During Shana’s pregnancies, with both Zachariah and Emanuelle, we sometimes busied ourselves with the name game. My favorite name in this game was Vashti. Can you imagine a name more pregnant with parental possibilities: “Vashti, put down that book, it’s bedtime.” To which Vashti would say, “How dare you tell me when I can and can’t read!” Or, “Vashti, where on earth do you think you’re going?” To which she would reply, “Wherever I want to.” Or, “Vashti Wirstchafter Sippy, don’t even think about wearing that to Temple” To which she’d say, “Oh, I see, You want to control what I wear and what I think, not!” The girl would have had the fresh mouth of a teenager before she could even talk. She would have been a holy terror. A vilde chaye, a wild thing, as they say in Yiddish.
Of course, all that was required to put an end to our feminist fantasia was to bounce this idea off of our mothers. Suffice it to say neither Roni Sippy nor Carol Wirtschafter were even mildly amused. Yet, every year as we approach Purim, I think not only of Esther, but of Vashti too. Esther finds the courage to say yes to Mordechai and stand up for the Jews. Vashti finds the courage to say no to her husband and stand up for women. The refusal to be objectified, the courage to face tremendous consequences, the conviction to demand dignity, decency and equality; Vashti was a feminist before the world even knew what one was.
Purim is more than a time to put on costumes, eat hamantashen and sound groggers (noise makers). It’s a time to think about courage in all its forms. (Here is where I would add the following: Sadly, while we have made tremendous progress since the time of Ahasuerus, there is no question that we still have a long way to come in the arena of women’s rights and equality. At this very moment, women throughout the world, including right here at home, are working to gain access to education, to secure the right to vote, to determine the future of their own bodies, to ensure their access to sacred sites and positions of leadership, and, at the most basic level, to choose what they wear and where they go without fear of judgment or physical harm. Women are still an endangered class of persons. One wonders, “What would Vashti say about all this?” Or, as the bumper sticker might say, “What Would Vashti Do?” According to the Megillah, Vashti was banished for her defiance. And the text itself highlights, not only through the actions of Esther, but those of Vashti, the power of one person to effect change. The king and his advisors were especially troubled by Vashti’s actions because they believed they had the ability to influence how other women viewed their husbands. In some rabbinic commentaries, the threat of women’s resistance to male power was seen as so great that the king even has her killed. In our own time, girls are being harassed and physically assaulted for the “crime” of going to school. In our own time, they are still struggling for universal suffrage. In our own time, women in STEM fields still face numerous obstacles. In our own time, they are still fighting for equal pay for equal work, and the right to govern their own womb. Because of how much progress we have made in the way of women’s rights, we often forget that there is still much more that must be done.
Megillat Esther is not merely a romantic comedy. Its characters may very well be funny, but they’re also complicated. Vashti envisioned a world that was radically different from her own and made sacrifices in keeping with that vision. She never throws a punch, brandishes a sword, burns down a building or smashes the royal china. But make no mistake, she was a fighter and a feminist. If Vashti hadn’t gotten herself thrown out, Esther would never have been invited in. May we honor the courage of the Megilah’s less celebrated heroine by recognizing women’s work and working to make a better life for women throughout the world.