Esther and Vashti: Let’s Hear Both Their Voices

by Rabbi Ben Greenberg

“But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command… (Esther 1:12)”

As we read the story of Purim in our communities on the holiday we will encounter two powerful women, Vashti and Esther. Both of these leaders have been compared and contrasted to each other throughout the ages. In traditional Jewish thought, Esther is lifted up as an exemplar of behavior, intention and propriety. Her voice is seen as heroic, rightfully so. Vashti, however, is refracted through Jewish tradition as someone who used her position and her voice for nefarious reasons. The Talmud inserts additional layers of context into the story so as to demonstrate her ill intent (Megillah 12b). This is far from the simple reading of the text.

Rather, let us propose another solution. Instead of using Vashti and Esther as foils for each other, let us amplify their voices as unique and independent responses to their challenging circumstances. Each of them, on her own, had to grapple with the reality before her and each chose her own response. Vashti, faced with the prospect of a humiliating moment of exposure, used her voice to say no. She sacrificed her position, her privilege and her power by affirming her own dignity. Esther, a person who was tenuously holding onto her power and position, wrestled with the choice to lift up her voice and ultimately chose to do so, in her own way. 

Each of us will face times in our lives where we must decide how to use our voice in our relationships. Do we assert ourselves? Do we accommodate the other? Do we attempt to strike a balance between bold assertiveness and careful diplomacy? Each way is an authentic expression of who we are in that moment. As people vested with autonomy and free agency, we must choose the voice that has the most integrity for us in that moment. We need not use each other’s decisions as foils for our own decision. We can lift each other up by respecting the individual ways we each use our own voice.

This essay appears in JWI’s Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Text.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg, a member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, is the Director of Adult Engagement at Central Synagogue in New York City. Previously, he worked at UJA-Federation of New York, as a congregational rabbi in Colorado and as the campus rabbi at Harvard Hillel. He lives with his family in the Bronx.