By Rabbi Rachel Bearman and Rabbi Paul Kipnes
In the first chapter of Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther), we read about the life and the downfall of the sitting queen of Shushan, Vashti. The Tanakh tells the story of Vashti’s refusal to allow her husband, the king, to “display” her beauty to his friends and courtiers. Her refusal is given one line of text and is mentioned by the narrator rather than in her own words. In contrast, the next nine verses (which include several direct quotes from male characters) are dedicated to the king’s scheming with his advisors to ensure that other women do not follow Vashti’s example.
Unfortunately, the majority of the rabbinic tradition has focused on demonizing Vashti – sometimes quite literally. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis wonder why Vashti, who they believe to be immodest and sinful, would refuse her husband’s command to “entertain” his companions with her beauty. The answer that is recorded in the Talmud is as follows: “Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina said: This teaches that she broke out in leprosy, and therefore she was embarrassed to expose herself publicly. An alternative reason for her embarrassment was taught in a baraita: The angel Gabriel came and fashioned her a tail.” (Megillah 12b:5)
In recent decades, Vashti has been reclaimed and celebrated by those who see her as a prototypical feminist. By those of us who admire her, she has been lifted up in the same way that Lilith has – as an ancient example of a woman who understood her worth and refused to bow to the tyranny of the men in her life.
In this Midrashic Monologue, we explore Vashti’s heart and mind, honoring both her heroism and her humanity. We hope that you’ll agree, she is the queen we all deserve.
For seven days, my quarters were filled with the sounds of laughter and conversation. The feast that I was hosting for the women of the court was an incredible success, and the constant volume of noise confirmed that all of my guests were enjoying themselves.
But all of that changed on the seventh day when my husband’s attendants strutted into my rooms. The moment that these men appeared, all of the women fell silent.
Their presence in my space was unacceptable. Men were never permitted to come into the women’s wing of the palace – it was forbidden.
I looked around quickly, noting that many of my guests were dressed as we often are when free from the eyes of men. Some had unbound their hair, while others had discarded the heavy wraps that they used to cover their bodies in public. I stood quickly, moving in front of the others and using my body to preserve their modesty. I addressed my husband’s men, speaking with authority, “Why have you come here? Can you not see that I am with my guests? You must leave immediately.”
One of the intruders took a step forward – Mehuman, my husband’s favored servant. He looked directly into my eyes, a brazen display of disrespect, and responded, “We have brought you a message from your king.”
His words were spoken as if they were a taunt or a threat. The atmosphere in the room felt charged and dangerous. I glared at Mehuman and folded my arms slowly, trying to buy time so that I could think of why Ahashuerus would have sent me a message in such an inappropriate way.
Another of my husband’s attendants, Charcas, cleared his throat and took a small step forward. I turned to him, noting with approval that he kept his eyes respectfully lowered. “My queen, we apologize for this disturbance. As Mehuman said, we have come to deliver a message from King Ahashuerus. Once we have fulfilled this duty, we will leave immediately.”
I nodded at Charcas, deciding to deal only with him since he had spoken to me with respect. “You may deliver your message and then return to my husband’s chambers.”
A KING’S COMMAND
Charcas seemed to be struggling to share the words that he had been entrusted with. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Charcas spoke, “King Ahashuerus has invited you to visit his feast. He would like to introduce you to his honored guests.”
I was mystified by this request. I was no more permitted to attend my husband’s feast than these men were permitted to attend the women’s celebration. What would the kingdom think when they heard that I had been alone with so many men? How could Ahashuerus put me in such a compromising position?
Desperate to end this interchange, I decided to intentionally misunderstand Charcas’ words, “Please thank my husband for his invitation. I look forward to meeting his companions when we sit together in the throne room at the conclusion of our festivities.” I fell silent, feeling hopeful. Surely my response would be good enough?! Surely my husband would see that my proposal allowed him to show off, as he apparently desired to do, but in an appropriate setting.
Again, Charcas appeared uncomfortable, but he stepped back, accepting my answer. “Thank you, my queen. We will share your words with the king.”
But, then Mehuman laughed. Eyes hard and cold, he shook his head and walked toward me – coming so close that I heard several of the women behind me gasp in shock and perhaps even fear. I planted my feet, determined not to cede an inch of ground to this bully.
Mehuman sneered at my refusal to back down and said in mocking tone, “Actually, my queen, Charcas neglected to tell you the most important part of the King’s message.” He smiled in a way that made my stomach hurt, in a way that made me feel as if I were small and insignificant. “He wants you to come tonight. He and his friends are feeling bored and are desperate for some entertainment.”
Again, the women behind me gasped. We all knew what kind of “entertainment” was being demanded.
And then, my fears about Ahashuerus’s intentions were confirmed when Mehuman continued, “Oh, and he wants you to wear the crown that he gave you. In fact, he wants you to wear only the crown.”
Having delivered this poorly disguised threat, Mehuman gestured to the other attendants, signalling that they should depart. As he passed me, Charcas whispered, “Majesty, the king and his friends are drunk and careless. They will hurt you and think nothing of it. I am sorry that I could not stop him from demanding your presence.”
And with that, my only ally walked away, shuffling silently behind the men who had, in delivering the king’s message, just sealed my destruction.
A QUEEN’S RETREAT
The moment the door closed behind them, my knees gave out. The women that I had just protected reached out to catch me and then lowered me gently to the floor.
I wept, feeling devastated and afraid. Many of my companions were crying as well. Their grief made sense to me. After all, our husbands had spent the last week dining and drinking together. They must have been worried that at any moment more messengers with cruel eyes would burst into the chamber, demanding that they too sacrifice themselves for the entertainment of the royal men.
As I cried, I remembered the kind young man that I had fallen in love with. As a young princess, I had pleaded with my father, telling him that Ahashuerus was my destined partner. In spite of Ahashuerus’s lowly beginnings as the son of a stableman (Megillah 12B), I assured my parents that the love that we felt for one another would allow us to overcome all obstacles. How ironic then that the man I had made king would use his power to destroy me!
Eventually, the room quieted, and I realized that my companions had gathered tightly around me. They were like a phalanx of soldiers, protecting me while I was vulnerable, holding me, their wounded sister, at their center. Even as they grappled with their own fears, their own sense of danger, these remarkable women had moved to shelter me.
When I saw their strength, their loyalty, I forced myself to stand – wiping my cheeks and smoothing my hair. I needed to answer my husband’s request, and as I stood surrounded by my sisters, I knew that I would refuse to acquiesce.
Maybe this was somehow all a misunderstanding, or maybe my husband truly intended to exploit and use my body for his entertainment. Either way, my answer was the same. “No. I refuse to let you make me anything less than the queen that these women deserve.” I knew that delivering this response to my husband would be dangerous, and so I prepared to shoulder the responsibility myself.
GIRDING FOR BATTLE
“Friends,” I said quietly, and the moment the word left my lips, all eyes snapped to mine. “It seems that the man that I placed on the throne is determined to make me hate and fear him. Only a husband who cares nothing for his wife’s love would demand that she debase herself in this way. I could never love someone who sought to humiliate me in front of his drunken companions. In fact it pains me to think that I could have ever loved a man who could behave in such a monstrous way.”
Feeling tears threatening once again, I paused, breathing deeply and allowing myself to grieve for the girl who had believed in that love.
“If my husband,” I sneered the word, “wishes to see me, then I will go to him. But, I refuse to be an object that he can use or the source of entertainment for his friends. When I appear before him, it will be with all of the dignity of the daughter of the mighty and merciful King Belshazzar. (Megillah 12B)
“Sisters, only a few years ago, many of you helped prepare me for my wedding to Ahashuerus. Today, I once again ask for your help – this time as I prepare for my liberty. While I do not know how this day will unfold, I can say with certainty that by nightfall I will be free of this man.”
For the next hour, the women, some of them lifelong friends and others sisters in circumstance, helped me dress in the only armor that was afforded to us. My body was girded with the soft veils women were commanded to wear, but instead of allowing them to flow and flutter, we wrapped and knotted the fabric to provide layer upon layer of protection. My face was painted not with the soft and alluring colors of a bride but with the stark and menacing hues of a warrior.
My father’s sister came to me carrying the crown that Ahashuerus had demanded that I wear. Unlike the the light and practical circlets that I wore on a daily basis or the intricate and glittering headdresses that my parents had given me, Ahashuerus’s crown was crude and heavy. It was the perfect representation of the burden his love had become.
My aunt placed the weighty crown on top of my intricate braids. Then she knelt in front of me and said, “Vashti, remember that you are the descendant of queens and kings. Within your spirit, you hold generations of power and might. Make this man understand who you are.”
VICTORIOUS AND REDEEMED
I nodded, rising carefully, and walking to my chamber’s door. Before I passed over the threshold and into the unknown, I turned and said, “Sisters, thank you for your support and your care. My husband’s message is a declaration of war against me and against all of us. I will answer it with all the power that I have at my disposal.
I will go to him not as a seductress but as a wraith, a living embodiment of the grief, fear, and anger that I know we all hold within our hearts. I hope to return to you, victorious and redeemed, but if I do not, if I can not, then I ask that you remember me.
“Tell your daughters of the woman who challenged the abuses of careless and cruel men.
“Tell your sons of the pain that we feel when people use their power to degrade us and to place our lives in jeopardy.
“Tell each generation about Vashti so that no other woman will find herself at the mercy of such destructive and evil men.”
I opened the door, and I walked away from my sisters with my head held high. I did not know what awaited me, but I knew this:
I am Queen Vashti of Shushan, and I will forever be the queen my people deserve.
Rabbi Rachel Bearman and Rabbi Paul Kipnes are the co-creators of Midrashic Monologues, a new website where they publish contemporary midrashim with a specific focus on elevating the voices of those who have been silenced by tradition.
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