BY EDEN FARBER/ AJT//
Happy Purim, everyone!
The epic story that comes along with this holiday, Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, has always intrigued me – it’s like a Disney story times 10. It has all the ingredients: a damsel in distress, an evil Queen, a romance, innocent townsfolk who need to be saved, two almost comically foolish crooks, an action-packed battle, a male chauvinist pig and a happy family ending.
With a tale so rich, there are a plethora of messages we can take away, Jewish concepts we can derive, food for thought we can ponder – but what exactly are they?
This being a column, not a tome, I’d like to focus on one particular character: Vashti, Queen of Persia. She has always interested me, since before my birth even; you see, my father still talks to this day about how he wanted to name me Vashti.
Basically, she comes into the megillah when her husband requests that she make an appearance at his party and she refuses. Thus, she is immediately banished from her position as queen, and – well, we don’t ever hear what really happened to her.
This woman being my almost-namesake, that’s not enough for me; I wanted to look into her more. I’ve discovered that although she only appears in the first chapter of the Purim reading, there is a lot of rabbinic liturgy that explores what various individuals think she was.
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Indeed, the first Midrash (or homiletic interpretation) that I encountered shocked me. It described Vashti as ugly, pimply and generally grotesque – citing this as the real reason she did not appear before the King and his buddies.
In other words, it wasn’t because she did not want to come or that she respected herself that she did not show; it was because it would be too humiliating to be seen as unattractive, a flaw that she worked so hard to mask. After all, what would her ruler-ship be if she was not perceived as physically glorious all the time?
Other Midrashim also depict her as evil, vain and physically distorted. Thus, by the end, I was quite confused.
I know that there is a lot to learn from Midrashim; much can be gained from the insight of biblical scholars and their discussions on texts. However, my conclusion is this: Their interpretation is not the only one, nor is it an objective one. There are many reasons why they might want to cast Vashti as an unsightly hag.
Perhaps the scholars wanted to dismiss her so as to make room for Queen Esther, the main character of our Purim story; or perhaps they were afraid of this strong-willed woman and her disobedience. Or perhaps they feel guilty that we simply dispose of one of the few independent women who was not afraid of the status quo.
Regardless, I believe that there is much that can be learned from temporarily putting this interpretation aside. As simple as it is to turn a complicated character like Vashti into a black-and-white creature, it does not help a person to glean all of the insights that her story can offer.
Look at this woman who did not bow to what was wanted from her, who thought highly of herself when no one else did, who did not let an unfortunate marriage turn her into something she was not. She has a power within her that should be acknowledged – nay, admired – and not ignored or twisted.
Of course, in the end, it’s not Megillat Vashti; she is not the star of our show. Nevertheless, she offers a new perspective and a new story – one that is worth hearing. Her refusal to be her husband’s drunk friends’ eye candy (at least, from a literary perspective) is significant because it was not simply a refusal.
Her actions were a declaration of independence, one that also asked for liberty (insubordination to the will of drunkards) or death (exile from queenship). This is a declaration that we would never perceive if we only looked through the lens of the Midrashim.
So, one may think it was Achashverosh and his noblemen that shushed this strong-willed woman at the end of her story, but maybe it was really the Midrashim that put the “sh!” in Vashti.
tlanta’s Eden Farber, 15, was recognized in the Jewish Heritage National Poetry Contest of 2010 and has published op-eds and poetry in Modern Hippie Magazine and the NY Jewish Week’s Fresh Ink for Teens section.