Vashti was probably the first radical feminist. The Maharal tells us that her very name, Vashti, comes from the word shtayim, two, and is an indication of her split loyalties. She still held on with both hands to her identity as her father’s daughter, even after she was married. Perhaps Vashti was the initiator of the hyphenated last name!
Vashti’s independent-mindedness did not go over well in ancient Persia, to put it mildly. Her bold refusal to accede to her royal husband’s demeaning demands set into motion a tumultuous series of events, beginning in a nationwide proclamation legislating male dominance in all domiciles.
The key word of the proclamation: “let each man rule [sorer] in his own home” (Megillas Esther 1:22) is an interesting word, because it sounds familiar. That is because Rashi tells us that that same word is at the root of the name of our matriarch Sarah – “for she is ruler [sarah] over all.” (Bereishis 17:16)
The connection between the word sorer and sarah is particularly interesting because Chazal see very clear links between Sarah and Esther. Among other less well-known parallels, Sarah died at the age of 127, while Esther ruled over 127 kingdoms. Sarah had the benefits of each age at all ages; her 127 years were distinguished by the consistency of her goodness, purity, and beauty. Her progeny, Esther, reflected Sarah’s mission — Sarah’s goodness caused her serarah (rulership) to extend over everyone in the world, while Esther was able to extend her rulership over a vast kingdom.
Vive La Différence
Interestingly, while Vashti’s independence sent all of male Persia into a tizzy, Esther’s serarah seems not to have created any ripples at all, even as it overturned the entire kingdom. The contrast between Vashti’s approach — which with all its bravado, obviously did not work, since she ends up dead as a direct result of it — and Esther’s approach, which brought redemption to the Jewish People, cannot be ignored.
What was it about Esther that was so powerful?
One thing Chazal tell us about Esther is that she was beloved by all who saw her. Since she refused to divulge her nationality, no one knew from where she came, but because of her chein, everyone considered her to be one of their own. Says the Maharal, all people who encountered her felt a sense of kinship to her and yearned to become close with her.
Some of this was connected to the fact that Esther was totally lacking in arrogance. Suffering tends to take people off their high horse, and Esther was no stranger to sorrow, having been orphaned of her parents. And while the power and grandeur of monarchy can create a complete disconnect between subjects and monarch — in a “let them eat cake” style — vulnerability and pain tend to strip away artificial barriers and connect people. The Maharal points out that Hashem is always close to the downtrodden.
Esther’s willingness to be open to others is underlined by Chazal, who see great significance in the fact that when Esther sent a message to the king about the would-be assassins, Bigsan and Seresh, she made sure to attribute her knowledge of their plans to Mordechai. By giving the credit to Mordechai as the savior of the king, she gave up a golden opportunity to take center stage and curry favor with Achashveirosh.
Based on this episode, Chazal tell us that, “One who gives credit to the originator of an idea brings redemption to the world.” Chazal link the turn-about redemption of the Purim story to Esther’s decision to acknowledge Mordechai’s role as the king’s savior. But while it’s certainly nice to give credit where credit is due, why does attribution to the source bring about redemption?
Perhaps the reason is that if there is room for someone else in your story, then there is also room for Someone Else. Generally, our ego has such a stranglehold on us that attributing our successes or our brilliant ideas to someone else triggers the existential fear of being knocked completely offstage. But when we acknowledge our interdependence and interconnection, on a personal level, we redeem ourselves from the prison of our tiny little self-branded world. And in the broader scheme of things, attribution to a human source is both a metaphor and a necessary exercise that we need to go through in order to recognize the Ultimate Source, the Source of all our successes and ideas.
Esther’s kindness and humility were like a magnet, drawing people to her. The Maharal tells us that even wicked Achashveirosh, Haman’s more-than-willing accomplice, was felled by Esther’s power of connection and at that crucial moment at the private party Esther had arranged, he aligned himself with her instead of with Haman.
Esther’s greatness was such that she was able to maintain her balance on an incredibly narrow bridge. She was able to accommodate others and inculcate within them a sense of affiliation with her, yet at the same time, Chazal testify that she remained completely impervious to the influence of her evil companions — she was as beloved in the Heavens as she was down on this earth.
Haman’s conniving and striving for more and more power is the perfect foil for Esther’s humility and ability to move herself out of the limelight for another’s good. Haman’s illusions of grandeur — envisioning himself being led through town amid accolades and hoopla — stands in such stark contrast to Esther, who had to be tugged reluctantly to center stage by Mordechai’s admonishment that now was not the time for rectitude.
What is fascinating about Esther’s way of doing things is that even if we find kindness and humility impressive, most of us would be hard pressed to associate those specific attributes with monarchy and power. Reaching across boundaries, finding a point of connection even with those who are light years away from us, making room for other’s achievements in our life story, being reticent about taking center stage, all seem like the diametric opposite of kingship. Yet it was these exact attributes that allowed Esther to rule over 127 provinces — and more to the point, to bring the geulah.
This is because the Jewish concept of kingship is closely linked to this feminine ability to connect with others. “There is no king without a nation” (Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer 3). Real malchus is not imposed from above, but from below. It is not about domination and subjugation; it evolves, a product of the yearning of the subjects to receive and the desire of the king to give. Esther was fit to be monarch, the Maharal tells us, specifically because of her ability to connect with others. She ruled through opening up the hearts of her constituents, awakening their desire to have her as their ruler.
In an interesting parallel, Purim is a day when we accepted the Torah out of love, as opposed to at Har Sinai, when we were “coerced” by the “mountain” held over our heads, by the thunder and lightning and miracles that struck awe in our hearts and left us no choice but to subjugate ourselves to Hashem’s Will. On Purim we accepted the Torah anew because our hearts had expanded with joy and love in response to Hashem’s love for us.
Esther — and Purim — represent not the supremacy of sovereignty, not the exhibitionism of dominion, but the quiet and hidden power of interconnectedness.
This paradox can be seen in the very words “Megillas Esther”; “megillah” means revealed, while “Esther” means hidden. Megillas Esther is the name of a book that reveals the power of the hidden — the power that lies in being great enough not to need the world to tell you that you are great; in being strong enough that you don’t have to keep shoring up the differences between “wonderful I” and the rest of the world; in being open and vulnerable instead of arrogant and power hungry.
It is not surprising that the holiday that is so intricately intertwined with this feminine kind of leadership is a day of joy and laughter. Both biologically and metaphorically, Woman personifies affiliation and bonding. Woman has permeable boundaries; she expands her borders to receive, to encompass, and to give of herself to nurture the other.
Laughter, at its essence, is about breaking boundaries. People laugh when something out of the box happens — when rigid protocol is overturned, when unbreachable walls suddenly collapse. On a deeper level, laughter is a taste of the World of Truth. In This World, false hierarchies and divisions between people abound: the “haves” and the “have-nots”; the unzerers and the un-unzerers; the “with-its” and the hopelessly and pathetically “not-with-its.”
But in a world of truth, in Esther’s world and the world of Purim, divisions and demarcations slide away.
The Laughing Jew
Yitzchak Avinu, named for Sarah’s laughter, broke the ultimate barrier — death — by returning to life. Bound to the altar, a knife in his father’s hand, he was as good as dead. And then suddenly, he was alive. His very essence — and ours as his descendants — is about this feminine kind of laughter, about bursting through constraints, about breaking the rules.
Purim is a day of love and joy and laughter. What could be more conducive to laughter than the complete reversal — the heart-stopping and heart-opening awareness that all along, under the scary surface events, we are being carried by Loving Hands?
For so many women, Purim is not a day of fun. Our everyday judgmental-ness trails us into Purim, where it does not belong. Beyond the cellophane and the empty Bissli bags, dashed expectations pull existential questions in their wake. Why does it always seem more fun over there? (Is life passing me by?) Is he drinking too much/too little? (Did I marry the wrong person?) Why did I get so few/many shalach manos? (Do I have any real friends?)
But Purim is the holiday of love, and love is not about distinctions and divisions, but about interconnection that flows freely — vertically and horizontally. However much he drinks or doesn’t drink, how many or how few shalach manos we get, as “happening” as our house is or isn’t, if we can tap into the Esther’s Purim, we can lift ourselves out of this world of demarcations to a place of love and joy.
Four Ways to Connect
To help us to connect to this expansive flow, Chazal have given us four mitzvos: seudah, shalach manos, Krias Megillah and matanos l’evyonim. On Purim, on this holiday of expansion, the mitzvah is to drink at the seudah, ad d’lo yada — until one is incapable of making judgments. Wine disengages our intellect, which thrives on distinctions and divisions, but gives free rein to our feminine hearts, opening up the faucet and releasing a cascade of love, which eschews demarcations. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it hasn’t been the custom for women to drink. One could suggest that the feminine force, with its permeable borders, might be less in need of artifice to reach that place of openness.
While all year long, we give charity with discernment, on Purim we give to all who stretch out their hands. Our giving is released from our everyday cynicism; it flows outward with no judgment. And we give food gifts to friends, addressing not their needs, but our friendship. No one needs that extra box of wafers, even if it is color coordinated and theme related. What they do need, and what shalach manos addresses, is the statement of love and friendship that comes with it.
And when we read the Megillah, we read a story that strips the mask off this world of hierarchies and judgments to show us the hidden world of Purim, where bad turns to good, and disjointed, random events turn out to be a lovingly and intricately woven plan for salvation.
What “on earth” is so funny when it comes to Purim? Honestly, on earth, nothing much. It’s breaking out of this world — it is reaching up from below, reaching out and beyond — which allows us, like the woman in Eishes Chayil, to “laugh at the very last day.”
The Rambam tells us that in the long-awaited future, all the books of Neviim and Kesuvim will be annulled, except for Megillas Esther. Then, we will have no need to remember the pain and sorrow of our history. But the feminine message of Purim — the power of love and connection, the flow from below to above — will never become irrelevant. Then, as on Purim today, “our mouths will be full of laughter.”
Originally featured in Family First, Issue 634. Miriam Kosman is an international lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, and teaches Jewish thought to hundreds of Israeli university students on a weekly basis. She is the author of the book Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism.