Vashti: a heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman

The story of Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther. We are introduced to her as she makes a feast for the women in the royal household, paralleling the feast made by the king for the men. There is no description of her feast, unlike the detailed account given of the King’s event where the extravagance of the decorations, the furniture, the utensils and the food and wine are described in all their excessive bling.

After seven days of feasting and drinking, the King decides to show off to the assembled hordes and bring his beautiful wife to his event, and the text does indeed tell us that she was “tovat mar’eh” – good to look at. He sends the seven eunuchs (sarisism) who served him to bring Vashti before him, wearing the crown royal (no other clothing is described leading the commentators to assume she was to appear naked before her husband and his friends). But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command given via his sarisim, and this angered the king greatly.

The King asked his advisors what legal consequences should follow for the Queen Vashti having refused to do the request of the King as relayed by his sarisim.

It is a strange few verses. First we are told that the King said to the wise men who understood the times – but we are not told what he said, instead there is a narrative insertion to tell us that this was his custom before those who knew law and judgment. And what does it mean that the wise men understood the times? That they were political advisors? that they were close to public opinion? Then we are given the names of the seven princes of Persia and Media – are these the wise men or are these a different group? We know that they were sitting right next to the king at the feast, that they were the first/highest in the kingdom; and we know too that they saw the king’s face.

Then comes the question – oddly phrased as a legal enquiry, and in the third person. “’What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done the bidding of the King Ahasuerus by the chamberlains (sarisim)?”

And what is the position of sarisim? Is the request greater or smaller because of their involvement? Why is their presence and role as messengers repeatedly pointed out? Is Vashti offended that the message has come through them? Is she asking for a direct conversation with the King?

It is Memucan, one of the princes of Media who responds. And he exaggerates and inflames the situation in an extraordinary way. “’Vashti the !ueen has not only done wrong to the King, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples that are in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the Queen will become known to all women, [and the effect will be] to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.  It will be said: The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the Queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the Queen say the like to all the King’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.”

Suddenly the Queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s banquet in order for her beauty to be appreciated by his friends is escalated into an insult to all the peoples in the 127 provinces ruled over by the King. Suddenly she is a role model to every woman who will now defy their husbands – or at the least find them contemptible.

It makes you wonder about Memucan, about his own sense of self, his arrogance and his male privilege which seems to mask a very thin skin and a deep fear of women finding him laughable.  If twitter had been around he would surely have tweeted “Vashti is a nasty woman. Disobedient and harmful. Arrogant! Bad!  #nastywoman”

He has a solution to the threat that Vashti’s behaviour might cause if other women heard of it and wanted to emulate it:

“If it please the King, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the King give her royal estate to another that is better than she.”

She is to be banished from ever coming to the King again. She is to be stripped of her title and her possessions. She is to be treated as a bad woman – there will be others who are ‘tovah mimena’ – better than her.

And so Vashti disappears from the story. And just to rub in the reason for her treatment we are told that letters were sent in every language of the empire to remind the people “that every man should bear rule in his own house”

Vashti is a pawn in a game about explicitly retaining and building up male power and privilege. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be callously punished and that punishment held up as an example to anyone else who might think about challenging in the future.

To that extent, she is a foreshadow of the struggle of the Jews in this self-same Empire. She chooses not to kowtow to the servant/sarisim/chamberlain just as Mordechai chooses not to kowtow to that servant of the King – Haman. But unlike him she has no other channel of communication – what does the book of Esther learn from this? That the Jews are going to need a number of routes of communication if they are to survive the experience of living under a petulant dictator with enormous powers at his disposal. They are going to need to build many different and diverse relationships.

The midrashic tradition treats Vashti with great unkindness – seeing the need to denigrate her in order to build up the passive and obedient Esther. Both women become pawns in the game of male power and privilege, and they are set up against each other in a literary fiction in order to heighten the reader’s understanding of which is the right way to respond.

So poor Vashti, whose name means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’ in Persian becomes a cautionary tale in the hands of the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud. They decide there is a connection in her name with the Hebrew verb “shoteh” – drinking, and suggest she was alcoholic and thus her disobedience was done in her cups.

They decide that when the king specifies she must come wearing her crown, that she is supposed to wear nothing else – her immodesty is legendary.  But then the Midrash suggests that she refuses to do so not because she is appalled at the request, but because she has a defect – a skin rash, a tail, leprosy – and the men will find her ugly.

There is a Midrash that she is of much grander ancestry than her husband – she is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazar, while Ahasuerus began life as the servant of her father. The problem – that she never lets him forget that she had a more powerful and higher status ancestry, she was a nagging and bitter wife, the sort of wife who would try to emasculate her husband with every opportunity. Of course she deserved her punishment, the arrogant woman.

And while she was busy trying to oppose her husband, the Midrash posits that she humiliated the other women, in particular those who were powerless, the Jewish maids whom she made work on Shabbat, whom she made work without their clothes – all this because she was called on the seventh day of the feast, and the punishment had to fit the crime, so this extraordinary crime was deduced.

Poor poor Vashti. She is indeed a cautionary tale. Beware of men in power who are scared of mature and confident women.

The story that she could not come and dance naked because she had a defect has an extra layer – that the Angel Gabriel came and fixed upon her not a tail, but a penis. Vashti is the ultimate unfeminine woman, the woman who challenges men on their own terms, the woman who behaves like a man.

You get the feeling that the storytellers who needed to diminish Vashti in this way had their own problems. They feared women who were in control of their lives, who were not dependant and therefore not in a supplicatory position in their relationships.

And you hope that the writers of this aggadic hate-fest are safely in the past. That men no longer fear women routinely, that we can see the stories for what they are – the projections of people who inadequately prepared to relate to others on an equal basis.

But of course we read this story on a yearly basis for a reason. We see that irrational fear of others never leaves the discourse entirely, that be it a woman who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of her husband or a Jew who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of a political force, or a human being who refuses to bow to an ideology of hatred, the battle continues.

Vashti is the bellwether, the indicator that something is deeply wrong in the system that is meant to be delivering good governance. Right now we see a President signing acts against religious groups or a Prime Minister choosing to use vulnerable groups as bargaining chips in their negotiations. Right now we see children and families fleeing from war and terrorism being refused sanctuary in a country which could easily afford to help them if it chose to do so.  Right now we are seeing bellwethers warning us that fascism is on the rise in Europe, that the learning and structures that were set up after the second world war to prevent such horror happening again are being forgotten, being overridden, being despised.  What will happen to our bellwethers if we don’t pay attention to them? Vashti disappears from the Esther narrative in a scant twelve verses. How quickly the world can change and progress and goodness erode into nationalism and hatred, into asserting power over the vulnerable, into anger that burns so fiercely that everything is consumed.

Vashti comes to tell us something important. A feminist icon she may be, but more importantly she brings a reminder that when we act out of fear of the other, out of fear of losing our privilege, a whole world can disintegrate and many people suffer.

Balak: the curse of being a people who dwell alone

Balaam, the seer and professional prophet from Aram who is commissioned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites travelling through the land, says to Balak :- “[you told me] ‘come, curse me Jacob and come, defy Israel’  How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I disturb whom the Eternal has not disturbed?”

And then he tells him this: “For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I observe them. Behold, a people who will live alone, and with the nations they will not be reckoned”

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

Balaam is a seer, he is a powerful soothsayer who has a real connection with God, but none whatsoever with the people of Israel. When he sees them all his plans to curse are in disarray, he cannot curse the people protected by God, and while he continues to try to fulfil the contract as best he can he is limited in this case and he knows it. Yet he tries to offer curses – or at least ambiguous spells, and this story culminates in the verse which we have appropriated for well over a thousand years to help us into the mood for prayer:          מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel”

It is a comic tale despite the horror of a powerful person hoping to destroy the vulnerable people of Israel while they are going about their business quite unknowing of the hatred and bile directed towards them. The comedy is underlined by our liturgical use of the final declaration. But this year one of the earlier “blessings/curses” caught my eye.  “Behold a people who will live alone, who will not be reckoned with the nations”

Tradition tells us that this is transformed into a blessing, that alone of all the nations of history, the Jews continue, uniquely indestructible, forever distinct and separate from the peoples among whom we live. This thread of Jewish peoplehood, surviving without the structures that normally support identity, moving geographically across a huge diaspora, moving through time and evolving time and again to create and accept new ritual and liturgical structures, accommodating to different cultures and political environments, living alongside other religious traditions – it is indeed unique.  Empires came and went, those of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were powerful entities under which the Jews lived and often suffered, and still the Jews continue while the artefacts of the great Empires can be found in museums.

But this interpretation so beloved of the medieval commentators living under oppressive authorities and fearful of the crusading powers sweeping through Europe to the Holy Land, reads less comfortingly in modern times.

A people who will dwell alone, who will not be reckoned/counted/aligned with the other nations sounds scarily like a nationalism out of control, assuming an arrogance and an identity that does not relate to other peoples.  As I have been reading the remarks of some who voted for the UK to leave our relationship with Europe I see statements such as “I have my country back”, and “we can send the foreigners home” and “England for the English”. I see the demagoguery of UKIP, the racism that was unacceptable in British society suddenly surfacing as people feel permission to “dwell alone”. Words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ dominate the discourse, turning the narrative into one of narrow chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism and xenophobia which appear to be segueing smoothly from the earlier arguments of more local agency and greater political autonomy.

I am chilled by the increased nationalism and jingoism I see not only in present day post referendum United Kingdom but also in other countries in Europe and in the USA. Patriotism has become a cloak for hatred of the other. Brown skinned people are being abused on public transport and told to “go home” – even though home is here, even though this island has always had many races and cultures – Angles and Saxons and Normans and Danes and Celts and  Germanic tribes and …..

I am chilled by the idea that being a people who are alone can possibly ever be a blessing, but in particular now when we live in an interconnected and interdependent world, when we can see the suffering of others at the touch of a computer or television, and we can help alleviate that suffering just as quickly and easily.  We learn from each other, we enrich each other both culturally and intellectually, we offer each other relationship while retaining the individuality we need for a real relationship to exist. As Martin Buber wrote a person (“I”) has meaning only in relation to others, what he called “I-Thou dialogue” – the same is true for peoples, for ethnicities and national identities. To separate oneself off and deny our interdependence, instead proclaiming the holy grail of absolute and total independence, is dangerous for every person, for every society, for every nation state.

The first time we have the phrase of being B.D.D. alone, comes in Genesis (2:18) Where God, having made the first human being says

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ:

It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make for him a support who is equal and different to him.

We all need others, people who are different, who have equal strength of opinion and independence, who challenge us and support us and are in relationship with us.  The saddest phrase in bible is probably the one at the beginning of the book of Lamentations, read after the commemoration of the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֨תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow. She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

We are already in the month of Tammuz – this weekend will see the 9th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the temple sacrifices were discontinued, and next week we will commemorate the 17th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army in 70CE leading to the removal of the Jewish people from their ancestral land. We may as a people have survived these historical catastrophes but the question is – have we learned from them? We need no longer fear being forcibly assimilated into a dominant power (or worse), the ‘blessing’ of being a people apart may now be less of a blessing if it blinkers us to the importance of our relationships with others.

As John Donne wrote in his meditation “

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We should listen out for the bell tolling out its warning and push for relationship and the recognition of the reality of our interdependence with others. Or Balak’s ‘blessing’ may yet prove to be our curse.