Why Vashti became Jewish
When Queen Vashti married King Ahasuerus, she, like all Persian wives, promised to love, honor and always obey. Yet, when her husband commanded Vashti to dance before his drunken guests wearing only her royal crown, Vashti refused. How did she get the idea that a wife could and should refuse to follow her husband’s instructions even when they were disrespectful and stupid?
Vashti overheard a young woman named Hadassah giving advice to her much older cousin, Mordecai, a successful merchant and a leader of the Jewish community. Vashti was amazed that Mordecai would listen to and indeed follow the advice of a younger woman.
Vashti asked them about their relationship. Mordecai replied, “We are Jews, descendants of Abraham and Sarah. God told our ancestor Abraham that ‘whatever Sarah tells you to do – do as she says.’ (Genesis 21:12) Thus it is a mitzvah for Jewish husbands to follow the advice of their Jewish wives, especially concerning family and personal matters.”
Vashti asked Hadassah, “Don’t Jewish brides promise to obey their husbands?”
“Of course not,” answered Hadassah,” Jewish husbands and wives are partners who are consecrated to each other according to the rules of Moses (the Jewish religion) and the people of Israel (the Jewish community).
Jewish women never promise to obey their husbands. Jewish spouses should love and respect each other, but no one should blindly obey anyone else, even the King.
Vashti was so impressed by what Hadassah had told her, that she began studying Torah with Hadassah and later with other Jewish teachers. After a year of study, Vashti decided to become Jewish.
She did not tell Ahasuerus that she had become Jewish because when she told him that she was studying the Torah, he was uninterested. Ahasuerus never paid any attention to Vashti’s ideas, or that of any female for that matter, relying only on his seven advisors, especially Memucan whom everyone called Haman.
Vashti had noticed how Haman often manipulated the King to increase Haman’s power. Now that she was Jewish, Vashti felt more self-confident and empowered, so she tried to warn Ahasuerus about Haman’s devious plots against people Haman thought were his rivals, and his tendency to avoid solving problems by finding scapegoats.
Haman noticed Vashti wasn’t the submissive wife she had been, and decided to get rid of her. He succeeded in having her banished when she refused to dance naked before the King’s drunken guests.
But Haman outsmarted himself because Vashti’s replacement as Queen turned out to be Hadassah, (who used her Persian name Esther while at the court) and she was the one who brought about Haman’s downfall.
Vashti was divorced and banished from Shushan, the capitol of the Persian empire to a small town in Southern Syria where she married the King of Massa, one of the local towns.
Her son Lemuel always remembered how his mother, Queen Vashti, admonished him that wine is not for kings since it impairs their judgment, and that the most important thing in life is to marry a woman of valor and respect her capabilities.
Vashti’s words were incorporated as the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs which speaks about the virtues of a strong, assertive Jewish wife. The reference to a Torah of kindness being on her tongue (Proverbs 31:26) refers to the many good teachings that Vashti learned from Hadassah, and that Vashti passed on to her son Lemuel.
Vashti was not the only non-Jew who became Jewish in that generation. According to the Book of Esther (8:17) “There were many from among the peoples of the land who became Jewish.”
Why was there such widespread conversion to Judaism? The text says, “Because the pachad of the Jews fell upon them.” Pachad is usually translated as “fear.”
But why would people fear the Jews who had just recently escaped being plundered and looted? Perhaps the sudden reversal of Jewish fate filled many sensitive non-Jews with awe for the God of the Jews.
The Hebrew word pachad, really means “awesome.” It indicates the stunning and overwhelming experience of the Divine, and the stupefying and daunting reaction sensitive mortals have to a Divine eruption.
Indeed, Jacob twice refers to the God who protects him as Pachad Yitzchak-the awesome one of Isaac. (Genesis 31:42 + 53) Thus Pachad is a name for the awesome God.
In our own day, many more non-Jews have become Jewish in the two generations following the Shoah and the recreation of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, than in the whole century that preceded these events.
Many of these converts to Judaism had their interest in Judaism sparked by the Shoah or the rebirth of the State of Israel. Some have been attracted to children of survivors, while others have been drawn to Orthodoxy and Aliyah.
The commitment of converts to Judaism to the Jewish people in times of woe as well as times of wonder is why the Book of Esther explicitly states that Jews, their descendants, and all the converts who had joined themselves to the Jewish people, took upon themselves to celebrate Purim. (9:27)
One such person was Agur, King of Massa. Agur had received orders from Haman to permit the followers of Haman to blame the Jews for being different, and then plunder the Jews and drive them out of town.
Agur felt sorry for the Jews, but was prepared to follow orders. As the fateful day approached, Agur’s conscience bothered him more and more and he began to warn the Jews about the planned pogrom.
When Agur heard that Haman had been hung and that the Jews were commanded to fight back against their enemies, he ordered his soldiers to kill everyone in Haman’s party who attacked Jews.
The faithfulness of the Jewish people to Judaism impressed Agur and he began to study Judaism. A year later, he became Jewish and the following year he met Queen Vashti and they fell in love and were married under a Huppah.
Vashti was proud that as a Jewish wife, she would not have to promise to obey her husband, and Agur was proud that he had not obeyed Haman’s orders and now he had become the Jewish husband of a woman of valor. Agur’s advice to the children of his previous marriage is found in Chapter 30 of the Book of Proverbs right next to the words of Vashti (Chapter 31) as taught by their son Lemuel.
In later centuries, Vashti’s conversion to Judaism was forgotten. That she was the Jewish mother that Lemuel referred to was also forgotten. It is my honor to restore Vashti’s contribution to the Book of Proverbs.