The Courage to Speak Out: Vashti, Esther and #MeToo

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, January 31, 2018

Be happy it’s Adar! So says our tradition in this month that we celebrate Purim, the story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai and the heroine Esther’s rescue of the Jewish community of Persia’s from the evil Haman. A first glance it looks just like many other stories that are part of 4,000 years of Jewish history, summarized in three short sentences: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” In this case, let’s eat hamantaschen, the delicious triangle shaped pastry filled with fruit, poppyseed, or even chocolate, that is supposed to represent the evil Haman’s triangle shaped hat, or ears.

Purim is a time of joy, of celebration, of dressing up in costumes and celebrating Esther’s bravery –she spoke up against conventional norms for a woman when her uncle Mordecai reminded her, that “if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” Esther had the courage and the inspiration to move forward to say what needed to be said, even at the risk of her own life. She responds to Mordecai: “I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” After all, it was well known what happened to another woman, the king’s wife, Vashti, in the first chapter, for disobeying the king.

These two characters, Vashti and Esther, are women who speak out, women who take a stand for what they believe is right. They are role models for us as Jews and for us as women and men. Vashti found the courage and the strength to say no. Esther risked her life to save her people.

The problem of misogyny is certainly not a new one. And in our own time, stories of abuse and exploitation by powerful men using that power to do as they will with the less powerful are rampant in all parts of society, as we have seen in the months since powerful movie producer Harvey Weinstein was outed as a serial abuser, sparking the #MeToo movement. In taking a stand for the right not to be humiliated, her refusal to obey an offensive order from her husband the king, Vashti reminds us that every human life is worthy of being treated with respect and honour. Our Jewish teaching that we are made btzelem Elohim, in the image of God, means that no one should be treated as an object, a trophy to be shown off, used, traded, trafficked, abused, or manipulated. Esther’s courage to go to the king reminds us that we all must take a stand, we all have to speak out and say No, #Time’sUp.

The sages say that it is important when Adar arrives to rejoice, to laugh, and to be silly – because there is so much in our lives that is serious, so much that is difficult, so much that is heartbreaking. More importantly, they also remind us to remember the stories of Vashti and Esther, and to have the courage and fortitude that these women had, to go forward and raise our voices, and not to be silenced. It is only in speaking out and standing up, that we can fulfill our responsibility to change the world.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

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