Teaching Megillat Esther
Every year, I learn selections of Megillat Esther with my students before Purim. When we get to chapter 2, the reaction is predictable. Regardless of age or denomination, the students are surprised in the same way each year: “Where’s the beauty pageant?” and “He married all of them?!” These basic facts always come as a surprise. Never mind that they study Esther in school every year. And that they have heard the megillah read in its entirety many times. And that they have easy access to the book in English translation.
Let me explain. It seems to be standard these days to teach children (and adults!) that Achashverosh chose his new wife by lining up all the pretty young women in the land, pointing at his favorite, and marrying her. Then, it is implied, the other candidates were free to go on with their lives. (If, as far as you know, that is what happened, then you may wish to read the second chapter of Esther before you finish reading this blog post.)
I understand the attraction of this version of the story. It is hard to explain the selfish and cruel behavior of a sociopath who is willing to do what Achashverosh did. His behavior is beyond the scope of what “bad guys” are allowed to do in the stories we tell in polite society. We may fear that it is traumatizing to hear about what happened to the other girls. We are uncomfortable teaching about sex and rape in our Tanach classrooms (although, in this story, that problem can be evaded by saying “he married them”). But, however attractive the “beauty pageant” story is, we should not teach it.
The problem is that you can’t teach G-d’s message by changing it. The book that Esther and Mordechai wrote with divine inspiration says what it says. And that is our children’s heritage that we should be passing on to them. Not something else that we are more comfortable with. If you want, skip chapter 2 entirely, saying “Then Achashverosh chose a new wife, and by a miracle, it was Esther.” But please don’t tell the children stories that have no source in our tradition. Especially not as part of a Torah or Tanach class.
The thing is, when your teachers tell you something when you’re little, you believe them. And it permanently shapes your understanding of everything that comes after. A student who was told when she was 3 that Achashverosh chose the most beautiful woman by having a beauty contest is unable, for the rest of her life, to read Megillat Esther without that idea in mind. In my experience, that person will be surprised afresh EVERY time she reads the megillah, even though she was surprised by the same thing last year and the year before.
We must not teach anyone, especially preschoolers, anything that we know to be untrue. You really can’t “fix it later.” That includes embellishments that are more memorable or interesting than the actual information. And it includes “correcting” texts to make them more comfortable. If you embellish or “correct,” chances are terrific that students will remember only the parts you made up.
The stories of Tanach are fascinating and engaging in themselves. It is both unnecessary and destructive to change them when teaching children. How to present the text in a way that is entirely understandable to small children? “Achashverosh is a bad person who doesn’t care about other people or their feelings, so he married all the girls he might want to date and then chose one to have a relationship with and locked the rest up in the harem” works. And it goes beautifully with a discussion of how we should behave differently.
This idea has very positive implications for how we should teach Tanach stories to small children, which I plan to write about in another blog post soon.
In the spirit of “venahafoch hu,” I hope that our community can reverse our teaching practice and teach the megillah the way it was written.