October 15, 2019

Badass Queen of Purim

How do I love Vashti? Let me count the ways.

In case you aren’t familiar with this woman of the Bible, Vashti makes only a brief appearance at the beginning of the Book of Esther, in which we read the Purim story. We meet her as Queen Vashti, married to the King Ahasuerus, who rules across the Persian empire.

King Ahasuerus seems to care a lot about appearances. First, he hosts a six-month display of wealth for his subjects, an ego-stoking extravaganza. Then, he invites all the men of the kingdom to a feast, complete with open bar. One week in, when the guests are good and drunk, the king commands his queen to appear before the people and show off her beauty, wearing the royal crown.

And Vashti refuses.

Why does she refuse? There are many interpretations, of course, this being a Jewish story. The most classic one, on which many later traditions are based, is that the king asked Vashti to appear before the people naked, wearing only her royal crown.

Whether or not we accept the naked theory, Vashti does not comply with the king’s desire that she display her beauty before hordes of drunken men. His advisers are horrified. They urge him to banish her, so that the women of the kingdom will not wonder if they, too, should begin to think for themselves and disobey their husbands.

And so Vashti is banished from the kingdom, leaving the job of queen vacant, to be filled by Esther, the conventional heroine of the Purim story.

When a sacred text is discussed over many centuries, its characters take on the form of current events. In ancient Babylonia, the rabbis imagined Vashti as a wanton idolater. The earliest modern feminists, in the 1800s, lauded her as a model of liberation. And in our particular moment, Vashti resonates most obviously with the #MeToo movement as she refuses to comply with workplace sexual harassment in the palace.

When the king asks Queen Vashti to appear and display her beauty, she faces a fundamental human question: Should I do what is asked of me by others?

The term “sexual harassment” is new, but as we see from this story, it’s almost incredible how ancient and pervasive the act is. From her vantage point as queen of the Persian empire, our heroine sees this abuse of power for what it is and chooses to abdicate the throne rather than acquiesce. Courageously, Vashti gives up her wealth and power in exchange for … well, who knows what happens to a divorced ex-royal in ancient Persia?

But gender politics are not the only lens through which Vashti’s story has powerful resonance. I also love how her refusal can be an inner, spiritual teaching, as well.

When the king asks Queen Vashti to appear and display her beauty, she faces a fundamental human question: Should I do what is asked of me by others? Or do I, instead, dare to live by my own instincts?

We face this question in infinite ways. It can come in the form of deciding whether to speak the truth about our sexual orientation or gender identity. It can challenge us when we feel drawn to become more or less religious than our families of origin. Or it can manifest in terms of dreams for how to live our lives — I think of my high school friend, a gifted classical pianist who passionately wanted to pursue music but whose parents insisted she enter a fast-track, pre-med program.

And on a daily level, this question appears in decisions as simple as how to represent ourselves on social media. Do we include our struggles or present only a carefully curated spread of perfect-looking moments, as Ahasuerus presents the riches of his kingdom, as he seeks to present his perfect wife?

Vashti can inspire us to ask: What happens when we refuse to dwell on the level of appearances and see, instead, with our hearts? What happens when we refuse to aim for admiration, perfection, accolades, and instead make our goal simple: to be our most authentic selves?

If you dress up for Purim, keep Vashti in mind and be the queen of yourself.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.