Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Megillah Esther... Happy Purim

So, the feast of Purim is very nearly upon us. My kitchen is redolent with the scents of hamentaschen... chocolate, with a chocolate ganache; and a saffron pastry with apricot/walnut/honey filling. Nothing too traditional about either one of them, except perhaps for their shape... hamentaschen... Haman's ears, it's said, or more politely, Haman's pockets.

Who was Haman? He was an advisor to King Achashvairosh, and one in a very long line of people who wanted Jews out of his way, preferably permanently, which meant preferably dead. His plan was to destroy all the Jews in the empire, ostensibly because one Jew, Mordecai, had refused to pay homage to him.

The way the story goes - very briefly - is that Mordecai knew what Haman was up to and schemed to get his niece, Esther, our heroine, into a position of power (as Queen to King Achashvairosh), and to have her whisper into Achashvairosh's ear of Haman's wickedness. It all worked out pretty well, actually, at least insofar as this time, it wasn't the Jews who wound up on the chopping block, so to speak.

So Jews celebrate that on yet another occasion when someone wanted us dead, we wound up ok. Hamentaschen are just to remind us of Haman - it's as if even with the sweetness of the treat, we must still remember the bitterness of the events that brought us to this celebration. Paradoxical, really.

But that's not why we're here!

At Purim, many Jews dress up in costume (think, "Hallowe'en, but Jewishly!"). We make a LOT of noise (every time Haman's name is said when Megillah Esther is read, the congregation makes enough noise to drown out the name). We eat excellent treats (hamentaschen, which are usually sweet, may also be made savoury, and are quite tasty either way). In fact, we're even commanded to drink on this occasion! So much that we would not be able to tell Haman (boo, hiss!) from Mordecai (hurray!), or Esther (HURRAY!). Many children dress as Mordecai, many dress as Esther. Not too many dress as Haman.

And that's not why we're here, either! But I'm getting to it.

So - we talk about how Esther used her position as Queen to whisper secrets into the King's ear that led to Haman's downfall (which was a good thing, really), but we don't talk often about how she got the job. The King was already married when Esther came along, you see, to Queen Vashti. It was Achashvairosh's idea that he should show off his Queen in all her beauty... ALL her beauty. Wearing nothing at all but her royal crown. The Queen, as befitting any woman with a shred of dignity, took exception to this, and she refused to do as the King wished. Oh, the horror! The Queen had been disobedient to her King... in front of all his advisors, she had shown him up. And what might THAT lead to? Well, of course, other willful and headstrong women who thought that they, too, could do as they wished!

King Achashvairosh did what any king in his position would do - he dispossessed Queen Vashti of her crown and declared that she could nevermore come to him, that she was in fact, no longer Queen. We don't know exactly what happened to Vashti after her dispossession - did she die? Was she just pensioned off to a minor palace elsewhere in Persia? Was she beheaded? Who knows?! What we do know is that when she refused to allow her husband to treat her like a whore and parade her naked in front of his advisors as a demonstration of his kingly power, she was gone. Just like that... poof!

And THIS is why we're here. I can understand that Esther gets heroine status, because without Esther's lips whispering at the King's ear, there might not be too many Jews left on the planet today. And I can understand that Mordecai's a good guy, because it was his foreknowledge of Haman's plan that Esther brought to the King.

But why is it that we don't teach our daughters (and sons!) about Vashti? Why don't we teach them how brave she was, how principled, to stand up AGAINST her husband's demand that she present herself naked before him and his ... work colleagues?! Why are our daughters not dressing up as Vashti, strong and proud, unwilling to let even her husband treat her shabbily, unwilling to be chattel?

Here's to Vashti! Now I've got to do some research.... what might a Persian Queen have worn in the palace? There are just a few days before the reading of Megillah Esther, and I have an idea of a costume I might like to wear this year...


rob said...

The King was playing power games with Vashti, so in that sense she was right to refuse. But your "as befitting any woman with a shred of dignity" line is fallacious frippery. Dignity doesn't need clothing.

Chaviva said...

It's not about dignity needing clothing, silly. It's about dignity refusing to parade around before her husband's advisors simply so that her husband can show off. His intent would've stripped her of her dignity even faster than he wanted her to lose her clothes.