Purim has always been one of my favorite Jewish holidays. As a kid, I was so proud to dress up as Queen Esther and be savior of the Jewish people. Even at the young age of 8, I knew that it was rare in Jewish lore to have a woman be the true hero.
But as I got older, I started to really think about the holiday, and wonder whether Esther really was the kind of hero that woman should look up to. Now that I’m a mom, and constantly thinking about the message I’m sending my daughter in our society, I’m questioning how I should feel about Esther even more.
I don’t think it was until I was in college that I actually read through the whole megillah and discovered that it wasn’t just that Vashti didn’t feel like going to the king’s party that night–he wanted her to come to the party naked (well, she was allowed to wear her crown) and she said no. She’s kind of a badass. I loved how she didn’t let the king boss her around–because really, who wants to go stand naked in front of their husband’s friends? Of course the king didn’t like that. He banishes her, and holds a beauty contest to find the next queen.
Now, I don’t think that this beauty contest was exactly like Toddlers and Tiaras or Miss America. Esther enters and wins–she is the most beautiful woman in the whole land–and shhh, she’s Jewish. She hides who she is, becoming queen based solely on her beauty–and, maybe, the fact that she doesn’t really say much. Esther wins because she’s beautiful and meek. Not exactly what I want my daughter to emulate. If this was a Disney movie, I’d be throwing my popcorn at the screen.
But then the story goes on. Mordechai, Esther’s cousin, convinces her that she must speak to the king to convince him to save the Jewish people from Haman’s plot to kill them all. Esther knows that the king might kill her for speaking to him unannounced–after all, he’d banished Vashti for refusing to come to a party. But Esther decides to speak up. So the meek queen becomes a symbol of strength. Wendy Amsellem explains that Esther has a moment of realization: in order to defend her people she must be more like Vashti, and use her voice and her power.
I think it’s more than just that, though. Esther suddenly sees herself as part of a community–and perhaps, put on this earth to play a unique role in that community. She moves from being something of a caricature of a character to a full player in the story–with her own thoughts, opinions, ideas, and dreams. She knows the risks she’s taking, but she stands up for what she believes in and makes it happen.
Now that’s an Esther I can teach my daughter. And maybe I’ll even sew her a costume, too.