave of relationships.
And then there’s Esther. When we first meet her, in the second chapter of the megillah, she is introduced in the context of her relationship with Mordechai. Esther is Mordechai’s niece, but because she is orphaned, he adopts her for his own daughter (Esther: 2:7). When it comes time for the King to choose a new queen she is selected by the king because, “The King loved Esther” (Esther 2:17). She is encouraged and counseled by her uncle come father Mordechai (about concealing her identity while in a position of power) and does as she is told. She is the object of the King’s love and of Mordechai’s concern. Different from Vashti, her identity is firmly planted in the context of relationships.
At the start of the story – Esther is presented as passive, demure, docile. Her name Esther reflects her character (from the Hebrew root, seter or hidden.) But Esther, like Vashti also has her moment of truth. When Mordechai confronts her to approach the King and to appeal on behalf of the Jewish people to save them, she hesitates. It’s not the right time. The King doesn’t allow just anyone to approach him at anytime, she says. Mordechai doesn’t take no for an answer and continues to push Esther. You aren’t just anyone. Don’t be passive Esther. You are in the position of Queen right now for a reason (Esther, 4:14). Finally, she steps up. She will advocate on behalf of her people, but she will do it her way. She asks all the Jews to fast. She will arrange banquets where she will make her request known.
Unlike Vashti, her moment of truth comes after a process of careful consideration, after weighing the opinions of those around her she cares most about. The risk she will take to petition the King on behalf of her people is not a knee jerk reaction to a personal affront (nobody in the King’s palace even knows her true identity.) Her life is embedded in relationship (with Mordechai) and that relationship grounds her concern to save her wider family of Jews throughout Ahasuerus’ kingdom.
When I think about Vashti I remember my college days at Barnard. With the poster, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” hanging proudly above my bed, I was quite happy being in the company of other very smart women. I stood up for justice; I marched in “Take Back the Night” marches, and was confident to fight injustice head on. I didn’t have a husband who was concerned for my safety, or children whose bedtime schedules kept me from doing exactly what I wanted when I wanted.
I admit that my “Vashti” days have given way to my Esther ones since getting married and having children. The thick weave of relationships (which should compel mighty activism – having children makes you realize just how much is at stake in fighting for what’s right!) can sometimes make you sluggish, weighed down by the day-to-day realities of family life. Who has time to take such bold action amidst the logistics of daily living?
Both Vashti and Esther represent action and determination in their own ways. Standing up for what you believe in might come naturally to you, or it might be something you grow into. You might be single-minded in your focus or you might be someone who needs the encouragement and nurturing of those around you to follow through.
This Purim, (and with International Women’s Day around the corner) nurture the Vashtis and Esthers inside. And when you are given the stage to stand up for what you believe in, take it.