Drash on Parashat Tetzaveh – Shabbat Zachor
Was Esther the true heroine of Purim?
Rabbi Richard G Lampert, Emeritus Rabbi
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW
This coming weekend is a full Jewish weekend. On Saturday, we read Par’shat T’tzaveh, we celebrate Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat of Remembering), and on Sunday, we celebrate the Festival of Purim. Par’shat T’tzaveh describes in detail the vestments worn by the High Priest in the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in the wilderness. Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat immediately before Purim is designated as the Shabbat of Remembering: we are told to remember, not to forget the tribe Amalek when it attacked the weak and vulnerable Israelites as they left Egypt and set out on their 40-year long exodus.
Normally, the day before Purim is designated as Ta’anit Ester, the Fast of Esther as she prepared to be catapulted into her role as a heroine of the story (Please make sure the final ‘E’ is in place!). However, because the day before Purim is Shabbat, and we Jews do not fast on Shabbat (other than on Yom Kippur), the Fast of Esther is held on the Thursday before.
As a result of Esther’s initially-reluctant appearance before the king to appeal on behalf of her people, wicked Haman’s plot was revealed, the Jews were permitted to fight back, and the Purim story was completed. Esther is therefore cast as the heroine of the festival.
However, I have long harboured my doubts about her so-called heroic appearance before the king. It wasn’t until her uncle (cousin?) Mordechai warned her that she herself would not escape the fate of her people if she did not risk her life by going to see the king and plead for her and her people’s lives that she actually relented.
In my opinion, a far braver woman who struck a blow for the dignity of women was Esther’s predecessor, Vashti. The king, Ahasuerus, was the potentate ruler of one hundred and twenty seven provinces and he gave a diplomatic party to show off his power and her beauty. When she was commanded by her husband the king to display her physical charms to his invited guests, she heroically refused, thus preserving her dignity and the dignity of women generally. What Ahasuerus said went – he said ‘Vashti’ – and Vashti went! She lost her place as the queen, her husband’s wife, and she disappeared into the pages of history.
Vashti disappeared – that is, until the present time. She surfaced once again, this time in the late 20th and 21st centuries, to take yet another stand for the dignity of women. Only this time she appeared in the guise of the Women at the Wall. They are a group of females who believe that it is the right of more than half the number of Jews in the world to be able to worship and praise God at the Western Wall, the last preserved symbol of the ancient Temple.
They are inspired by the Vashti principle – do not submit just because you are a woman. Inspired by Anat Hoffman, the head of IRAC (Israel Reform Action Centre, in which NSTE’s own Nicole Maor plays such an important role), these women have been subjected to being spat at, having their prayers drowned out, subjected to police intimidation and even arrested for daring to insist on a right that, if it were denied in any other country in the world, would be termed anti-Semitism and would be condemned by the very Jews who perpetrate these vile actions against them. Orthodox intransigence ensures that they are denied the right to worship at the Wall in the orderly and respectful manner as they would.
Who is the heroine of Purim? Is it Esther who only acted when her own safety was threatened? Or was it Vashti, who struck a blow for the dignity of women?
The Vashtis and Esthers – the heroines of today - are to be found at the Kotel Ha’Ma’aravi – the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They are the Women at the Wall. May their efforts survive as long as the Purim story has inspired Jews throughout the millennia.