Are You A Vashti or an Esther?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dressed up as Queen Vashti for Purim. For all of my life, I compared the characters of Vashti and Esther and decided that Vashti was the queen for me.
Blame it on my empowering parents, or my all-girls school education, or even my bone deep sassiness- but all I knew was that Vashti’s decision to stand up to King Ahasuerus made her my favorite character. In fact, I distinctly remember explaining to some unfortunately trapped religious school teacher that I dressed up as Vashti because she was a feminist and Esther was just some pretty girl.
Now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser) and have actually read the Purim story multiple times, I have to tell you that I’m still a huge Vashti fan. In fact, I love her character so much that I named my dog Queen Vashti.
Vashti rejected the objectification and degradation of her king and his advisors and embraced her own power. There is no doubt in my mind that Vashti is a heroine. But, what I know now is that she’s not the only heroine in the story.
Maybe I’ve mellowed in my old age, or maybe I’ve actually learned that the world is never as black and white as we expect it to be as children, but I truly believe now that Queen Esther is also a heroine and is far more than "just a pretty girl."
We do ourselves and our children a disservice when we highlight the “beauty pageant” aspect of the Purim story. Yes, I can’t deny that the megillah tells us that Esther was “shapely and beautiful” and that the King singled her because she “won the admiration of all who saw her.” But, every time we focus on that aspect of her identity, we risk denying her the ability to be anything else. We live in a world where women’s bodies are commented on much more frequently than their hearts, minds, and spirits. But, we also live in a world where each of us has the ability to use our voices to change the narrative.
Esther isn’t a heroine because she's pretty. She’s a heroine because when given the chance to stay quiet (and safe) while her people were destroyed, she embraced her own power, made herself vulnerable, and bravely became her people’s champion. Her beautiful, empathetic, brave, and nuanced spirit is what makes her a heroine.
We need to teach our children- of all genders- that Esther is a Jewish hero because she could have been a bystander and chose to be an upstander. When we focus on her appearance we are modeling for our children that women should be judged for something besides their characters and deeds- a message which I firmly believe is unacceptable. Both Vashti and Esther lived in a world where their husband controlled their fates, and even in the face of that inequality, both women chose to stand up. Both women are heroines, and both deserve admiration. They were the queens of Shushan. All hail the queens.