Many years ago, after it finally dawned on me that there are some quite disturbing adult themes hidden between the lines of the first couple of chapters of the Scroll of Esther, I started to become a little less (make that a LOT less) enthusiastic about my daughter dressing up as Queen Esther on Purim.
After all, do we really want our daughters to follow the footsteps of someone who was kidnapped and raped by an evil, rapacious despot– even if she does become queen of the realm in the process? Especially from a religious perspective—here we have a nice Jewish girl who is forced to marry this Persian schlub and even has a child with him. It’s not exactly a story which ends happily ever after.
Dressing up like Queen Esther would seem to be celebrating a tragic case of systemic female subjugation and intermarriage. Why would Jewish custom seem to condone it and even glorify it?
But hopefully, we get wiser with age, and things that once seemed ill-fitting and inappropriate can be appreciated anew when we come across a fresh new perspective. Such was my experience when studying the Yosef Lekach commentary to the Scroll of Esther.
We attempted in an earlier post to derive lessons from the Biblical Josef and his encounter with sexual harassment in the workplace. We learned from Joseph that standing up for what’s right and not remaining silent in the face of sexual harassment by one’s superiors may require sacrifice and enduring setbacks in one’s career goals. But one will certainly have a clear conscience and possibly even get ahead in the world as a result of heeding one’s inner moral voice.
Now we turn to another Biblical story for guidance, this time in the midst of high-stakes gender warfare that is taking place in ancient Persia.
Although Esther only comes on the scene in the second chapter, the backstory provided by the first chapter is critical. We know from the first chapter of the story that Esther’s predecessor, Vashti was executed precisely because she refused to accede to the humiliating demands of her husband, Achashveirosh. She is vocally unwilling to objectify herself by exposing herself in public for his pleasure and ego satisfaction. Vashti’s resistance was certainly brave, but ultimately ineffective. In fact, her public execution was purposefully utilized by the Emperor’s advisers as a way of serving notice to all women: Men must be treated by their wives as the masters of the house—or else.
This is how the first chapter of the story concludes.
In the second chapter we find that the advisers to the emperor are devising a new strategy to pick a queen, a strategy that is designed to avoid the mistakes of the past. In order to ensure that every prospective candidate for the position will be utterly meek and submissive—and resemble nothing like Vashti–the advisers recommend a selection process with the following guidelines:
- She must be selected only for her good looks with no value given to social status
- She must be taken from her family and have no further contact with them
- She must be put into the exclusive charge of the harem’s guardian
- She must be provided with cosmetics by the harem’s guardian
- She must undergo a full 12 months of beauty treatments to prepare herself for her “interview”.
Why all are these elements necessary? It’s simple, once you understand the end goal.
The first part of the strategy is to make sure the woman is only valued for her physical appearance and for nothing else. Not for her ideas, not for her insight, and not for her character. All of those are things which she can change and improve upon and make them genuinely hers by dint of her own efforts. But the one thing you can’t really change fundamentally is your facial appearance. It is completely external to who a person really is.
This was the advisers’ strategy:—the woman must feel valued for something that is not in her own control but in the hands of those around her– those who will judge her and give their approval– if she is deemed worthy of it by them. That is the key to removing self-esteem and self-confidence—by having a person rely completely on the judgment and approval of others regarding something one can do nothing about.
And make sure she does not come from a family of high rank or social status! Because this will be an obstacle to removing all psychological resistance to the emperor’s dominance over her. Everything you have and everything you want comes from the good will of the king and his men. Make sure all her beauty needs taken care of by exclusively by the emperor’s officers and not from the outside. Cut off all contact with family and friends.
She must spend a full year being preoccupied with one thing—how she can look and smell her best to win the approval of the Emperor. There is no other goal to her existence for an entire 12 months, other than to become the ultimate object of pleasure for the Emperor.
This carefully crafted process will naturally force each candidate to break with her past independent identity, redefine herself as an object for royal pleasure who completely dependent on and beholden to the king’s approval.
But the G-d of Israel has a few surprises in store for the king’s advisors.
Despite all their elaborate psychological profiling and conditioning to create the perfectly submissive queen, the supernatural charm bestowed upon Esther allows her to simply upend each and every one of their strategies:
- Ester comes from royal stock
- Esther remains in daily contact with Mordechai throughout her stay in the harem
- Esther defies orders to reveal her identity on Mordechai’s instructions
- Esther suffices with a minimum of cosmetics
- Esther is given a detail of personal maidservants who obey her commands
- Esther is shown preferential treatment by the harem guardian
ט וַתִּיטַב הַנַּעֲרָה בְעֵינָיו וַתִּשָֹּׂא חֶסֶד לְפָנָיו וַיְבַהֵל אֶת-תַּמְרוּקֶיהָ וְאֶת-מָנוֹתֶהָ לָתֶת לָהּ וְאֵת שֶׁבַע הַנְּעָרוֹת הָרְאֻיוֹת לָתֶת-לָהּ מִבֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיְשַׁנֶּהָ וְאֶת-נַעֲרוֹתֶיהָ לְטוֹב בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים:
י לֹא-הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר אֶת-עַמָּהּ וְאֶת-מוֹלַדְתָּהּ כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תַגִּיד:
יא וּבְכָל-יוֹם וָיוֹם מָרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי חֲצַר בֵּית-הַנָּשִׁים לָדַעַת אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אֶסְתֵּר וּמַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה בָּהּ:
Esther retains her past identity and her family ties. She gives her own orders to her subordinates and she takes orders from her own religious authority—not the government’s. She doesn’t allow herself to be valued for her physical appearance. She doesn’t require the approval of others to give herself a sense of value and worthiness.
In short, Esther is the quintessential strong Jewish woman in a man’s world: standing up to the enormous pressures around her to give up her independent identity go along with the herd. Fearlessly adhering to her religious duties to obey her rabbi’s instructions in the face of government coercion. Resisting the temptation to obsess about her looks and never value herself primarily in terms of how men view her level of attractiveness.
So on second thought, Queen Esther seems to be the best Jewish role model for my daughter that I can possibly think of…
(I just hope she goes easy on the make-up.)