Purim is a holiday filled with paradoxes. It is simultaneously the happiest festival on the Jewish calendar and a day on which we reckon with all of the ways we experience brokenness in our world and our communities. We are feeling that keenly this year in particular, as we bear witness to the horror of an unprovoked war in Ukraine and, for a good number (but certainly not all) of us, our lives are beginning to return, slowly, to a new kind of normal with the easing of COVID restrictions. It’s an interesting signpost, given Purim 5780 marked the beginning of what we could not have known would be nearly two years of our daily lives altered beyond recognition.
There are four mitzvot (obligations) associated with the observance of Purim. Reading the Megillah or Book of Esther is prominent, and on Purim day itself, many Jews engage in a festive feast, give tzedakah (donations), and exchange gifts of food and drink—mishloach manot—with friends and family.
The Book of Esther is traditionally read twice: once during the evening of Purim and again on Purim day. The book features two queens: Vashti and Esther, with Esther ultimately becoming the protagonist and heroine. The stories of both Esther and Vashti can lend much wisdom and inspiration to us as we observe Purim this year during Women’s History Month.
As the Megillah opens, we learn about King Achashverosh’s interest in lavish banquets, complete with plenty of fine wine and court entertainment. These banquets went on for 187 days. In the book’s opening chapter, he calls upon Vashti, his queen, to appear before the men at his banquet unclothed to show off her beauty. She refuses to come at his command, angering him greatly and causing him to fear that all of the women of his empire will follow suit and refuse to do their own husbands’ bidding. In other words, a fine moment for justice-seeking and communal organizing. Vashti’s radical actions speak truth to power. As is so often true when truth is spoken to power, consequences are swift. Vashti loses her royal position, never being permitted to enter Achashverosh’s presence again and an edict is sent out to all of the kingdom informing the men that they are the single authority in their homes. Oy.
In recent generations, Vashti has been seen as a feminist icon in many ways. A paragon of women’s empowerment in a highly misogynistic society, a woman who stood firm in her principles, standing up for her dignity and the dignity of all women.
Esther, too, is a complex character. Often contrasted with Vashti, Esther is the heroine and protagonist of the Megillah. Esther is a Jewish woman who, as is made clear by the text itself, is proud of her identity but not particularly religious. She lives in Persia—today’s Iran—at the time a thriving diaspora Jewish community. Adopted by her uncle Mordechai, she became queen after a complex selection process which centered a prospective queen’s beauty and charm. As a feminist, it is easy for me to dismiss this, decrying the misogyny and the use of beauty as a potent tool of power. Yet, Esther uses that power in key moments that ultimately save the Jewish people from a genocidal plot.
As the story progresses, Haman, a political advisor to Achashverosh, becomes angry that Mordechai refuses to bow down to him. He hatches a genocidal plot against the Jews of Shushan and the empire at large. Hearing of this, knowing Achashverosh does not know she is Jewish, Esther takes a grave risk in appearing before the king unsummoned. Perhaps she has reached this position of power for such a moment as this.
Appearing before Achashverosh, she invites him and Haman to a banquet in their honor. Having found herself in Achashverosh’s good graces, she is able to make any request she so desires. Yet, she does not immediately reveal herself or Haman’s genocidal plot. Instead, she invites him to what he assumes will be a standard festive banquet, with plenty of wine to go around. Once he is socially comfortable, Esther reveals herself and announces Haman’s genocidal plot, causing Achashverosh to become immediately furious and Haman to beg for his life (to no avail).
Esther’s actions are heroic and complex. She approaches a man with absolute power and authority, risking her life and that of her people. She does so by appealing to his basest instincts – because she knows that that is how power is wielded. She does so confidently and unapologetically.
Esther and Vashti represent two important paradigms of impactful leadership. Though the social change the empire feared ultimately did not come to pass because they eliminated Vashti’s role, the fact the text makes note of the men’s fears is instructive for all of us. Courageous, intentional, and driven individuals can change the world in profound ways. Simultaneously, working from within a hierarchical, misogynistic system, Esther is able to affect change she likely could not have done from outside.
As we elevate the lived experiences, wisdom, and stories of women across time this month, may we learn from the differing leadership paradigms that Esther and Vashti present. May we look at our own communities and center underrepresented perspectives, widening our narratives to encompass the lived experiences and wisdom we collectively bring.