A Bisl Torah

Elsa, Moana or Vashti?

For the last two Purim carnivals, I dressed up like Queen Elsa. The decision was quite deliberate. A rabbi dressed up like Elsa? Every little girl and boy ran up to me, gave me huge hugs, took photos—and parents proceeded to buy more tickets at their children’s insistence.

But this year, I cannot conscionably dress up as a character from a Disney movie. Not because I don’t love “Frozen” or “Moana.” These are two of my favorite movies with characters that have much to teach my 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. But I will save those lessons for another time. This Purim, break out the cardboard crown and velvet cape…I am proudly dressing up as Queen Vashti.

Here’s why: when I sat down at breakfast this morning and asked my daughter whether Queen Vashti was a good or bad character, she answered, “Kind of good. Kind of bad.” Prompting for more, she continued, “Vashti was a queen. That’s the good part. But she didn’t go to the King’s party. That’s the bad part.” And my heart sunk. The story of Vashti still isn’t being taught the way it should. Yes, Vashti did not go to the King’s party. But that is a line of the Megillah that deserves our applause, excitement, and deepest pride.

Vashti refused. According to the Midrash (rabbinic interpretation of the scroll of Esther that we read on Purim) King Ahasuerus commands Queen Vashti to parade herself before the other national ministers. Not any kind of innocent pageantry. The presumption was that Queen Vashti was asked to dance naked before a lewd audience. And the queen refused. The commentary even goes on to say that after the instruction, Vashti pleaded and cajoled the King. She explained that indeed, if she came out to dance for these men, the ministers might take a liking to her, and kill the King. Or perhaps, the opposite. The ministers might find her plain or ugly and that too, would bring disgrace upon the kingdom. Finally, Vashti reminds the King, that even under her father’s royal reign, people were never asked to shame themselves by dancing naked.

Vashti’s story teaches our daughters and sons that “no” means “no.” That if something makes us uncomfortable, if something feels beneath our character, we have the right and privilege to refuse. And that nobody can bully us into acting a particular way, not even a King. In toddler and child-speak: if someone else makes you feel uneasy, share those feelings with someone you trust. Use your words and do not be afraid.

Vashti’s story ends in a sad and unfortunate way. Her character slinks away so that Queen Esther rises, which is often the case when a protagonist enters the story. Our tradition even suggests that because of her refusal, Vashti is killed and much later on, the King admits that perhaps Vashti’s actions aren’t as bad as they first had seemed.

Vashti’s fate doesn’t have to be our children’s. With as much enthusiasm as possible, I told my daughter that I could not wait to dress up like Queen Vashti. I explained, “You’re right, Queen Vashti did not want to go to King’s party. But that is not a bad thing. Sometimes saying no can be a really good thing.” I tried to push the conversation further—but then my daughter looked at me and replied, “I am going to be Bat-girl.”

I laughed and remembered: she’s five. But this year, Queen Vashti will be selling Purim tickets. And if someone asks why, I will be thrilled to tell them. I’ll save “Moana” for next year.

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