Shabbat Zachor is the Sabbath of remembrance. It is a reminder of the deeds of Esther and the story of the festival of Purim.
So, a few weeks ago, I read through the full, unabridged director’s cut of the Megillat Esther, the story of Esther – all nine chapters – which is the biblical account of Purim. And those themes of remembrance were quite apparent to me. For those of you not familiar with the biblical story of Purim, it’s set in the land of Persia, where the King Achashverosh governed. His chief political advisor and enforcer, Haman, had an immense dislike for the Jewish people and planned to kill them.
Mordechai, a leader of the Jewish people, arranged for his niece Esther, a beautiful young woman, to replace King Achashverosh ‘Queen’ Vashti. Esther then, under the guidance of Mordechai, persuaded King Achashverosh not to kill the Jews and to sentence Haman to death. So the Jewish people were saved. And this is a good news festival. Purim is about triumph and celebration; we all dress up in costumes, have lots of fun, be silly, and some people even get drunk, very drunk.
What’s remembrance got to do with Purim? We often think of remembrance as something bad that’s happened, like a war or Holocaust remembrance. In this case, we go back to Amalek and remember him as an ancestor of Haman and an example of the generations of anti-semites who had sought to destroy the Jewish people. But antisemitism is far from the only bad thing worthy of remembrance on Shabbat Zachor.
In fact, much of what happens to Esther is indeed bad. So bad that I was frequently disgusted and disturbed while reading Megillat Esther.
For example, Queen Vashti wasn’t a queen as we know it today. She was in fact just the favourite concubine in the King’s harem. And despite what we remember from primary school, it wasn’t a beauty pageant that enabled Esther to replace Vashti. It was a recruitment process for his harem. She wasn’t selected because of her character, her ability to serve in the King’s court, her thoughtfulness. It was because of her aesthetic beauty, her physical looks. She was simply treated as an object.
And what choice did Esther have? She was pushed into the harem, sent off to be a concubine, one of the many wives. It’s not like she could go off and be a prime minister in the king’s court, she couldn’t study medicine. And, today, sure there aren’t kings who have a tent full of concubines; things have improved significantly. The control women have over their lives compared to that of the time of Esther is astounding. However, there are still women sold off to prostitution, so Esther’s experience is something that is very much occurring today, and really a lot about Esther’s experiences are way too relevant in our current lives.
Esther had little or no control over the choices in her own welfare, wellbeing, happiness, her whole life. This is seen with the #metoo movement, where women had limited ways to advance their careers. How females are portrayed in popular culture. How many ads have strong female characters and how many have them being good housekeepers, doing the washing, cooking and cleaning?
As a personal example, I want to relate to you the election of the 2019 King David School captains, who were voted in by the year 6-12 student body. The two captains, for the first time, are two females. Previously, we usually had one male and one female. Clearly, they were seen as the two best people, regardless of gender, to hold this position, by all of the senior school. But in conversations I had with some male students, they thought it was unfair that there were two females, and that it should be one male and one female.
Others went further and said that if two male captains had been elected, the females would complain about how unfair it was. What they fail to understand was that we would only complain if the system had been biased or skewed to enable only two males. But it is symbolism of two male captains that would have been the problem. It symbolises that there is still unfairness in our society. For example in parliament and with CEOs of companies, the majority is still male. It is this history and current legacy that disturbs me as a female.
I think overall, my message today is that it should equally disturb men. It isn’t just up to girls and women to highlight the problems of the Story of Esther. It’s also up to boys and men to understand what happened and to reflect on what that means for them today, and how to make our society a better place in the future.
We all know that Haman was evil, but what about the bad things that Mordechai and Achashverosh did? Mordecai saw nothing wrong with selling Esther as a sexual object for the greater good of the Jewish people. We need boys and men today to care as much about Esther and Vashti as they do about the antisemitism of Haman and the heroics of Mordechai. We need boys and men to be our allies and partners in saying what is wrong. And not to do it out of guilt or obligation, or feeling that they are being attacked for personally being responsible for all mistreatment of females.
A very common misconception that I find when discussing these issues with male friends of mine is that “feminism” is a zero-sum game where there can only be one winner and one loser. We can all be winners if we improve the way girls and women are treated.
Shabbat Zachor is about remembering the past. But as our great Rabbi Gersh said: “It’s important to remember our past so that we can live in the present and look to the future”. I care about what’s happening to girls and women because for all the progress that’s been made since the story of Esther, we still have more to do. Yes, clearly there is a difference between myself and Esther. I can choose to stand on this bimah. Esther could never have done that.
So I hope for the future that one day we celebrate the story of Purim and how the Jews won their freedom, at the same time as remembering that what Esther and Vashti all the other concubines experienced was as disturbing as I felt when I read it. And for all girls and women in society in all countries on earth, I hope we continue the progress that has been made and reach a time where each of us have full control to look out for own welfare, wellbeing, happiness, our own lives, without ever having to compromise or be dependent on any man or men, just because they have the power. And when that day comes, we will look back and remember that it wasn’t always that way and appreciate and never take for granted the progress that has been achieved.
And say with pride and joy, Chag Purim Samayach !!