All too often, women in similar situations are portrayed as enemies and rivals (examples of this phenomenon: the assumed rivalry of sisters, Leah and Rachel, the cruelty Peninah demonstrates towards Hannah in the biblical text, and the vast library of articles written about female coworkers who “enjoy” tearing one another down). This tendency to pit women and female characters against one another is certainly apparent in the way that the Jewish tradition has portrayed the two queens of the Purim story: Vashti and Esther.
We reject this societal narrative.
In this Midrashic Monologue, we allow Esther to explain in her own words how she understands and is inspired by the life and legacy of Vashti.
**PLEASE NOTE: Esther’s Midrash builds on the foundation of another Midrashic Monologue, VASHTI’S STORY. We encourage you to take a moment and revisit this earlier MM by clicking HERE.**
It is my husband’s and my custom to begin our days by breaking our fast together in the small sitting room next to his bedchamber. I am granted this extra time with my husband, King Ahasuerus, because of my position as his favorite among all the other women in his harem.
But just because I am his current favorite does not mean that he ignores my sisters of circumstance. And so every morning, I leave my chambers, walk along the labyrinthine hallways of the palace, and enter my husband’s suite. As I take my place at the small table where we eat, I always make sure to face the door that leads to his bedroom so that I can offer a smile and a nod of acknowledgement to whichever woman slips from his chamber. These women do not hold the vaunted position of favorite and are therefore not afforded the luxury of breakfast after sharing our husband’s bed. I can only hope that my efforts to see them, to acknowledge them, are sustenance enough.
Outside of my nights in our husband’s bed, the hour or so that we spend together in the early mornings is the only time that we are alone.
In the years since I first came to the palace, Ahausuerus has become increasingly open with me, often sharing his feelings and thoughts as we sit with one another. Sometimes, when he is feeling particularly introspective, he will speak about his first queen, Vashti the daughter of King Belshazzar. And on the days when I have pleased him with my wit or my beauty, he will exuberantly thank the Heavens for sending him a wife who is the opposite of the queen he cast aside.
He always speaks of her as if I am unfamiliar with who she was- pairing her name with asides like, “my first wife,” or, “the old queen,” as if I didn’t know why he was in need of a new queen, as if I hadn’t spent months being trained by the women of the harem who whispered ceaselessly of Vashti’s bravery, of how she sacrificed herself in an attempt to douse the lust and violence of the king’s men. He doesn’t seem to see the power that she continues to wield.
My husband thinks I am Vashti’s opposite, but he is mistaken.
I am not her opposite. I am her successor.
The only reason that I do not drown in the poisonous waters of this palace is that I am standing on her shoulders.
Each morning, I smile at the women leaving my husband’s bed because Vashti taught us that we stand and fall as one. I know well who stood with Vashti in the last moments of her life, who held her as she cried, offered her whatever comfort they could, and then watched as she walked bravely to her fate. I treat my husband’s wives with respect and kindness because, someday, I too might fall prey to the whims of my husband’s moods, and, if that happens, I want to be able to look around the room and see the comforting faces of friends. I survive because I have learned the lessons of my predecessor.
Every time one of my husband’s wives gives him a daughter, he laughs, holds the child high, and offers the same exact prayer, “May she be as beautiful and as gracious as Esther!”
We wives, we sisters, we women smile, nod, and thank him for his blessing. And then, once he has left the harem’s walls, we gather together, surrounding whichever sister has just given birth, and form a chain, one to another, until we are all connected to the new mother who clutches her infant close. And then, in one voice, we add our own prayer, “May she be safe from the whims of cruelty. May she find a path in life that fills her with meaning. May she face every challenge with the strength and courage of Vashti.”
My husband doesn’t see us.
He doesn’t understand.
He thinks that he was successful in his attempt to rid his life of Vashti, but we are her descendants.
We have inherited a world that she helped to shape.
We are her successors, and someday we will rule in her name.
Until then, we honor her bravery by holding onto one another, by refusing to allow the powers of the kingdom to tear us apart.
Until then, we bless our daughters with her courage.
Until then, we call to her in moments of weakness.
Until then, we remember her in moments of strength.