by Iah Pillsbury
Iah pillsbury is a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College. She’s committed to academic inquiry, spiritual growth, and honest community building. She grew up in a devoutly interfaith home in Los Angeles, California. Iah graduated from the University of Chicago with honors in English and has worked with incarcerated youth in Los Angeles, Congregation Oheb Shalom in Sandusky, Ohio, residents at cedar village, and patients at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati.
Long long ago a group of old Jewish men got together during the Babylonian Exile to create the myth and subsequent holiday of Purim. And so for their own reasons, they decided to tell a story about a Persian King named Ahasuerus who really really really liked to party. He was in the midst of one of his epic, week-long, blow outs when he got it into his head that he would like his Queen, Vashti, to come and dance naked for him and his courtiers. But Vashti would have none of it. She had no interest in stripping for her husband and his drunk friends, so even though it meant giving up her title and crown, she refused. She gave up everything– all her worldy power and riches because she didn’t want to be objectified in that way. Vashti wanted to be more than just another exploited body, so she took a huge risk and stood her ground.
But now, our party animal of a king was left without a Queen, and that was simply unacceptable. So what to do? Stage a beauty contest of course! Just because one Queen had refused to objectified, didn’t mean everyone else would….!
So a royal decree was sent out and all the most beautiful women in the land came forward to be judged and found wanting. Of course, because this a Jewish story, the most beautiful woman in all the land HAD to be a Jewish woman. And that woman was Esther, a nice Jewish orphan who lived with her wise uncle Mordechai. Mordechai, of course, uncovers a plot to kill the king, and since he is a man, he is listened to and greatly rewarded. But not so long afterward, Mordechai hears about another plot, this one to kill the Jews. So he tells his newly royal niece and hopes that she will do the right thing and somehow find a way to save all the Jews of Persia. She has the ear to the king after all…
Now Esther, like her predecessor before her, must decide what was most important to her. Was it being queen? Or the safety of her people? She of course, chose the selfless route and decided to risk everything and tell her husband that she herself was Jewish. And then they kill all the plotters, the Jews are saved, and everyone lives happily ever after to celebrate Purim centuries later.
End of story.
Or is it?
This is a story about Personal Identity and what matters most to each of us. Both Persian Queens, Vashti and Esther, decided what was most important to them, and risked everything to live out those values. Both faced great personal loss and uncertainty, but both felt that the risk was somehow worth it. Vashti decided that the personal consequences of dancing naked in front of her husband and friends outweighed exile from the castle, even though the other women in the Harem would have had a hard time understanding that. But that didn’t matter. Vashti knew what was most important to her, and that is exactly what she acted on. Esther also had to decide what was most important to her. Was her secret Jewish Identity worth dying for? No one could have made that decision for her. She had to choose for herself, knowing full well that things might not work out the way she wanted them to.
While most of us are not married to Persian Kings, nor forced to make all-or-nothing decisions on a regular basis, our decisions still matter a great deal. They determine who we are and what kind of world we each live in. Where I spend my time, my money, and my energy both illustrates and continuously recreates my priorities and core values. They ARE what is most important to me, because they are things I live and breathe and do, not just wonder about.
So. What really matters to you?