Remember, Queen Esther Negotiated Beauty Into Power
Do you remember dressing up as Queen Esther on Purim when you were a child? I do. As a little girl, I only saw Esther’s beauty. I was too young to understand her role as a leader. As an adult, my perspective changed. While researching the Book of Esther for my own book of commentary, I became more aware of what was at stake precisely because she was beautiful. Esther may have become queen because of her looks, but it was her leadership during an inflection moment for our people that marked her as a heroine.
What really happened behind Persia’s palace walls? As noted in the text, after King Ahasuerus dismisses his former queen, Vashti, for refusing to appear at his banquet, he is filled with despair. His courtiers—who regard women as easily replaceable—try to distract him with a beauty contest to search among young virgins for the next royal consort.
Make no mistake, this was no normal beauty pageant—it was a royal decree. Young women were forcibly removed from their homes, no consent given. One talmudic sage imagines the worry of anxious parents: “Whoever had a daughter hid her from him” (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 12b). Once in the king’s palace in the capital of Shushan, the women—more likely, they were early adolescents—were saturated with perfume and beauty products for 12 months. Each was destined to spend a night with the king and taught to satisfy the king’s voracious sexual appetite and win his favor. It’s painful to read these words in the Esther scroll: “She would go in the evening and leave in the morning” (2:14).
Where did the young women go after their night with the king? The same text indicates they were sent to a second harem—again, without their consent—never to see their families again. Now essentially the property of the king, they no longer had any independent life.
Scholar Elizabeth Groves invites us to understand the emotional costs of this tragic process in her essay “Double Take: Another Look at the Second Gathering of Virgins in Esther 2.19a,” from The Book of Esther in Modern Research. “In addition to the loss which the girls experienced, of their virginity and of any future sexual pleasure with the king or any other man, one cannot escape the sense of bereavement of their families, who would never see the grandchildren that might have been theirs,” she writes.
We rarely pay attention to this second harem. Yet, in light of the #MeToo movement and our increased sensitivity to the plight of women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted as well as those who are victims of sex trafficking, Purim is an important moment for the Jewish community to ask: Are we doing enough to protect girls and women from predatory behavior, sexual vulnerability and domestic abuse? Have we had a conversation within our sacred spaces to make sure women feel safe and valued? Have we talked about the importance of consent?
Out of this degrading contest, Esther emerged as the king’s favorite, but she won him over with her grace, not just her beauty. Esther was more than an orphan-turned-queen. Esther found her voice, was willing to risk her life to approach the king and decided to lead. She ultimately used her platform to save her people from genocide.
So, go ahead and dress up like Esther, but remember her crowning achievements were a mind bent on salvation and a heart of grace and wisdom, courage and fearlessness. In the Book of Esther, women are beautiful. Only one of them, however, was truly powerful.
Erica Brown, Ph.D., is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at The George Washington University. Her latest work is Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Maggid/OU Press).