No one would argue that three year olds need to learn how to say “no!” Most preschool aged children are quite adept at saying no – no to putting their boots on, no to bed time, no to brushing their teeth, no to sharing their toys. So what might these children have to learn from Vashti, the first wife of King Ahasuerus, who said “no” to dancing at the king’s party? Should young children only learn from “brave little Esther,” or are there valuable lessons to be learned from both these women of Purim?
Vashti has a brief but pivotal role in Megillat Esther, disappearing from the story before the end of chapter one.
(9) In addition, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for women, in the royal palace of King Ahasuerus. (10) On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus, (11) to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman. (12) But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command conveyed by the eunuchs. The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him. (Megillat Esther 1:9-12 [new JPS translation])
The rabbis of the Talmud were quick to condemn Vashti. In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12b, she is accused of taking Jewish women, stripping them naked and forcing them to work on Shabbat. Thus she gets her just punishment, commanded to appear, as it is commonly understood, naked before the king and his drunken companions (wearing her crown and only her crown). The rabbis do not see Vashti as a modest woman, and yet she refuses. The rabbis explain this: “Rabbi Jose b. Hanina said: This teaches that leprosy broke out on her. In a Baraitha [other teachings] it was taught that Gabriel came and fixed a tail on her.” (Megillah 12b)
The outcome is not so good for Vashti. Ahasuerus’s advisor, Memucan, advises, “If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she.” (Megillat Esther 1:19 [new JPS translation]) The rabbinic understanding is that Vashti is not merely banished, but executed. (Esther Rabbah 4:11)
Modern commentators tend to see Vashti in quite a different light.
Since the 1970s, feminists have taken Vashti to heart as the first proto-feminist: She is the first woman in the Bible who refuses to be objectified as a sex object, instead naming such behavior as inappropriate. As the feminist movement (and the continuing movement to protect women from domestic violence) taught us, the first step towards changing intolerable conditions is to become self aware enough to be able to name those intolerable conditions, aloud to oneself and others. (It is precisely the danger of such change that drives the king’s advisors to seek her downfall.) (1)
Vashti has come to be seen as self-respecting and full of courage. Vashti refuses to appear before Ahasuerus not because she is physically deformed, but because the request is immoral and unacceptable. Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen writes, “She demonstrated that moral conscience was the ultimate arbiter of human behavior, and that human freedom was not to be surrendered under any circumstances, even the most extreme.” (2) Vashti has become our model of the strong woman who won’t take any garbage from those around her. She could be the inspiration for Elphaba, who sings in the Broadway musical, “Wicked,” “I'm through accepting limits; 'Cuz someone says they're so.” (“Defying Gravity”).
Given all this, is Vashti a desirable inspiration for our young children today? Vashti follows her gut, she does what her heart tells her is right. Young children, both the “rule followers” and the “rule dismissers” could stand encouragement to truly discern the right path, the path that will make the world a better place, and muster the courage to follow what their heart tells them. Teachers of young children can help their children to be like Vashti in this way. We start by giving children real choices. Not “do you want water or juice with snack,” but choices that actually make a difference. Like “how are we going to make sure that Sarah, who is allergic to peanuts, is safe in our classroom?” Or “what is the kindest thing you can do for your friend who is sad right now?” Or “I see that you are interested in staying on the playground even though the teacher called for everyone to come in. What should be done?”
Then we as teachers must become better listeners. In the Shema, the heart of Jewish prayer, we are commanded to “Listen!” Being a good listener, we learn from Pirke Avot, is an important Jewish virtue – Shmiat HaOzen. If we listen well enough, we will hear the kol d’ma-ma daka – the still small voice in which the prophet Elijah heard the voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). Rabbi Janet Marder explains kol d’ma-ma daka as “the quiet yet overpowering consciousness inside us of what is right, of what is real, of what matters in this life and what is essential for us to do.” (3) As Vashti, and as we soon shall see, Esther, each listened to the kol d’ma-ma daka within herself, teachers must listen to their own kol d’ma-ma daka, and then go on to truly listen to their children. At a recent NAEYC conference, Dr. Alise Shafer, director of the Evergreen Community School in Santa Monica, CA, told of a situation in her school where a group of four year old boys became robbers, and grabbed all the money from the cash register in a store that had just been set up in the classroom’s dramatic play area. Rather than squashing the play and telling the boys that they absolutely could not play like that, they must shop nicely in the store, the teachers asked questions. And listened. And the children expressed their views on fairness, and when it might be all right to rob, and many other things the teachers never would have learned if they hadn’t taken the time to listen.