Celebrating Women Heroines: The Story of Esther

Women’s International Day 

             It’s auspicious that women finally have a day devoted to them.  Even colon cancer gets a whole month.  The least we can do is recognize women’s contribution to humanity for a day! 

             In keeping with Women’s International Day, the Jewish festival of Purim   pertains in part to the power of women. The heroine of the story is Queen Esther whose name means both ‘star’ and ‘hidden’; and the hero is her uncle, Mordecai, Esther’s wisdom teacher.  It takes place in Ancient Persia in an Arabian Nights type setting, with perfumed gardens, eunuchs, lavish feasts, and battles.  

            Esther is one of the first champions of women in recorded literature of the West.  Her predecessor, Queen Vashti, is another.  

    Vashti, daughter of the King of Babylonia, was sent as a gift to King Xerxes in Persia, as part of a peace pact between the two nations.  During a week of wild partying, King Xerxes asked Vashti to dance naked at a State diner.  She basically replies “No way, buster; Not in your dreams.”  When his hangover subsides, he banishes her from the court and replaces her via a beauty contest that puts the Miss America Pageant to shame. 

A year’s spa detox and tonification is required for each virginal participant.  Esther, the fairest of them all, wins the contest, and becomes the next Queen.  Her Jewish heritage is kept hidden from the King and officials.   Btw: All the other contestants end up as the King’s Concubines, as once you may have lain with a King, you could not be released back to the common life. 

            Shortly after Esther’s crowning, her Uncle Mordechai overhears a plot to overthrow the King. He relates this to Esther who tells the King, and the plotters are executed.  

Meanwhile, the major theme of the story – the salvation of the Jews from near extermination is unveiled.  Haman, the deranged Secretary of State to the King, proposes to exterminate the Jews based on a personal vendetta against Mordechai who refuses to bow down to Haman. 

  Infuriated with this blow to his grandiosity, Haman falsely reports to the King that the Jews are a threat to the Kingdom as they are a strange people who are not assimilated into the empire and should be  exterminated.   Xerexes signs the edict to carry out the genocide several months hence on the 14th of the month of Adar. 

        Mordechai learns of this and tells Esther to tell the King.  She at first demurs afraid to reveal her heritage now as she indeed can become a victim of the edict.  Mordecai prevails on her to come out of hiding and become the STAR she was destined, for it is in her hands to speak out and save the Jews!  

She wines and dines the King, and at a strategically appropriate time tells him of the heinous plot.  He trusts her as she already proved her trustworthiness in disclosing the assassination plot earlier.  Haman is hanged, Mordechai becomes Secretary of State, and the Jews are saved. 

        For me, one of pivotal moments of the story is early on when Esther tells Xerexes of the plot to overthrow him. Where upon he asks her how she came to know this.  Esther’s reply is earth-shattering “And Esther said to the King in the name of Mordecai…” (Esther 2:22)  She credits Mordechai, not herself, as the source.  This act of giving credit, exemplified in these eleven words, is the basis of a sane, harmonious world. 

        Not giving credit is tantamount to physical murder, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting what is not yours.  Ask anyone who has had his work plagiarized and stolen.  

  Furthermore, if we can’t give credit to others, how can we give credit – and gratitude – to our Source? The source of life itself – our air, water, food, breath, and consciousness?   Without giving credit the world perishes.  There can be no redemption individually or the world without it.  The fate of the world really does hinge on giving credit.   

        And who is the central figure of this tale?  A woman – Esther – a woman of valor: a warrior, wise woman, mother, and woman of art, aesthetics and courtesy.  (A grateful nod to Toni Grant, the Jungian psychologist who elaborated on these four archetypal qualities for women).   

        In fact, the entirety of the Hebraic monotheistic tradition acknowledges women, time and again, as the savior and preserver of the nation.  This secret matriarchal tradition forms the backbone of the Hebraic people starting from Sarah through Rebecca, Miriam, Tziporah, Deborah, Yael, Bat Sheva, all the way through Esther.  So let us celebrate women - saviors of nations and worlds.