Minorities and Meaning in Megillat Esther
BY DR. YOSEFA (FOGEL) WRUBLE
When Mordechai is introduced in the Megillah’s second chapter, it recounts his tribal pedigree and descendance from the first wave of exiles with Yehoyachin. Esther is described as beautiful like many other female and male biblical protagonists, but greater emphasis is placed on her deceased family:
“And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter; for she had neither father nor mother… when her father and mother were dead, Mordechai took her for his own daughter.”
The juxtaposition of Esther’s lost roots parallels the people’s loss of homeland. Both are exiled from their native setting and find a substitute home. This is the first place in which the Megillah sets up a parallel between its two mistreated minority groups: women and the Jewish people. The identification of Esther with the broader Jewish entity is declared outright in the 7th chapter, when she confronts Achashverosh at their private party in the presence of Haman: “For we are sold, I and my people (כִּי נִמְכַּרְנוּ אֲנִי וְעַמִּי)”. Esther could have easily said “For my people are sold”, but she emphasizes her identification with them by adding the first person possessive. While this certainly enhances the dramatic impact of her words, it also highlights their parallel plights.
The first occurrence of mistreatment of women is the court’s overreaction to Vashti. Her refusal to appear before the men was the appropriate response. Extra-biblical sources testify that Persian courts held separate parties for men and women precisely because the mens’ parties were drunken and often included lewd entertainment. The banishing of Vashti is done so that “every man should bear rule in his own house” (1:22). The motivation is out of an embellished fear that other women may also come to assert themselves in their marriage. Achashverosh’s court is more incensed by Vashti’s refusal than her husband, who responds obediently to their demand that she be dethroned.
This first overreaction foreshadows the way Haman will react to Mordechai’s future act of disobedience. Here too, the disobedience is performed in a semi-public setting and it is the king’s servants who call attention to its problematic nature (3:3–4) long before Haman himself notices, pointing to the influence of the court officials. In both cases, it is the threat to power that catalyzes the reaction. With Vashti the concern is over household dynamics. With Mordechai, the officers emphasize his identity as a Yehudi. Again a parallel is set up between the potential threat of women and the Jews.
Another parallel: Both the people and women are referred to as nameless groups. The beautiful maidens are rounded up to be immersed in oils and incense in preparation for a night with the king (2:2–4). The Jews, on the heels of Mordechai’s row with Haman, are lumped together in what seems to be a baseless claim of separatism (3:6, 8). The women are classified as beautiful and the Jews as uncooperative. Both are represented by stereotypes.
Why is this consistent parallel significant?
First, it illustrates the universal tendency for strong powers to take advantage of their weaker populations. However, both experience a transformation in the Megillah. The Jewish people defends itself against its enemies, described using the same phrasing used to describe Haman’s desire to dispose of them, “to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish” (8:11, לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד) and the Persians are scared of them (8:17). The weak become the powerful, even if only for a short period of time.
Mordechai convinces Esther to be an agent of change (4:13–14). Her first act of leadership mobilizes “all the Jews of Shushan” to fast in prayer, again pairing Esther with the people. While it is clear that antisemitic policies are a fixture of history best done away with, this opinion is less clear when it comes to the treatment of women. Even in a society still centuries away from systematic change in this realm, the Megillah’s mockery of the Royal court’s treatment of women suggests that the balance of power requires recalibration.
Chazal (Megillah 7a) depict Esther as the sole advocate for the Purim festival’s inclusion in the Jewish calendar and for the canonization of her book. The request is framed as a powerful first-person plea, establish me for generations/write me for generations. In this manner, Chazal continue the parallel between Esther and the people. She is the Jewish people; she is their story. By commemorating the Purim story we remember one of our greatest Jewish heroines, in a time when both may have easily been forgotten.
Dr. Yosefa (Fogel) Wruble is a Ramit in the women’s beit midrash at Migdal Oz, a lecturer at Matan and the host of their weekly parasha podcast, and serves her community as a Yoetzet Halacha.