Although Vashti and Esther never meet, the relationship between them is integral to understanding the events of Megillat Esther. Vashti disappears by the end of the first chapter, but she casts a long shadow over the rest of the book.

As we encounter Vashti in chapter one, we learn the following about her: She is beautiful and headstrong. She throws a good party. She refuses to have her appearances before the king regulated solely by his desires. For this last offense, Vashti pays dearly, losing her crown and incurring perpetual banishment from the king’s presence.

At the close of chapter one it is clear that a woman in Achashverosh’s court would do well to be dutiful and to come before the king as he commands. The essentiality of female obedience is further confirmed by the final verse of the chapter in which a missive is sent to all of Achashverosh’s subjects reminding them in no uncertain terms that “every man must rule in his household.”

By contrast, Esther is presented at first as the perfect foil to Vashti. Whereas Vashti was willful and independent, Esther is passive and submissive. The reflexive use of the Hebrew word “LaKaKH” is constantly applied to her. She is “taken” in by Mordechai as a foster daughter, “taken” to the king’s harem, and “taken” before the king.

She does not reveal her identity at the palace, “for Mordechai had commanded her not to tell.” She requests nothing at the harem, only accepting whatever Hagai, the king’s eunuch, chooses to give her. Even after she is crowned queen, we are told that Esther continues to obey the commands of Mordechai as she had done under his care. It is no surprise that Achashverosh loves Esther. She is the model of docility, an exact antidote to Vashti.

Esther understands very well her role as Achashverosh’s queen. When Mordechai commands her to appear before the king and intercede on behalf of the Jews, Esther responds that everyone knows that those who appear before the king unbidden are condemned to die. She has learned from her predecessor’s fate that the queen’s job is to come when she is called. Mordechai insists to Esther that it is her responsibility to plead for her nation.

This is a moment of crisis for Esther. She is caught between conflicting obediences to her foster father and husband. In addition, to come before the king unsummoned is an abnegation of her role as Vashti’s replacement. She was chosen to be queen since she represented the antithesis of Vashti’s persona. Esther’s position, her identity and quite possibly her life are all closely tied to her obedience to the king.

In this moment of fate, Esther discovers that what she does is not quite so different from Vashti after all. She takes matters into her own hands and stands up to both sources of authority. Esther assumes control of Mordechai’s plan, changing and amending as she sees fit. Like Vashti, she will appear before the king only when she decides that the time is right – in this case after three days of fasting. Instead of following Mordechai’s suggestion and simply making her petition, she will throw a series of parties as Vashti did. In order to succeed, Esther realizes that she must take on aspects of the repudiated former queen.

Of course, we do not actually know why Vashti refused to appear before the king. It could have been out of modesty as the midrash in Esther Rabbah suggests. Or as Talmud Bavli Megillah describes, she may simply have been unhappy with her appearance that day (a sudden case of leprosy according to Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina or the surprise sprouting of a tail according to a beraita). Perhaps she was being capricious. Perhaps she was a proto-feminist fighting for a sense of independent integrity. In any event, Vashti’s disobedience brings her career to an abrupt end and her fate is quite deliberately meant to serve as an object lesson to women everywhere.

As Esther marshals her strength to save her nation, she must revisit the experiences of her shunned predecessor and learn from them. Esther is more calculated, more subtle (more divinely inspired), and ultimately far more successful than Vashti. Yet, in order to triumph, Esther must confront the image of Vashti and incorporate (or perhaps discover) the attributes of Vashti in herself. 

Purim is traditionally a time of exploration. We experiment with different costumes and disguises. Alcohol is consumed and the clear dividing lines of reality are blurred. On this Purim, may we like Esther find the courage to try on traits that are unfamiliar and to learn from those who seem to be most different from us.


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Wendy Amsellem is an alumna of Harvard University and the Drisha Scholar's Circle. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Judaic Studies at NYU and she teaches at Drisha Institute.