by Ayal Beer
Today I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts on women, the Book of Esther and activism.
This week we will celebrate Purim. Unlike other holidays, in which we have detailed descriptions of prayers and rituals, there are only four commandments for Purim: having a festive meal, giving portions of food to others, gifts to the poor, and the reading of the Megillah, the Book of Esther.
There aren’t many classical Jewish texts which focus on women. I assume that in the ancient patriarchal world, men were not highly motivated to empower women within a religious context. This assumption seems warranted, given the fact that only two texts focusing on women were canonized in the Tanach – the Book of Esther and the Book of Ruth.
What then, is the connection between Ruth and Esther? Why did these women merit a central role in these two holidays? Is there a connection between Purim and Shavuot?
Let’s examine a selection from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 88a:
“And they stood under the mount” (Exodus 19:17):
Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial’.
Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.
Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.] (Esther 9:27): [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before.
This discussion in the Talmud deals with the receiving of the Torah. Rav Abdimi teaches that the people of Israel didn’t really have a choice when the Torah was given; there was no discussion of pros and cons, no referendum was held. If this is so, says Rav Acha, perhaps we should say that the Torah is not binding upon us, that we should not be required to live by its laws, since we didn’t really choose to accept it. Rather, it was forced upon us. To this, Rava replies that it’s true that at Sinai there was no choice offered, but in the time of Ahasuerus, the people of Israel chose to accept the Torah. He bases this upon the verse: “the Jews confirmed and took upon themselves… (Esther 9:27), i.e. they confirmed what they had accepted long before.
If we return to one of the questions we started with, it appears that already in Talmudic times, a connection was made between Shavuot, the holiday of Ruth, and Purim, the holiday of Esther. According to the source cited previously from the Talmud, the connection is expressed in that Purim commemorates the birth of the conscious desire to live a Jewish life. Perhaps we can understand this more fully by reflecting upon the education of children. When children are small, if we wish for our children to engage in a particular action, we give them clear directives, by virtue of our authority as their parents. But at a certain stage, as they begin to mature and assert their own independence, there is a need for their own personal acceptance and motivation. From this perspective, we may view Purim as signifying an important stage in the development of our own people.
Queen Esther and Ruth the Moabite have much in common. It is true, of course, that they lived in radically different socioeconomic positions. Esther lived in the lap of royal luxury, while Ruth was a gleaner in the fields. Despite this, in my view the similarities between them are more significant than the differences.
Neither Esther nor Ruth chose their position in life or their social status. Ruth was faced with tragic circumstances – she was widowed and then had to fend for herself in a time of severe economic crisis. Esther, on the other hand, reached her high social standing as a result of the king’s decision. It seems like life, or perhaps the Divine Will, steered both of them on their particular life-journey.
Another interesting similarity is their foreignness. Esther is a stranger in the royal palace. She must hide her Jewish heritage and she does not use her given name of Hadassah. Ruth is a foreigner, as she was not born a Jew, and lacks personal familial ties. Like Esther, she too, must function and adapt to an environment which is foreign to her upbringing.
But for me, the most significant similarity between these two women is expressed in their activism. In the story of Ruth, we see how she takes initiative by going to the threshing floor to meet Boaz. Then she demands of him that he assume his familial responsibilities toward her. In the case of Esther, we see how she demands of her people to fast for her, and she risks her life by making demands from a powerful sovereign. In so doing, she acted courageously and with a great deal of responsibility.
These bold initiatives are in stark contrast to the passivity shown by male figures in each story. Despite the patriarchal social structure of their times, the ones who actually succeed in effecting true change were women.
The strength of these two women can teach us a great deal about determination and the faith in the ability to effect change. But since Purim is approaching, I want to deal with a subject which I believe is often overlooked in the book of Esther.
At the end of the megillah, the evil decree of Haman is revoked. Esther remains in the royal palace with King Ahasuerus, and “the Jews were filled with light and happiness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:16). But I want to ask – is this the entire picture?
Will Esther’s children share their mother’s feeling of connection to the Jewish people? Or will they view themselves solely within the prism of Persian culture? Does Esther, while living in the royal household, actually long for the Jewish home of her uncle Mordechai?
While I cannot answer these questions, I do know that the personal price which is paid when dedicating oneself to community leadership is a serious issue. It seems to me that Esther paid a heavy price for her activism. When I think of Esther and the sacrifices she made, I often think of another woman activist, who paid the highest price there is, while acting upon her ideals. “A voice called and I went, I went because the voice called”. In the case of Hannah Senesh, the “call” was the holocaust of Hungarian Jewry, and the price she paid was her life.
In every generation, women and men reach critical junctions, in which they are called upon to respond, to answer the call which reaches them. May we all learn and be inspired by the examples of Ruth, Esther and Hannah Senesh, strong women who listened to that call, and responded positively – and in so doing, bequeathed to us a heritage of empowered female activism.