Purim is coming up, and for those of you who don’t remember from your time at Hebrew school, it’s often considered the “Jewish Halloween.”
According to the Torah of Mean Girls, “In the regular world, Halloween is a time when kids get dressed up and beg for candy. In girl world, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” It’s sad that costumed festivals have become about objectification rather than glorification, but it’s high time for us to reclaim that power as the glorious goddesses we are. After all, the Purim story is full of badass women who shifted the history of an entire empire — and people! — numerous times over with their willfulness, strength, and audacity.
Here’s why Purim is not just a time to dress up, but to celebrate the feminist heroes who paved the way.
1. The entire story stars with women’s rights
The story of Purim is one of topsy-turviness, where everything ends up “upside down” from how it was intended. So it’s fitting that we begin with the tale of Ahasuerus, rich and spoiled king over most of the known world of Persia and Medea, who decides to summon his beautiful wife Vashti to the feast he’s presided over for 180 days.
Drunk as a skunk, he asks his wife to show up and show off (some say he specifically requested her to be naked), and she’s not having any of it. She refuses adamantly, and thus arrives the “what if” brigade — the king’s advisors who are most concerned that this precedent set by none other than Queen of the Land might *gasp* encourage all the women throughout the king’s 127 provinces to rebel against The Man of The House.
The opening part of this saga ends not only with Vashti’s downfall, but a very emphatic decree written by the king’s advisors “that all men shall be sovereign in their households.” Sounds very 5th century BCE to me! Commentators say this piece of the story is paramount to the later narrative for the simple reason that a nation that subjugates its women and doesn’t allow them a voice is a nation that moments later sanctions and celebrates genocide. Because only when the women are suppressed does this kind of drama go down.
2. Vashti and Esther, the two powerful queens
Vashti is the queen who says no and shapes the future of the entire nation as a result, paving the way for Esther — a nice Jewish girl who lives in the suburbs of Shushan with her uncle and adopted dad, Mordechai. Midrash, aka fanfic on the Bible, will tell us she married Mordechai, but it also tells us he grew breasts so he could nourish her as a child after her parents died, so Goddess knows what actually happens.
Esther, as the story goes, is winner of a Bachelor-style contest for the king’s affections and wins the queenship, despite having no interest in the decadent oil of myrrh and other luxurious beauty treatments compulsory for members of the harem.
When Esther becomes queen, she keeps quiet about her nationality and religion, and continues to work behind the scenes with her uncle Mordechai to report on palace intrigue.
Both women shaped the ending with their actions. Little girls dress as Queen Esther all the time, but Vashti is making a comeback. Who will you embody this year?
3. “If you will remain silent”
One of the most powerful conversations recorded in the Bible is a dialogue between Mordechai and Esther, complete with dramatic intonation when the scroll is read aloud. Mordechai, dressed in sackcloth, is mourning the potential destruction of the Jews, which has just been announced by decree from Haman, the king’s prime minister. He’s asking Esther to use her royal connections and womanly wiles to intercede, and she’s, justifiably, petrified. She’s also fairly passive aggressive with her partner, reminding him the law that every being in the kingdom knows: approaching the king without summons is punishable by death, and she hasn’t been asked to his chambers in a month.
So Mordechai reminds her, much as I pray our male allies will remind us when the going gets tough, that now #timesup:
“If you will remain silent at this time, salvation will come to the Jews in some other way… But you and your legacy will be erased forever. Who knows if this is the reason why all this happened and why you’re here, in this position, right now?”
I used to read this as Mordechai doing the classic Jewish guilt trip, but now I understand it as a powerful push by an ally to remind a woman of her inner power and place in the world. We all have the opportunity to step up. If we don’t, well, someone else will do it, but our stories will remain untold and our legacy unfulfilled.
4. Esther embodies strength in vulnerability
Esther’s path to the king was fraught with fear. She fasted three days before seeing the king, dressed in her queenly best, and bedazzled guards in every antechamber before hitting the throne room. Esther holds her ground while still being completely vulnerable and exposed, and is one of many mistresses of sacred seduction in the Torah — women who embody powerful sexual energy with a higher purpose.
Do we recommend trying this at home? Not exactly. But where can we be brave enough to embody our deepest vulnerability and show the inner strength that can change a world? Let me count the ways.
5. Haman’s downfall is a consent violation
You didn’t think the story ended there, did you? After Esther’s big reveal to the king and Haman at her party, Ahasuerus is freaked out, big time. He goes for a walk outside to calm down, and who knows, maybe he’s decided it’s not that big a deal after all. Until he walks indoors and sees Haman bent over the chaise where Esther is lounging, in a decidedly non-consensual pose of begging, supplication, or perhaps some form of violence. The king is incensed, can’t believe his buddy Haman would dare to harm the queen while he’s still in the house, and moments later Haman is ordered to be hanged on the same gallows he built for his nemesis, Mordechai. Consent, you guys. It’s a thing.
Whether the Purim story is your favorite Biblical epic of all time or just a canvas for some great costume parties, here’s hoping all of us women today can embody the fierce femininity of the story of Esther. In a time when remaining silent is not an option, when stepping forward in vulnerability is our secret weapon, and when consent and advocacy by our male allies is paramount, why not open up that book and see what else can be read in a new feminist light?