How the couples in the Book of Esther communicate—or not—speaks volumes about the quality of their relationship.
by Rabbi Richard Hirsh
For a story full of dramatic action, the Book of Esther curiously has minimal dialogue. The lack of interchange — and the excess of silence — between the protagonists invite us to examine the ways in which language — both spoken and unspoken — can tell us about the quality of relationships.
Three marital relationships are referenced in the Book of Esther, beginning with the one between King Ahashverosh and Queen Vashti. And what we can surmise about that relationship suggests that it is not a healthy one. The King demands, rather than requests, that Vashti to appear at his banquet, presumably to be displayed and ogled as what we might today call a “trophy wife.” The demand is delivered by a third-party delegation of court attendants, denying Vashti even the courtesy of direct communication.
The narrator amplifies the impression of distance between the King and Queen since Vashti’s refusal is narrated in the third person — we are not told what her actual response was. The text further reflects a disparaging attitude not only towards Vashti but towards all the women of the empire: “For the Queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands” (1:17).
The absence of direct communication, the insistence on demand rather than request, the punishment that follows non-compliance, and the presumption that relational roles of all wives and husbands conform to a model of ruler and subordinate, suggest that we are in a zone where language serves as a form of control and abuse.
The second marital relationship open to scrutiny is between the newly-chosen Queen Esther and Ahashverosh. First we are offered the dramatic if embarrassing pageantry of the parade of women vying to become queen (a motif that survives into more contemporary stories like Cinderella). “The king loved Esther more than all the other women” (2:17), we read, but, once again, we have no record of conversation. “Love” here, as many commentators suggest, is a euphemism for “out-performed all the others in the sexual audition.”
The first communication we see between them is when Esther, on referral from Mordecai, reports to Ahashverosh about the assassination plot against him (2:22). When Mordecai urges her to report the plot Haman has initiated against the Jews, she initially refuses on the grounds that to appear unsummoned before the king is to risk death. Having then decided to take the risk, Esther is finally given dialogue: “…let your Majesty and Haman come to the feast that I have prepared for him” (5:4). An exchange of conversation between King and Queen then transpires and culminates when Esther identifies Haman as the threat to “her people.”
Has the Ahashverosh who acted so disparagingly towards Vashti learned something about relationships after all? Rather than challenging Esther’s unbidden appearance, he welcomes her. Rather than communicating through third parties, he engages in discussion with her. Rather than seeing her as a sexual performer meant to yield gratification, might we surmise he has come to love Esther in the way we want “love” to function in a healthy relationship — a relationship where people listen respectfully to each other, learn from each other, cultivate trust, and come to value the other person on her/his own terms?
There is a third marital relationship in our story, that of Haman and his wife Zeresh. We only get two brief snapshots about this couple but the information is adequate to suggest this is a transactional relationship of convenience rather than a sustaining relationship of love, respect and mutuality.
In the first episode, after listening to Haman rant about his prestige and ruminate about the refusal of one person — “the Jew Mordecai” — to show deference to him, Zeresh bluntly suggests Haman arrange to have Mordecai executed. In the second encounter, after Haman informs Zeresh of his humiliation at having to parade Mordecai before the population, she dismisses his concerns: “…you will fall before him to your ruin” (6:13). There seems to be no sympathy, no compassion, no concern here. Having regarded Haman’s presumed ascent as a means to her own advancement, once that ascent is derailed, Haman no longer appears to be of any use — or value to Zeresh.
The descriptions of communication in the three marriages mentioned in the Book of Esther convey significant messages about the importance of healthy communication in a healthy relationship. Where communication is indirect (Ahashverosh and Vashti), contact, compassion, caring and concern all suffer. Where communication is limited to what is useful (Zeresh and Haman), the durability and decency of a relationship is weakened, leaving it contingent on the continuity of mutual advantage rather than on sustaining affection and loyalty. Where communication involves asking, rather than telling, listening rather than ordering (Esther and Ahashverosh), relationships and the individuals within them can grow in ways that deepen the partnership and dignify the partners.
Richard Hirsh, a member of the JWI Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, is assistant rabbi at two Reform congregations in the greater Philadelphia area. To learn more about how to use the Purim story to talk about healthy relationships, download JWI’s Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Text.