It’s the season of Jonah in our home – his birthday is February 14, his yahrzeit is March 5, and his Concert is March 10. Since he’s on my mind, no reason he shouldn’t be on yours as well. So here’s a Jonah story.
When Ellen and I were young parents, we decided to rear children who were free of gender stereotypes, unhampered by society’s expectations that they fit into certain roles and not into others. And so, our children, who never signed onto this platform, ignored our convention-defying instruction and did whatever they wanted. Katie adored Barbie dolls and all things girlish, while Jonah turned any object he picked up, benign or not, into a gun and battled his way through early childhood.
Ellen and I quickly learned we’d have to find another way to teach our children to respect and embrace the full spectrum of the human family. In time (including Aiden’s entrance into the story), we watched three wonderful young people grow in spirit and goodness.
Judaism has always taught the importance of beating swords into ploughshares. Yehuda Amichai suggested we keep going and beat those ploughshares into musical instruments, so that anytime we think about harming one another, we’ll need to beat our musical instruments back into ploughshares before we can turn them into weapons.
The world’s such a challenging place, and aren’t we humans fascinatingly complex? I’m grateful to be part of a tradition that calls us to struggle for freedom and peace.
Purim is upon us. This year, “A Hairspray Purimspiel” has taken over our celebration. We open with these reworked lyrics to “Good Morning, Baltimore” …
Queen Vashti woke up one day, feeling dismay, her nerves all frayed.
Her husband, Akhashverosh, had gone overboard, inciting the hoard.
With wine flowing free, the king did decree, “Six months of sensual debauchery!”
Queen Vashti took all the women and hoped that the men would not see.
Good God, Shushan’s laid low. Her good name’s received quite a blow.
Common sense and humanity were replaced by insanity.
Good God, Shushan’s laid low. Any semblance of grace is for show.
We’re falling apart by degree. Save us all, Vashti!
Purim is our annual send-up of life in ancient Persia, but it’s really a commentary on our own lives, right here right now. As we wrote new lyrics to the melodies of “Hairspray,” we soon realized these words could not have been written at any other moment in history. And while we did not set out to critique President Trump’s America, it was unavoidable.
Later in that same song, “Good God, Shushan’s Laid Low,” we sing:
Akhashverosh was incensed,
Who would dare stand against such a handsome guy?
Akhash proclaimed for himself
That throughout the land Queen Vashti was banned.
The courts said, “No way!” The king shouted, “Foul play!
It must be fake news from CNN!”
Our base is stronger than yours
And we will make Shushan great again!”
Depending on the theory to which you subscribe, you may attribute the current #MeToo movement of women pointing accusing fingers at sexual harassers everywhere to a critical mass of frustration and outrage at our president’s serial abuse of women (of all of us, really). “Critical mass” may be the operative term here as we witness a sudden flood of allegations against men who will no longer be silently endured by the double-X chromosomal half of the human family. We have reached some sort of watershed moment, and American society will hopefully be better because of it.
Before the February 14 shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, synagogues were wondering how to deal with the Esther story in light of the #MeToo movement. I’ll come back to the violence in Florida after we tackle this first challenge for a bit.
At this specific moment in American life, it’s important to take a closer look at Queen Vashti and Queen Esther.
First, Queen Esther. As a child, my friends and I all loved the celebration of King Ahashuerus’ “beauty contest” to find himself a lovely new queen. But the details of the biblical story don’t shine as kind a light on Esther, the surprising victor in that Olympic category. The women with whom she was competing for Vashti’s vacated queen-ship were judged not only on their looks (see chapter 2, “Each girl went to King Ahashuerus at the end of twelve months’ beauty treatment”), but on their sexual performance (see elsewhere in chapter 2, “She would go [to the king] in the evening and leave in the morning”). We don’t tell that to the kids, and you end up missing out on that detail as well.
Further, when Mordekhai begs Queen Esther to help rescue the Jews of their kingdom, she pleads powerlessness. After all, she’s only the queen. She sees the king only when he calls for her, which likely means for a sexual rendezvous. She can’t even imagine pursuing a relationship with him that goes any deeper; forget about actually leading her people.
Esther, at least as our Purim story gets going, is not much of a role-model for us today.
Then there’s Queen Vashti. When I was growing up, she was the story’s villain every bit as much as Haman. We couldn’t wait for justice to be served through her banishment. Disobeying her king — imagine! The Midrash, examining Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king and his pals, suggests that Vashti was in fact an immodest woman who would not have hesitated to appear before the boys buck naked (I’m sorry, “wearing her royal diadem”). The midrashic rabbis say she either had an embarrassing rash or had somehow sprouted a tail and, vain as she obviously was, wished to show neither in public. For those of you who find it difficult to swallow a tale about Vashti growing a tail, the Maharal of Prague (a 16th century commentator) agrees with you that’s ridiculous. He likens Vashti’s tail to my spare tire. She put on a lot of weight and, again in her vanity, refused to display her slothfulness.
Justice, I say! Good riddance, Queen Vashti!
And then I grew up. The first step was in noticing that hanging in my home on the dining room wall my entire childhood was a painting of Queen Vashti. Not Queen Esther, but Queen Vashti! Only later did it occur to me that I should ask my mom why she had a picture of this vile woman prominently displayed in our home. That was the beginning of my adult Jewish education. Vashti, she told me, was (in contrast to how Jewish tradition has treated her) a dignified woman. She’d stood up to a boorish king, and on behalf of women everywhere, told him she was no longer willing to merely be an object of his desire. As a result, Vashti may have disappeared from the Purim story, but beautifully, royally, and with great dignity, she lived in my home, and now in my soul. Thanks, Mom.
Vashti’s story was always one of resistance against sexual harassment. We can only wonder what she might have done for the oppressed elsewhere. Would she have stood up to Haman and his genocidal scheme? We don’t get to know that. We only get to wonder if we ourselves have the strength and the hutzpah to stand against bigotry in our own time.
Back to Esther. Her story, I think, is one of tremendous growth and maturing. Because she was anything but a hero when the story began, her evolution is remarkable, touching and inspiring. In the beginning, whether pushed by Mordekhai or eagerly signing up, she gave her body to King Ahashuerus. When it became clear that Esther was uniquely positioned to convey to the king the Jewish people’s plea for rescue, she wanted nothing to do with it. Esther had a sweet scam going and she had no interest in jeopardizing a good thing. Not until Mordekhai pointed out that Esther would likely also be caught in Haman’s net of destruction did she reluctantly offer to help.
Perhaps that’s how it is for many of us. We live out our years quietly enjoying life with family and friends. Then one day our life is upended. A loved one is struck by tragic illness or death, and we devote ourselves to seeing that others need not succumb to the same. Once we too have been caught in a net, we often turn our attention, energies and resources to making a difference. In this very way, Esther’s story is our story too.
Why our rabbis felt the need to castigate Vashti, I don’t know. It’s not like they had to protect the good reputation of King Ahashuerus. But castigate they did, and at every opportunity. In chapter one, we’re told the king had thrown a wild celebration for his administration and supporters (think Jared and Ivanka, and the NRA). Six months into that celebration, he held a week-long banquet, on the seventh day of which he ordered Vashti to do some pole-dancing for him and his buddies. The rabbis presumed this “seventh day” was Shabbat and that — because Vashti would frequently choose that day to summon Jewish women, strip them naked and make them work for her — it was therefore on Shabbat, they say, that Vashti was banished.
The world has changed. And not just in the Trump era. I’ve been a rabbi for thirty-one years. I wrote my first purimspiel twenty-eight years ago, in 1990. Riffing on the “Wizard of Oz,” I wrote:
Seven days into the celebrating, Ahashuerus called for his queen to come and display her beauty. Now Vashti was a good queen. What she wasn’t was someone who simply did what someone else told her to do, especially if she thought it was demeaning. And being asked by her husband to “display her beauty” for his pals … that was demeaning! So she said, “No.” She refused to appear.
Since I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with that respectful perspective on Vashti by myself, I have to assume we Jews have matured a bit in the last thousand years. Treated poorly in their own time, both Vashti and Esther are now seen in noble light by our community. If all of us are part of the #MeToo movement, and we should be, our Purim story provides an annual reminder that people are people; we may not be born heroic but we can rise to life’s challenges and, doing so, we can bring honor to ourselves, to our families, and to our people.
Vashti was always about doing what is right. Her resistance against sexual harassment may have lost her a job, but it earned her an honored position in our people’s history (well, the made-up part of our history) as a model for consistently living a principled set of human values. Esther grew into her highly-regarded place in Jewish life. She didn’t start out that way, but grew stronger through adversity and, in the end, has become a model of strength and integrity for us all.
Let me come back to gun violence.
Purim has always been about social justice. Its message was never limited to gender issues alone, or to opposing the persecution of our people. The issue of guns being used to indiscriminately slaughter American citizens is a #MeToo movement no one should have to belong to and that all of us should belong to. The story of Purim is a violent one. A deranged individual has deadly force placed into his hands and he chooses to direct that force at the Jews of Shushan. And while they knew at what moment – the 13th of Adar – the violence would be unleashed, there was nowhere for them to run. The story resolves in a surrealistic bloodbath during which the Jews turn the tables on, and slaughter, their attackers. This was not, I believe, an endorsement for arming teachers. This was a perverse fantasy, for we know of far too many times in Jewish history when we were herded like sheep to the slaughter, unable to defend ourselves. There is hardly a Jew throughout history who wouldn’t have preferred the rule of law, not guns, to ensure the safety of their children.
When we gather on Purim – the 14th of Adar – we cheerfully recount the grotesque counter-offensive that killed 75,000 would-be attackers and saved the Jews of Shushan. But that’s not the resolution to conflict that we seek in real life. It’s not the message Judaism teaches us. Rather, we are, as much as humanly possible, encouraged to work through our differences, and to use acts of compassion that are undergirded by strong, effective laws to make our nation and our world safe and secure.
Will the Parkland shooting finally turn the debate on guns? I’m certainly not counting on Congress to offer solutions. But maybe those who say that young people can really make the difference this time are right, and I’m more than willing to cast my lot this Purim with them. So while yes, you and I need to remain involved in whatever efforts we find to curb gun violence, let us make certain that we are good allies and lend our support to any young person’s campaign seeking to effect these changes. One, they need to know we’re proud of their efforts. And two, we’re the ones to teach them how to open doors, how to speak truth to power and, frankly, to bankroll their efforts.
These young people are trying to write a new Purim story. They’ve identified their Haman and are reaching out to persuade the king to save their people. My prayer? That generations that from now, we’ll be retelling the glorious tale of how it was our kids who finally brought rational, compassionate action to this incredibly dark chapter in our nation’s history.
On Facebook, my daughter the art teacher posted the following: “Anyone who wants teachers to carry guns in the classroom should probably know that earlier this week I misplaced half a banana when I put it down to help a student, and forgot about it until three hours later when a very confused child found it on the clay cart.” Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … we don’t know all the answers, but we’ve got some pretty strong instincts, and a couple thousand years of experience to help guide us. Still, now would be a great time for You to pop up in one of those pillars of cloud or fire and guide us the rest of the way. Or maybe that’s what You’ve just done by sending us these kids. May this year’s Purim celebration inspire us to work diligently for the betterment of women’s lives and of our children’s lives, to topple Haman wherever he appears and, in so doing, better the lives of people everywhere.