Thursday, March 27, 2008

Some Serious Purim Thoughts

Although Purim is over, the members of one of my e-mail lists are still discussing a few thoughts connected to the day. One of our recent topics was what happened to Vashti after she disobeyed the king.

Various Jewish commentaries assign Vashti a variety of dreadful fates, from banishment to execution by beheading and even by burning. In my opinion, the text of the Megillah shows that her fate was much simpler—and, in some ways, far more devastating.

The Megillah tells us that the women who had their night with the king but were not chosen as queen were not allowed to leave the palace and resume their former lives. Instead, they were kept in the harem as concubines, never seeing the king again unless he summoned them by name.

We know that harems were actually prisons: luxurious prisons, but prisons nevertheless. Even the queen, arguably the most powerful inmate of the harem, had no real power outside it. Once she fell into disfavor—well, imagine a present-day situation in which a prisoner who has been the most powerful and feared inmate in his wing suddenly loses his power, whether through physical incapacitation or for other reasons. To use a current phrase, sucks to be him.

So here is what I think happened to Vashti. The text tells us that the king’s advisers suggested that the king never see her again. They do not tell him to banish or kill her, merely to ignore her for the rest of her life. So she remains in the harem as an ordinary inmate, only with the added burden of the king’s extreme displeasure. Her enemies—and it’s likely that she had plenty if only by virtue of her position—probably made no secret of their schadenfreude, while any friends or sympathizers she may have had dared not show her compassion for fear of being accused of high treason.

Execution seems like a pretty good choice compared to a life like that.

I also don’t believe all the nasty stories about Vashti that we find in our commentaries. The rabbis simply had a problem: although Vashti had done a good, even heroic thing by preserving her dignity, they had no interest in encouraging disobedience among wives. Yet what about all the unfortunate Jewish women throughout our history who endured similar dishonor, or chose death in a desperate attempt to escape it? What about Esther herself, who was still stuck with that turkey of a husband even after she had succeeded in saving her people?

Finally, to the young men I heard joking about Vashti being “liberated, especially when her head was liberated from her body”—it sounds like if you had been there, you would have been as disappointed as the king when Vashti didn’t show. But what would you do if it were your sister or daughter whose husband had ordered her to show herself, even clothed, to a bunch of his drunken pals while he bragged to them about how hot she was?

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