Mordechai and Esther wrote the Megillah at the end of the Purim story to commemorate the Jewish victory over Haman and the saving of the Jewish people, but they wrote it with a particular audience in mind, King Achashverosh. They composed it with Persian values and style. The Persian values of “beauty and appearance” are immediately introduced in the first perek of Megillat Esther, as the narrators invite us to join the King’s lavish party. The passuk says,
When the heart of the king was merry with wine… to bring Queen Vashti before the king adorned with the royal crown, to show off to the people and officials her beauty, for she was beautiful of appearance. (Megillat Esther 1:11)
The Gemara (Megillah 12b) comments that Achashverosh was arguing with the male guests as to which race of women were the most beautiful- Madian? Or Persian? Achashverosh insisted that Babylonian women were the most beautiful, and to prove his point, he summoned his Queen Vashti, according to Rashi, to be completely undressed except for the royal crown on her head. The examination of a woman’s body was the immediate issue and Vashti’s fate hung in the balance as these powerful people wanted to determined her future on the sole basis of her appearance and beauty.
After Achashverosh’s fit of drunken rage, he “remembered Vashti” (Megillat Esther 2:1) which Rashi comes to tell us meant that the King was saddened by his dismissal of Vashti due to his loss of her beauty. The Megillah comes to tells us in the next passuk that a physically beautiful woman was considered merely a replaceable object. Hence, the search for “a new pretty girl” for the King was immediately launched. As we know, young women were evaluated based on their looks and were gathered from all of the provinces in Achashverosh’s kingdom and brought to the harem in the capital of Shushan. They were given the chance to become Queen of the empire, but only if they were judged pretty enough.
The text first introduces us to Mordechai, by focusing on his royal lineage and biography including his exile from Eretz Yisrael during the Babylonian exile. Esther, on the other hand is introduced to us as the orphan Haddasah, without parentage and distinguished only by her beauty. Her lineage comes only through her association with Uncle Mordechai whom Rashi suggests may actually have been her husband. Esther is among the women chosen to come to Shushan.
Hegai, the “guardian of the women” in the harem found Esther to be “pleasing in his eyes” and he gives her the best rooms and cosmetics in the harem. The Megillah uses the word “merukeihen” when describing the oil and spices (beauty treatments) that the women received in the harem. The root word, “merkach,” is a word that is used in the Tanach for embalming, which is the preservation of a dead body in spices and oils. It is hard to ignore the comparison of the process of preserving a dead body to the preparing one of these young women, who are identified only through their physical appearance, as being worthy of final presentation to the King. After 12 months of these “beauty treatments,” Esther’s body, “physically perfect and preserved,” reaches a good enough state to be presented to the King. The rest is history.
Esther’s first telling emotional display occurs when she hears that Mordechai is wearing sackcloth and ashes and sitting outside the palace gate in mourning.
And Esther’s maidens and her chamberlains came and told her, and the queen was extremely distressed, and she sent clothing to dress Mordechai and to take off his sackcloth, but he did not accept. (Megillat Esther, 4:4)
Mordechai had been mourning the tragic news of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish people, but that is not what disturbed Esther. The text states clearly, that it is rather Mordechai’s state of poor dress that upsets her and her only action at this time is to send him new clothes so as to improve his appearance. At this stage of Esther’s moral development, Persian values of appearance are what are impressed upon her. Of course, we know how the story ends, that Esther saves the Jewish people with her bravery, clever strategizing, and with the help of Hashem. But first, Esther has to go through some kind of emotional and moral change, to reconnect with the values of her people, that she had been separated from when she was thrust into the culture of the Persians.
Once Mordechai warns Esther of the impending danger to the Jewish people, she realizes that simply abiding by the customs and rules of the Persian Kingdom and to remain a silent beauty, admired for only her looks, will not do. She must instead flout Persian culture, custom, and tradition and step before the king to speak for her people. She cannot wait to be summoned by the King so he can enjoy her beauty. She realizes that if Haman’s plan is successful she too will be killed if identified as a Jewess.
Esther uses bravery and cleverness to manipulate Haman into self destruction and Achashverosh into being compliant with the plan that she and Mordechai devise in order to save the people. She summons her inner strength and reconnects with her Jewish people, Jewish values, and G-d. She shatters Persian expectations of what her “pretty face” is really capable of. In the context of her people’s values and history, Esther is worth much more than “the eshet yifaat toar” (a woman of beautiful countenance) as she was initially described in the Megillah. The miracle of the story of Purim rests hidden beneath the mask of her beauty.
Sometimes it feels like we are still living in Persia. We are constantly bombarded by media images of women being paraded in front of us to be judged by their clothes, cosmetics and looks. We stand in line at the checkout aisle in the supermarket faced with magazines and tabloids showing emaciated scantily clad women shouting at us, “Look at me! What I look like on the outside defines me! Judge me!” It is hard not to feel that the values of Persia are still among us; lurking and lying in wait to influence us.
Let us leave the pursuit of a perfectly preserved external appearance to Vashti’s Persia, and instead focus our energies like Queen Esther; on garnering strength within ourselves to challenge society’s need to equate beauty and worth. Let us not allow today’s Persia to continue to embalm our bodies and photoshop our souls. Let us see ourselves through the message at the end of the Megillah of what truly made Esther a queen; not her pretty face, but the nobility and bravery of her spirit and commitment to her values, people, and G-d.