Queen Esther: Just an Ordinary Woman


Edwin Long, "Queen Esther" (1878)

Spiritual Sunday

This coming Wednesday is the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates Queen Esther thwarting a planned genocide against the Jews during the reign of the Persian emperor Ahasuerus or Xerxes.  Searching the internet, I discovered an interesting poem told from Esther’s point of view by one Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who runs the wonderfully named blog The Velveteen Rabbi.

Barenblat acknowledges that the story is salacious, what with Esther seducing the king at the risk of her life so that he will spare her people. Like the Torah that is brought out only on special occasions (one of them being Purim, when the story of Esther is read), the queen comes to us veiled and mysterious.  We may, as a result, indulge in erotic fantasies as we hear the story (“here a flash 
of ankle, there a glimpse of hip”).

Barenblat, however, brings Esther down to earth.  Her speaker describes herself as no more than “a dark-skinned Persian girl
/raised on twisty Shushan streets/
who gambled for a favor/and won.” As such, she is far more interesting than the heroine of an erotic “revenge fantasy.” She becomes someone we can relate to, someone who can be a model for our own heroism.

Put in feminist terms, Barenblat rescues Esther from the feminine mystique and liberates her from the male gaze. This is one reason why we need female as well as male rabbis.

Vashti, incidentally, is the king’s first queen, whom he dismissed (and chose Esther) after she refused to strip for his people. Haman is the counselor who got the king to order the slaughter of the Jews and who eventually, after Esther’s maneuvering, was hanged himself (“karma’s a bitch”).

Hidden

By Rachel Barenblat

Vashti, the first favorite
was well before my time, though
I still wonder sometimes
why he asked her to strip.
Maybe he’d grown tired of her
and needed an excuse.

Of course I use my body
to get what I need: what woman
doesn’t? But until now
all I’ve needed were clothes,
bread, the freedom to read
in a quiet corner of the room.

The king thinks I hung the stars
but when the time comes
to make my play my hands shake.
And Haman leers. He’s thinking
casual threesome! score!
but I know karma’s a bitch.

The story ends in celebration
and bloodshed, a revenge fantasy
your children will retell
for generations, but listen–
I’m not a paragon of virtue.
I’m not your blank canvas.

I was never hiding. I’m not
a Torah scroll to be concealed
behind ornate walls, then
revealed bit by bit (here a flash
of ankle, there a glimpse of hip)
for your viewing pleasure.

I’m not God, veiling My face
like the newest of moons.
I’m a dark-skinned Persian girl
raised on twisty Shushan streets
who gambled for a favor
and won.

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