Today is the 14th of Adar according to the Jewish calendar. Or, more famously, it is the Holiday of Purim, I was born on Purim. So, in terms of the Hebrew calendar today is my birthday. (It is March 14th according to the secular calendar).
My Grandparents wanted me to be named Esther. Back then, that was the name for old women, although it has had a resurgence of late. So I appreciated my parents decision to name me Lisa instead. My Hebrew name is Leah Hannah.
I was originally planning a different post today, about wandering alone through the snowy grounds of a botanical garden and discovering the difference between being alone and being lonely. However, a discussion on Facebook about Hamentaschen (sparked by my craving for that special treat) made me think about the Story of Esther, the story of Vashti, the story of women. It made me think about all the craziness going on in our country and the need for women’s voices. So now I am writing this post.
Vashti was a queen, married to King Ahasuerus until he made an unacceptable drunken demand. He wanted to show off the beauty of his wife, and insisted that she appear in front of his banquet of guests. That might not have been an issue except that he wanted her to appear wearing a crown and NOTHING ELSE.
As any proud, feminist (before the term was coined) woman would and should do, she refused. In defense of his male ego, Ahasuerus (encouraged by other men) decided to replace her by holding a beauty contest.
Yes, the next queen would not be selected for brains or anything else but her beauty. And, let me point out, the contest was judged in this way:
“English Standard Version(©2001)
In the evening she would go in, and in the morning she would return to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.” (Esther 2:14)
In case you are missing that, she had to spend the night with the king and then would be sent to the harem for concubines. So, she was not acceptable to marry until he had sex with her. Who is to blame if women are called whores?
Many criticize Esther, saying she should not have agreed to take the place of Vashti. But what is a young Jewess to do in a world where men hold all the power, including enough power to discard a wife for her refusal to appear naked in front of a group of strangers? In other words, in a world where MEN controlled the decisions a woman could make about HER BODY.
Esther became Queen, and then Haman entered the picture. Haman was a noble and vizier to Ahasuerus, who set out to have all the Jews destroyed when Esther’s uncle Mordecai refused to bow down to him. Esther had listened to the instructions of her uncle, and never told anyone she was a Jew. She set out to save her people (although some say she was pressured into it under fear of her own death) by reminding the king that Mordecai had saved him in the past by revealing a plot to kill the king. She also pointed out that if the Jews must die, then she must die. In the end, Haman was killed and Jews gained more power in the kingdom.
Perhaps Esther only became strong to save herself, but I don’t criticize her for that because sometimes it takes the realization of danger to gain the strength to fight. I am sensing the danger to myself and my daughter all around. I now want to fight.
This morning Sarah and I snuggled up for a chat in my bed. Yesterday I read “Am I Pretty? Really? You Sure?” over at Broadside, a post that in some ways directly relates to the story of Purim. All the women in that story were judged by their beauty, but they all had something much more important to offer. Vashti took a stand that basically destroyed her life, but she stood for what was right. Esther took a chance to save her people. Yet still today women are so often judged by appearance and sexuality, and we let it happen. So, while chatting with Sarah, I talked about where true beauty lies, and that it has very little to do with outer appearance. You’ve all seen pictures of Sarah. I know she is beautiful, but I would much rather her have the strength of conviction of Vashti or the courage of Esther then outer beauty.
After this conversation she jumped up and said, “I want to read something with you.” She ran over and got a book she had been avoiding: American Girl’s The Care & Keeping of YOU: The Body Book for Girls. We read the first chapter and she said, “I’m more comfortable reading this with you.”
She is growing up.
I am fearful of the world she is growing into. A world where women’s voices seem to be fading instead of growing in power. A world where men still try to control women’s bodies. A world where we are still being judged by sex.
I don’t want her to have to live in that world. So, it’s time to take on the mantle of the Queens. To stand up for what is right like Vashti. To protect my people, other women, like Esther. To fight for a world which values intelligence over beauty, and equality over power.
I don’t yet know what that means, but I know I have to try.
But first, I really wish I could eat some hamentaschen.