Purim costume redux

Vashti received little if any mention in our childhood.

SoulSearchingVashti image
The rabbi (left) and her friend Liz, both dressed as Queen Esther, as little girls.

In the black and white photograph, two little girls in long dresses and shiny crowns sit at a preschool table. The photographer caught them off guard. No doubt they were admiring their shiny, sparkly costumes. I think both dresses were made by their mothers. And I am certain that my crown was made from aluminum foil covering shirt cardboard. 

Every year around Purim, I'd pull out this photograph and text a copy to my friend Liz. We'd remember ourselves when. Perhaps the photo presaged my entry into the rabbinate and Liz becoming Seventeen Magazine 's Beauty Editor. These days I look at it with tears, wanting more than anything to talk to Liz, of blessed memory, and discuss Purim costumes redux. 

You see, in those days of preschool, Liz and I wanted to be Queen Esther-didn't every girl? Esther was the beautiful princess who saved the day in the Purim story!  

Vashti, on the other hand, received little if any mention in our childhood. No surprise. She got little mention anywhere 'til recently. And, throughout our Jewish texts and tradition, she is truly the queen of bad press. She was the queen thrown out because she said no .

We don't know much else. Little is written about her in traditional texts; more is speculated. She was queen before Esther. The king requested her presence at the end of a 7-day banquet. Why? To show off her beauty. She refused because he said:  "Come naked!"

Our sages differ in what is said about her. Vashti is called wicked. Vashti is called wise. Those who deem her wicked say she was cruel to other women and punished-struck with leprosy and given a tail. So, asking her to come naked in itself was a punishment. Horrified, she refused to emerge!

Those who deem her wise say she was thoughtful, unlike her husband, considering the consequences of appearing nude before his fellow leaders-assuring him that none of the outcomes were good. But Ahashuerus would not listen. He insisted she come forward in her crown, only her crown.

Vashti's feelings are unrecorded. So, we speculate… What did it take for her to stand up in his world and say "No?"  Was she frustrated? Demeaned at the thought of parading before the men?  Insecure with her appearance?  Or simply tired of heeding the king's beck and call? 

The consequence we do know from TaNaKh- -the Hebrew Bible. Ahashuerus is angry, even fearful that other women would follow suit and rebel. So, he removes her from the throne!  

Today, decades after the women's movement, we look at Vashti differently. She took a risk. She refused. I see a principled conscientious objector. Vashti boldly resisted the (male) authority before her and stood her ground. In contrast to traditional texts, contemporary scholars and writers lift up Vashti in this clearly positive light.   

Today Vashti would urge us:  Be judged for more than your beauty. Claim decisions about your own body and bring others to your viewpoint. Get out and protest-and risk being tossed out of the palace. Say no!   

The world's changed since Vashti but not nearly enough. Women continue to receive language that demeans and objectifies. Control over our personal health decisions is politicized and dangerously at risk right now. 

Ahashuerus feared Vashti speaking out and causing a revolt. We should fear the opposite. If we don't speak out, there will be no revolt. As we approach Purim, invite your inner Vashti to emerge-the voice of principle, justice, and conscience. Vashti named her discomfort and protested. We must do the same to protect women's health and bodily decisions.     

And, about the costume redux. I'm switching to Vashti. Liz would agree, and I am certain she'd have costume recommendations, maybe bold and black. For sure, sparkly, too. I mean it is Purim!  Purim sameach !  

Rabbi Lisa S. Greene serves North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe.


"Today, decades after the women's movement, we look at Vashti differently. She took a risk. She refused. I see a principled conscientious objector. "

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