Unmasking a Woman Misunderstood in her Time
Megillat Esther is one of the most dramatic and resonant scrolls in all of Judaism. It tells of an underdog story, a planned genocide of the Jewish people, and even female empowerment. Esther is one of the most iconic female personalities in Judaism to this day. However, there is another female character who is frequently misunderstood and deserves the spotlight as well: Queen Vashti.
We first meet Queen Vashti as her husband, King Achashverosh, makes a rather inappropriate request of her (1:11). She refuses to do what he asks, and Achashverosh gets rid of her. (Whether he killed her, as per Rashi on Megillat Esther 1:19; exiled her, following the Ibn Ezra; or sent her to a convent of some sort, according to Josephus at the end of his first chapter of Megillat Esther, is up to interpretation.) This is all Megillat Esther tells us of Vashti, but with the help of commentators like Malbim, we can fill in the lines of who this intriguing “antihero” really is.
According to Midrash Esther Rabbah 3:5, Vashti was descended from Nebuchadnezzar, making her royalty, while Achashverosh, born a commoner, had to fight his way to the top, possibly in the Persian army. It is implied that Vashti and Achashverosh are in a forced marriage for political gains. For Achashverosh, of chronically low self-esteem, Vashti was a double-edged sword of sorts: Her hand in marriage signified to Persian nobles Achashverosh’s legitimacy, but at the same time, Vashti was a constant reminder of Achashverosh’s inadequacy and lower status from birth. The difference of their backgrounds and Achashverosh’s lack of confidence led to an extreme power struggle within their marriage.
Now, pan to the all-important feast that sealed Vashti’s fate. Achashverosh is hosting his long party for the men, and Vashti is hosting one for the women. This is ostensibly expected of her as the queen, or maybe she just wanted to have a party of her own. According to the Talmud in Megillah 12b, as the men of the party began speaking about which women were the most beautiful, Achashverosh said that his own wife, Queen Vashti, was the most beautiful woman, and he would prove it. Megillah 12b claims that when Achashverosh sent his chamberlains to retrieve Vashti, she suddenly came down with a skin affliction and even grew a tail. The implication of this Midrash is that if these supernatural events had not happened to her, she would have gone without question, as she was very arrogant and wanted to show off her beauty.
Another possibility that I believe the p’shat (simple reading) more readily suggests is that Vashti did not want to go, and that it had nothing to do with an external event. Perhaps Vashti wanted to stay and host her own party. Perhaps Vashti did not want to be shown off. Perhaps this was a severe expression of disrespect towards her that had become too much of a pattern. She was the rightful queen, after all. She deserved respect that, according to Malbim’s commentaries on Megillat Esther 1:12, Achashverosh did not show her; his fragile ego distressed at the thought of his wife being better than he.
There were very specific rules of etiquette in ancient Persia, and these rules were universally known. Malbim asserts that Achashverosh committed a series of displays of disrespect towards Vashti. For example, his very sending of his own chamberlains was an act of disrespect towards Vashti; traditionally, he would have sent Vashti’s own maids to make the request. In making the request, Achashverosh also calls Vashti “Vashti Hamalkah” (Vashti the Queen), rather than “Hamalkah Vashti” (Queen Vashti). Calling a royal official by their first name and then their title was highly improper and perpetuated Achashverosh’s patronizing attitude towards Vashti. However, it seems Vashti tried to give her husband the benefit of the doubt, as she responded with “Hamalkah Vashti,” but it was obvious at that point that Achasverosh had purposefully disrespected her.
Finally, the breaking point for Vashti in this relationship: the request itself. Achashverosh, born a commoner, was now asking Vashti, a direct descendant of royalty, to show off her beauty to all of his friends. Wanting to show off her beauty completely negated her role as a royal and political power in her own right. Achashverosh’s insecurities had gone too far. Vashti did what no woman could do at that time: She stood up to her husband.
You might be thinking, Purim already has a female hero, why try to make another woman look better? Isn’t this one positive female figure enough? And I am very grateful to have Esther as a celebrated role model, but that is not the point. We need to do justice to every woman, and person, and Vashti was framed unfairly. Saying that she only refused because she had a skin affliction and a tail is rather a grand claim to make, even if she is a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, thus predisposing Chazal against her. To me, her lineage is possibly not the only cause for these commentaries. From her highly abnormal behaviour for the time period in defying her husband, Chazal might have considered this “rudeness” indication of a cruel personality.
Additionally, we can view Vashti and Esther as foils: Vashti refuses to come and gets punished. Esther comes without being asked and gets rewarded. Esther boosted Achashverosh’s ego, Vashti quashed it. Esther came into this position by being uprooted from her home and was rushed along the process, having had no prior experience or knowledge that this would happen to her. Vashti was raised as royalty; she had been taught about it all her life. Both are women living in a society ruled by men, even when they themselves are proven to be more virtuous or fit. But mainly, one succeeds in a patriarchal society, and one fails.
This is no coincidence. Throughout the Megillah, we see Esther as more of a passive person. The thing she does most often in the Megillah is “find favor” in other people’s eyes. She is forced into being queen and is obedient and quiet. It takes a great deal of convincing from Mordechai to get her to go to the Achashverosh and ask for help. This is not to say that Esther was not an amazing person. She definitely was, and it is, of course, nerve-racking to stand up to a king who has in the past expressed his ideal role in a marriage: that of the master. However, we see Esther’s more passive personality framed as a positive alternative to Vashti’s courage and directness.
While commentators jump through hoops to validate Esther’s absolute purity (see the Zohar’s explanation that Esther was allowed to lie with Achashverosh because her actual soul left her body temporarily), they extend no such courtesy to Vashti, even incriminating her further. The Gemara of Megillah 12b says that Vashti forced her Jewish servants to work on Shabbat based off of the fact that Achashverosh called for Vashti on the seventh day (1:10), but I find it hard to understand how the Gemara got from point A to point B. All we know from the p’shat about Vashti at all is that she defied her husband. Any commentaries on her will be based off of this fact, this action. This is the problem with the portrayal of Vashti — there is no real proof that she is a bad person who deserved to die or be exiled. Of course, sources such as Chazal and Agadot are quite prolific. They must have come to their conclusions through logic, and there have been various traditions passed down through the generations, but strictly from just the p’shat, Vashti is a strong woman who fought for her rights under an aggressive patriarchal society. Now, what could be wrong with that?