By Rabbi Samantha Kahn
The two female role models in the story of Purim teach two different paths for making their voices heard. They are both changemakers. They are both inspirational. But only one is worth emulating.
The Jewish holiday of Purim, summarized as briefly as possible, tells the story of an ancient Persian Jewish community that was destined for annihilation until one Jewish girl spoke up, convinced the king (her husband) to spare us, and we were saved. This girl, Esther, is a true hero in this story. Growing up, all the little girls wanted to be Queen Esther. Everyone dressed up as her and wanted her part in the Purim Shpiel (a little show we kids put on telling the story of the holiday). Not me. I wanted to be Vashti.
Vashti was the queen before Esther. Her husband beckons her, presumably to come entertain his guest by dancing naked for them as part of some drunken festivities, and Vashti refuses. She stands up for herself. She was banished for her strength of character – but I’ve always loved her. An early feminist icon for this young rabbi to be – Vashti filled me with pride each Purim. I knew the ancient rabbis spoke negatively of her, but a contrarian to the core, that only made me love her more. I longed to emulate her strength of character, her defiance of an unjust system, her fearlessly doing what was right.
For a long time, I did just that. I became Vashti. On matters large and small, I looked at the world and sought to make it feel just, and when it wasn’t I stood defiantly for what I believed to be right. It got me into trouble from time to time, it’s true. But I didn’t care. I was doing what was right.
For a lifetime I’ve emulated Vashti, and now I see it’s time to say goodbye to her.
I don’t know how I missed it for so many years – but the thing is – Vashti’s ability to influence power and change disappears as she does. Yes, she stood up for what was right, but then she was gone. Her power, her influence, her ability to change the world – it all vanished.
Now I still believe she did the right thing because there are some hills we each must be willing to die on, this was her big stand. However, she could only do it once. It was powerful – but once fallen she could not arise and speak out again. And those of us who idolize her need not forget, we too can only sacrifice ourselves for what is right so many times. Not only is it hard for us, but it becomes less meaningful in the eyes of others with every additional stand.
Esther, on the other hand, was a girl in the system. She played the game. She waited her turn. She made friends and was careful about how and what she asked of them. I struggle with this, and yet, these are the very things that allowed her to save us all. These are the attributes that allow her to be heard. This is the reason she makes real change.
In today’s world – the Vashtis still inspire us. The people who speak up against misused power are easy to admire.
They are not, however, the ones with real influence.
The people with influence are the Esther’s of the world. The ones who stay close to power, who whisper in its ear, and brings new information and new insights.
So how, in this time of political defiance, can we learn from Esther and make our voices heard?
We must not only rail against the system but work within it. Don’t just tweet. Vote. Run. Support those you believe in. And if you find your representatives are doing things you disagree with – don’t refuse to see them. On the contrary, show up. Show up over and over again. Find the right political way to make them listen. Play the game until you win. That’s how to be heard – how to be like Queen Esther.
Rabbi Samantha Kahn is Director, Interfaithfamily San Francisco Bay Area.
Cross-posted on rabbikahn.com