In 2023, Purim falls within days of International Women's Day. While Purim always provides an opportunity to reflect upon how Esther's story relates to women's rights, its proximity to International Women's Day this year reinforces the focus on women's rights that is present in both holidays.
In the Book of Esther, two women find themselves in vulnerable positions because of their gender. Vashti pays a high price for her dignity when she is banished from the palace for refusing to dance at the king’s party. Esther, who is chosen as Vashti’s successor in a beauty pageant, fears for her life when approaching the king without his express request to see her. Women seem to be expendable, merely objects to entertain or be admired, and can be disposed of at will. When Esther pushes back against the constraints of her position and rejects the gendered role she occupies, she is able to overcome stereotypes and ultimately save the Jewish people.
Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come…. If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media…that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus…. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike (Esther 1:16-20).
The advisors' anxiety about what would happen if women did not have the proper respect for their husbands seems humorous to us now, but in fact, our world is not so different from the world of Shushan. Discrimination and violence against women are global problems. Women shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of poverty and the effects of war. Like Vashti and Esther, women in developing countries and, in some ways even our own, have limited control over their bodies or their livelihoods.
The Talmud says that Memuchan, who urged King Ahasuerus to exile Vashti, is actually Haman, who urged the king to destroy the Jews (BT Megillah 12b). Arthur Waskow argues that this midrash teaches us powerful lessons about the nature of oppression. He asks,
Do we learn from the Megillah that those who will not treat Jews as human will also not treat women as human? That Haman and Mehuman [sic] are the same oppressor because they do the same oppression? … And that just as the oppression of women and of the Jewish people is intertwined, so their victories are intertwined? That the victory, the freedom of the Jewish people will only come with the victory, the freedom, of womankind? (Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, Summit Books, New York, 1982, page 126)
As we celebrate our victory over oppression, may we also remember those, including millions of women, who are not yet free.