Esther, Vashti, and Women Leaders
Esther, Vashti, and Women Leaders
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
We can still talk about Purim, right? Purim may have officially ended when we lit candles and entered into Shabbat. However, in some parts of the world, ancient walled cities- like Jerusalem- it’s STILL Purim. It’s actually called “Shushan Purim” and it commemorates the tragic loss of life that the megillah describes as the Jewish community defended itself. For reasons that are unknown, Achashverosh could not or did not rescind the order to destroy the Jewish people, he simply amended it to allow us to defend ourselves. We read that a total of 75,000 people were killed, a statistic that calls into question our lighthearted approach to the holiday. The lack of leadership on the part of Achashverosh is incomprehensible.
Thus, the people of Shushan celebrated Purim a day later than those in the outlying communities; hence, Shushan Purim. And, because some of the mitzvot associated with Purim cannot be completed on Shabbat, in those places Purim continues into Sunday. This year is one of those in which Purim actually takes place over 3 days.
So, it is appropriate that tonight we look at the text of the megillah- albeit through a contemporary lens. And what we see are 2 examples of women’s empowerment. Vashti, the feminist heroine and original #metoo champion, defies the king and asserts her own dignity. The king orders her to appear and she bravely refuses. The king does not appear upset about this, but his advisors are concerned about the precedent this may set in the kingdom, if all women decide that they are not subject to their husband’s whims. Exit Vashti, enter Esther
The scroll of Esther describes her transformation from timid beauty queen to strategic leader. Esther hides her Jewish identity, as women throughout history have hidden who we are. Her very name- Esther- is etymologically related to the word “seter-secret.” As we read the story of Esther and her ultimate willingness to risk her life to save the Jewish people, we reflect on the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden, and the wellsprings of strength that are, perhaps, untapped. Esther’s self-reliance is underscored by the fact that God’s name does not appear in the text- it’s all on her! We pray that megillat Esther will empower all girls to courageously embrace who they are.
Thinking about Esther, I reflect on the transformative role of women in the Jewish community that has taken place during my lifetime. Growing up in a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn, NY, my Bat Mitzvah was celebrated only on Friday night and I did not read from the Torah. When I first came to services wearing a tallit, I was summarily asked to remove it or to leave the sanctuary. Women could not have a Torah Aliyah and were not counted in a minyan. In 2021 that seems incredible- yet- it’s true: 9 men and 6 women there for a service, and there was no kaddish or Barchu, prayers that required the presence of 10 men. And, there were no women rabbis- NONE!
In the late 19th century, a pioneer woman, Ray Frank, traveled this country delivering sermons, a precursor to today’s female rabbis. Many consider Regina Jonas, who was ordained in Berlin in 1935 as the first female rabbi, yet, it was not until 1972 that Sally Priesand became the first female Reform rabbi in the United States. She was followed in 1974 by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Amy Eilberg was the first Conservative woman, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985. When I joined the US Army Reserve in 1978, no female rabbi had ever been in the US military- there were SO few of us.
I love that now we take for granted that, of course, women can be rabbis. Or anything else they want to be! Our Temple Chai teens were surprised, to say the least, when they learned of this recent history. And the best thing is when our students come back from another shul and gleefully tell us how odd it was that there was a male rabbi!
Shushan Purim on Shabbat gives us an extra opportunity to celebrate Vashti and Esther and women’s empowerment, leading us directly into Women’s History Month beginning on Monday. It’s time to take off our masks, to be who we are, to inspire and empower young people to lead with strength and confidence.