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Asking the Clergy: What is the importance of Purim's Queens Esther and Vashti?

From left, Cantor Irene Failenbogen of The New

From left, Cantor Irene Failenbogen of The New Synagogue of Long Island, Rabbi Mendy Goldberg of Lubavitch of the East End and Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal of Temple Beth Sholom. Credit: The New Synagogue of Long Island; Rabbi Mendy Goldberg; David Rosenthal

Purim, which commemorates the Jewish people’s deliverance from near destruction in ancient Persia, is celebrated from sundown Feb. 25 to sundown on the 26th. It’s a joyous holiday celebrated with charitable giving, prayer, Torah readings, dining on and sharing special foods, and, for children, masquerading as Purim characters. This week’s clergy discuss different interpretations of the roles of the women central to the miraculous story told in the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Esther.

Cantor Irene Failenbogen

The New Synagogue of Long Island, Brookville

Queens Esther and Vashti are extremely important and fascinating from the point of view of female leadership in religious stories. Purim is a Hebrew word that means "lots" or "luck." The Purim holiday recalls a story of meaningful coincidences and second chances.

Queen Vashti chooses to say "No!" to the king's abusive request to parade her beauty in front of drunken and disrespectful guests. Her setting of boundaries and self-worth prompts her banishment and opens the way to Esther's salvation of the Jewish people against the evil Haman, an official in the king's court whose plan to destroy the Jews was thwarted by Esther. Had Vashti not spoken up, Esther's hidden intention of saving the Jewish people never would have come to be manifested. Both women participate in transforming a date of destruction and hate into a day of celebration and joyful triumph.

In the Book of Esther, there is a surprising absence of the name of God throughout the story. This is a reminder that every day, God secretly is helping us to make choices that embrace beauty, righteousness and the ultimate divine force, love.

Rabbi Mendy Goldberg

Lubavitch of the East End, Coram

Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that a person’s daily challenge in life consists of choosing substance over packaging. Vashti represents evil packaged in charm and beauty. She took pleasure in tormenting Jewish girls by forcing them to work on the Sabbath and was executed for refusing to obey her husband's command to show off her beauty at a party.

In contrast, Queen Esther is a hero of the Purim story. Orphaned as a young girl, Esther was raised by her cousin Mordechai, the leader of the Jewish people at the time. After King Ahasuerus dismissed his first wife, Vashti, Esther attempted to hide from the king, but she was discovered and taken against her will to the palace. She exposed and foiled the plot hatched by the evil Haman, who had convinced the king to allow the annihilation of all the Jews in his empire.

Thus, the humble Queen Esther (whose name actually means "hidden" in Hebrew) is the epitome of real substance. One of the Purim story’s messages is that we shouldn’t be distracted by attractive packaging but, rather, we should celebrate simple kindness and life’s hidden gifts.

Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal

Associate rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom, Roslyn Heights

The Book of Esther tells of two royal heroes who demonstrated leadership and authority in very different ways.

Vashti, the incumbent queen, defied her husband’s demand to display her beauty in front of his courtiers. According to the Talmud’s account, the king and his associates were seeking to objectify Vashti — so her refusal to appear at their command was a powerful action in which she claimed her authority over her own body and her own person.

Esther employed a very different kind of power. She used her beauty and desirability as a marriageable woman to gain access to the throne, which ultimately allowed her to ensure the safety of her people. While Vashti employed the kind of power today’s women are rightfully claiming in their fight against sexism and gender-based violence, Esther used a kind of "soft power" (coupled with immense courage) to achieve her goals.

The inclusion of these two queens in the Purim story reminds us of the many ways in which women have advocated for themselves and for their communities throughout history. Judaism teaches that women are meant to act with dignity and authority — and to use their intrinsic power in pursuit of justice and peace.

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