Vashti’s role in Megilat Esther is short and ends with the first chapter of the book. She is presented as a high-ranking woman who holds a banquet of her own, for the women. Vashti disobeys the drunken King Ahasuerus when he summons her to appear at his banquet with her roya1 crown upon her head, so that he can show off her beauty. But by disobeying the king’s order she insults him in front of all his company, and she is punished by being banished from the palace – and from the story.
A few weeks ago we read the Torah portion of Yitro (Exodus 18), which tells the story of Moshe’s father-in-law Jethro. This coming Shabbat, we will read Parashat Zakhor (Deut. 25: 17-19), which tells the story of Amalek, while we will read the other version of that story on the morning of Purim (Exodus 17:8-16). This month I would like to compare the story of Yitro with that of Amalek and relate that comparison to our current situation in Israel.
The Scroll of Esther appears to have been composed through the fog of alcohol. Wine and drunkenness permeate it from start to finish. Through the lens of the wine, we who read it every year see a world that is upside-down and topsy-turvy, as if seen through a kaleidoscope. Only Haman the Agagite remains forever wicked and evil, a kind of lone, fixed axis that stands out among the fluid, colorful and outrageous characters in this story that pokes endless fun at its readers.
Toward the very end of the scroll of Esther, in Ix, 24-26, the essence of the story of Purim is encapsulated in the following words:
For Haman the son of Hamdatha the Aggagite, adversary of all the Jews planned to destroy all the Jews, and cast a Pur, that is, a lot, to terrorize them and destroy them. But when it came before the King, he proclaimed in writing: Let his evil plan which he planned against the Jews return on his own head. So they hung him and his sons on the stake. That’s why they called these days “Purim” – because of the Pur.
This article is based on a Hebrew lecture given at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem on March 20, 2005. Most of the sources are taken from Avi Sagi, Yahadut Bein Dat L’mussar , Tel Aviv, 1998, Chapter 10 and Elliot Horowitz, Zion 64/4 (1999), pp. 425-454, though I have organized the material in an entirely different fashion. I refer to them in parentheses as “Sagi” and “Horowitz”. An earlier version of Sagi’s article appeared in English in the Harvard Theological Review 87/3 (1994), pp. 323-346.
Masks are a kind of veil that covers the face and hide one’s identity while at the same time highlighting one’s character. The Italian word maschera , the English word mask and the French word masque are all derived from the word moska that originated in Lombardy and meant dead person, because in many cultures masks were associated with the world of the dead.
The Jewish people throughout history has always opposed drunkenness. That is the message of the stories of Noah and Lot (Genesis 9 and 19) as well as of the book of Proverbs (23:30-35). According to our Sages, Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk (Leviticus Rabbah 20:9 and parallels), drunkenness leads to forbidden sexual relations (Ketubot 65a and Numbers Rabbah 10:3) and “there is nothing that causes a person greater lamentation than wine” (Sanhedrin 70b).