Esther, Queen of Persia, and the Stories We Don’t Tell

I was supposed to have my Bat Mitzvah almost a year ago. We were three days away from the ceremony when we decided to postpone until after the pandemic, which we all know has gone on for much longer than expected. I’m not thrilled with how it’s turned out, obviously. Urban legends of kids forgetting their lines onstage or the power going out in the middle of the ceremony were found useless in preparing me for the unique experience that’s fallen on 13-year-old Jews across the globe. But if anything productive has come from this, through a global pandemic I’ve been gifted the power of access to plenty of Jewish stories and the time to think about them.


My Bat Mitzvah portion was about the Purim story, one of the most widely known parts of the Torah. It’s the story we tell little kids to teach them about the power of love and courage, as a sort of introduction to the world of Judaism.


But reading the uncensored Purim story for the first time, I realized that quite a bit of the original story had been cut out–things like murder, domestic violence, and some very, very outdated ideas concerning gender, hierarchy, and the way that that time period perceived the world.


In the children’s version of the Purim story, the King is looking for a new wife, so his men gather up the prettiest woman they can find and bring them to his castle. One of them is Esther, a Jewish orphan pretending to be a gentile (non-Jewish) in order to become the Queen and gain some wealth and power. All of the women stand in a line as the King looks them over, and when he and Esther make eye contact, it’s love at first sight. Meanwhile, the evil Haman wants to kill all of the Jews, but Esther convinces the King to refuse him. They get married and live happily ever after. The King is a hero for standing up for the Jewish people, Esther is a hero for saving her people, and Haman is exiled (killed, in some versions).


That version isn’t entirely wrong–the parts about Haman, Esther’s background, and her role in convincing the King to save the Jewish people are all accurate. But there are a few important things that were left out.


For one, the process of choosing the King’s next wife was complicated. The King’s men collected the kingdom’s prettiest women, then forced them all into a little house where they were kept until the King was “ready for them.” Then they were given months of plastic surgery, and the King spent the night with each of them in turn until he picked a few finalists to move on to the next round of his ‘beauty pageant.’ In the end, Esther was chosen to be his Queen.


It’s clear even from direct translations of the original text that what occurred in those months was not a blossoming romance between the noble King and a Jewish orphan girl–it was, simply put, rape and torture. And the scariest thing about it is that it was printed in the Hebrew Bible, openly stated, and made apparent to anyone able to understand the text. This was the way the world worked at that time period, and even if people recognized the problem, nothing was done to change it.


There’s another juicy tidbit of information hidden between the years and years that people have been telling this story–the fate of the King’s ex-wife, Vashti.


In the original story, it’s unclear what exactly went down on the night that the order to kill the first Queen was decreed. What actually happened is even more of a testament to the ideologies of that time period.


The King is throwing a party. He invites all of the noblemen and is given plenty of food and wine. Meanwhile, Vashti is holding a separate party for all of the guest’s wives. The King, late into the evening and a sloppy drunk, is bragging to his guests about how beautiful his wife is. He calls for her to present herself for the room, as exposed as possible.


She refuses, and King Xerxes is furious. He demands that Vashti be executed as soon as possible, for fear that her act of disobeying the King’s demands will reflect poorly on the women of his kingdom. Word travels fast, and the King is terrified that women under his rule only need one role model to start acting up, disobeying their husbands, and wreaking havoc on the patriarchal society of the times.


Unfortunately, it works. Any motivation women may have had to stand up for themselves was immediately killed after news got out that Vashti had been executed for her protest. The Queen is dead, the women of the kingdom are more convinced than ever to stay silent, and life, for better or for worse, continues as normal.


In as much of a conclusion as we can get to such an open-ended story, it’s fair to say we've come a long way. If nothing else, these stories are a clear indicator of how it used to be, and in turn, how much has changed. While America right now has many more problems than solutions, I’m impressed with the way the public has responded to threats of a society slipping back into the world of systemic oppression shown in the Purim story. And, if we continue the way we’re going now, slowly but surely I believe we can make it out of the hole that we’ve dug ourselves into.


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