Thursday, February 28, 2013

Esther vs. Vashti? Really?

I know Purim has come and gone, and I know I've said (twice now) that I don't even really enjoy that holiday very much, but I've decided to dedicate yet another blog post to it, and here's why:  I've spent the past week stewing over the Purim story, and now I need to vent.  Hopefully, it will be somewhat organized.

Every year, I read the story of Purim and then hear it filtered through various people's perspectives.  Most interpretations I hear fall into two main categories:

1) Vashti is an evil and dangerous woman who defies Hashem's rules for how women should behave.  Because she dared to refuse to dance in front of her husband and his friends, one can only assume that she must have been covered with some unsightly rash or perhaps had suddenly sprouted a tail.  She deserved every bit of the punishment she got.  Esther, on the other hand, is pure, virtuous, and beautiful.  She was chosen to be queen for her grace and obedience.  Not only does she save the Jewish people, but she represents the quintessential Jewish woman.

2) Vashti is a strong, independent woman who refuses to let any man dictate what she should do.  She was a victim of the sexist culture of her time and had she lived today, she probably would have been a valiant feminist.  She was wrongly punished and she deserves to be admired by women everywhere for her fierce self-determination.  Esther, however, is simple and vain.  She plays on her good looks and depends on her sexuality to get what she wants.  Unlike Vashti, she is not particularly independent-minded and doesn't model positive assertiveness for girls and women today.

I don't agree with either one of these stories.

That said, I do find them both interesting, mostly because it is striking to me how each of these interpretations relies so heavily on the "good girl/bad girl" dichotomy.  If Esther is going to be the heroine, then Vashti must be the villain.  On the other hand, if Vashti is the admirable and charismatic one, then Esther must be contemptible and bland.   It's almost as if these women gain validity in their respective roles only by being compared to each other.  The danger here is that we end up pigeonholing both Vashti and Esther, and we don't allow either of them to be the dynamic women that they probably actually were.  Looking beyond the Purim story, how often do we do this to people in our own lives?  How often do people do this to us?  I think we can probably agree that no one is a completely monochromatic character.  Contrary to popular belief, the female species is not divided into "good girls" and "bad girls."  We should give ourselves credit for being far more complex than that.  We each make thousands of choices in our lives; some will be positive and some will not.  Sometimes we will conform with the majority, and sometimes we won't.  Our nuances are what make us interesting.  Although forcing everyone into the "good girl/bad girl" binary might make life less complicated, when we do this we squeeze the life out of all of us.

My teacher in Israel helped me tease out the "real" women underneath the simplistic images depicted in both of the above versions of the Purim story.  Vashti, it seems, is neither the dangerous vixen of the first story nor the radical feminist of the second.  Instead, she is a woman who preserved her morality by refusing to attend a party full of drinking men and dancing girls--and, incidentally, it was considered inappropriate in ancient Persia for wives of rulers to be present at such parties.  Vashti deserves credit for standing her ground even in the face of harsh consequences.  However, she isn't really a feminist because she doesn't demand equality--she just wants to be treated in the manner befitting the wife of a ruler in her society.  Because Esther enters the picture only as a result of Vashti's departure, one can only assume that she is aware of the circumstances surrounding the fall of her predecessor.  She understands that blatant defiance of the king leads to disaster, so she knows she needs to take a more subtle approach.  Yes, Esther is more demure than Vashti, and although this can be considered a virtue it is also the trait that nearly led her to pass up the opportunity to save her people.  Some people profess that Esther's beauty and docility are what made her the ideal queen; I would argue that these characteristics merely make her the ideal ornament for a powerful king.  When Esther truly becomes a queen is when she taps into the fire in her spirit and steps up to be a leader.

I don't think it's a stretch to see that both Esther and Vashti are admirable women who are also flawed, and that neither one of them exemplifies the "ideal woman"--instead, we need a little bit of both of them inside ourselves.  A virtuous woman is not necessarily someone who is submissive, dainty, and conformist; nor is she necessarily a bold, fearless rebel.  A woman can possess all of these qualities in varying proportions and still be just as worthy of respect and belonging as the woman standing next to her.  Girls do not need to strive to be like Esther and scorn Vashti; nor do they need to emulate Vashti at the expense of Esther.  Rather, they should be encouraged to evaluate honestly the choices of both women and to find ways in which they can identify with both Esther and Vashti.  Perhaps, if we can respect these two characters of long ago, we will begin to be more compassionate with our own complex, multifaceted selves.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Last year at this time, I explained why Purim has never been one of my favorite Jewish holidays.  This year as the holiday approached once more, I felt myself sighing a little bit internally in anticipation.  Recently someone asked me what I was going to dress up as for Purim, and my instinctive first thought was, "Well, nothing."  I do not enjoy wearing costumes; if I'm not performing on a stage, I don't do it.  I just don't think it's fun, and maybe it's my rigid streak talking, but I don't like pretending to be someone I'm not.  Which, when I think about it, strikes me as incredibly ironic, because I feel like I have actually spent--and continue to spend--quite a bit of my life pretending to be someone I'm not.  I tend to present myself in a way that I think other people will find appealing.  This doesn't mean I adopt a completely false persona, but it often does mean putting myself out there so that only selective parts of myself are revealed.  A political science professor whose course I took during my freshman year at college had a favorite saying: "It is not truth that is important, but that which is perceived to be."  I think, consciously and unconsciously, in the past I applied the same principle to my own life.  It didn't matter what was actually true about me; it mattered what other people thought was true about me.

Which brings me to Purim, and the custom of wearing costumes and masks.  Recently I learned that the words, Megilat Esther, themselves reveal a lot of the meaning behind this tradition.  The word megilat -- מגילת -- comes from the root גלה, which means to uncover, to reveal, or public.  In contrast, the name Esther -- אסתר -- comes from the root סתר, which means to cover, to hide, or private.  During Purim, wearing disguises helps us remember that we all have our public selves that we present to the world.  Beneath those exterior displays, however, are our true selves that we often choose to keep private.  Purim is a reminder that no one is completely as he or she appears to be.  We each have a hidden inner self that, though often afraid to make itself known, deserves to be seen.

The most elaborate mask I've ever worn was the mask of anorexia.  For years, I never took it off, lest anyone see the scared, lost me who cowered underneath.  As a result, every interaction I had during that time was with someone who only saw my outward persona.  Every connection was superficial because no one got to know who I really was. In fact, I kept the mask on for so long that I forgot who I was.  A central piece of my recovery has been finding ways to "go natural."  I began by taking off the anorexia mask in private (or in therapy) and giving myself time to figure out who I was underneath.  Then, I started identifying people with whom I felt it would be safe to be more genuine, and I began to let them know me.  Over time, that list has grown longer and longer, to the point where I now feel that while I still throw a tiny bit of a disguise on once in a while, overall the self I'm presenting to the world is me. 

In an article titled, "Being You -- A Purim Insight", Sara Tzafona writes:

"We can't possibly discern our purpose while attending a masquerade ball within our personal worlds.  We're not listening to G-d's message, or even trying to find it, if we are spending our time creating false personalities or attempting to become replicas of others rather than focusing on who we are meant to be.

It's pointless, because the world doesn't need replicas of others; the world needs authentic people who aren't afraid to reflect the G-dly soul that was given to them, who aren't afraid to go natural in this razzle-dazzle world that ridicules morality and ethics and authentic purpose.  

We have an obligation to shrug off the artificial masks that we present to the world, because each of us has a job that can be performed by no one else.  There can only be one me, one you, and one Esther.  We must all do our jobs.  And all jobs are created equal, though not the same.  All jobs provide a vital piece to the mosaic of this world, a vital channel to its healing."

This Purim, I wish for all of us the ability to enjoy the festivities...and then, when it's over, to find a safe space in which to take off our masks.  I hope that each of us can find a corner of the world in which we can shine our true light, as only our authentic selves can do.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Your Body is Your Donkey

Although they don't carry quite the same level of drama found in previous parshiot, I really enjoy reading the aspects of civil law expounded in parashat Mishpatim, which we read last week.  One of the things I find so fascinating about traditional Judaism is the code of ethics at its core--fundamental to the religion is the understanding that how people treat one another is just as important as all the ritualistic displays of piety.

There are several verses within Mishpatim that I could probably spend hours discussing, but one of my favorites is as follows:

"If you see the donkey of someone you hate collapsing under its burden and would refrain from helping him, you shall surely help with him." (Shemot 23:5)

On its surface, this verse explains that it is virtuous to come to the aid even of a person whom you might have good cause to hate.  While one's first response might be to let the hated person (and his animal) suffer, one should not let those negative emotions get in the way of offering assistance.  That interpretation of the verse has always been the one with which I've grappled, but this past week I learned of a new way to read the text that allows me to interact with it in an entirely new way.

The Hebrew word for donkey (chamor) shares the same root as the word for physicality (chomer).  The Baal Shem Tov explains that a person might see his/her body as the enemy of the soul, unable to live up to the soul's lofty aspirations.  In such a case, the person might seek to punish the body by ignoring its needs or trying to pound it into submission.  According to the Baal Shem Tov, through this verse the Torah instructs us to resist the urge to discipline our bodies through deprivation or suffering--rather, we should seek to nurture and refine our physical selves.

This idea resonates with me because it addresses head-on the trap that many of us fall into--viewing our physicality as our enemy.  When we become convinced that our bodies are what block us from reaching our full potential, it is a natural response for us to attempt to "revamp" our physical selves through training regimens that inevitably place our bodies under considerable strain.  The actual process might look different for each of us, but the outline is the same:

Thought:  My body is not cooperating.
Action:  Discipline, discipline, discipline--the harsher, the better!
Outcome:  The body collapses.
(And, yes--in some way, shape, or form, that is ALWAYS the outcome.)

The Torah teaches us to take a different approach.  Rather than view our bodies as obstacles that must be overcome in order to live our best lives, perhaps we should find ways to see the G-dliness within our physical selves.  Instead of ignoring our bodies when they cry out to us, maybe we could try a compassionate approach and offer our bodies the rest and comfort that they need.  It's true that the body is different from the soul--it is more focused on the "here and now," and is less concerned with the abstract, spiritual pursuits that occupy the soul.  When we are trying to transform our internal selves into more evolved people, it can be frustrating to take into account the limits and needs of our physical selves.  However, our bodies are not nuisances to be fought or ignored.  Just like our souls, our bodies were also created by Hashem and need to be cared for and assisted so that we can become our best, most integrated selves.

I wish for all of us the willingness to understand that self-improvement does not need to come at the expense of our bodies.  Our challenge is to seek out a state of balance between our spiritual and physical selves, in which all aspects of ourselves work together to create a unified, harmonious whole.  The Torah's command is a good place to start--the next time you notice that your body is straining under its burden, instead of looking the other way, try extending compassion to it, instead!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tricky Number Ten

As parshiot go, this past week's--Yitro--was a Big One.  Amid tremendous spectacle at Mt. Sinai, Hashem revealed to the Israelites the Ten Commandments.  Although the rest of the Torah would not be given until later, this first phase was monumental in its own right.  For a full translation of the Commandments, visit this page...but, for the sake of brevity, I'll give a quick recap:

1.  I am Hashem, your G-d.
2.  You shall have no other gods besides Me.
3.  You shall not take the Name of Hashem in vain.
4.  Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.
5.  Honor your father and mother.
6.  You shall not murder.
7.  You shall not commit adultery.
8.  You shall not steal.
9.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10.  You shall not covet.

Commandments 1-4 are pretty essential to the essence of Judaism, so it seems logical that the list would lead with these.  Regarding Commandments 6-9, these are critical guidelines for morality, not to mention vital to the safety of the community and the maintenance of public order.  Although I'm sure no one enjoys a completely conflict-free relationship with his or her parents, it does make sense that (except in the most extreme circumstances) it is a child's duty to honor his or her parents by respecting them and providing them with what they need, materialistically and emotionally, as they age.

But what about Commandment # 10?

Personally, I find this to be the trickiest one of all.  It is the outlier on the list because unlike the rest, which primarily govern our actions, this one is directed at our thoughts.  While it is relatively easy to control what we do, it is a lot harder to control what we think--especially when the thought is fueled by such a common emotion as jealousy.  Is it realistic to think that a person could honestly live in a culture such as ours and never allow herself to feel envious of someone else?  Furthermore, let's say I do feel long as I don't go out and actually steal the thing I want, or murder someone to get it, is the feeling itself really so bad?

Well, although I'm no master scholar, I've learned enough Torah to know that nothing is in there by mistake.  So, I decided to look a little closer at Commandment # 10 and see if I could figure out why it merits being on the same list as "You shall have no other gods besides Me," and "You shall not murder." I started by thinking about the role that "coveting" has played in my life.

Interestingly, my first memory of coveting something of my neighbor's dates all the way back to preschool, when I was fiercely jealous of my friend's long, silky, braided pigtails.  I watched the way she would whip those braids around her head with confidence and flair, something I knew I would never, ever be able to accomplish with my standard-issue bowl cut (which, although adorable in retrospect, seemed at the time to be most unfortunate).  I looked at my hair in the mirror in dismay.  If I could just have those braids, I thought, I would be a better version of me.  I was four years old.  What an early age at which to start seeing myself as "less than" someone else!

This sense of never measuring up favorably, of wanting someone else's skills, style, or demeanor, only continued.  I was jealous of my friends' athletic talents, singing voices, and fashion sense; I envied their social ease and confidence.  When I was struggling with anorexia, I strove to make my body smaller and smaller until I could win the much-sought-after title of "sickest girl"--something I never seemed able to attain.  The side effect of all this coveting was that I never stopped to appreciate what I did have--the skills I possessed, the achievements I'd accomplished, the character traits that made me special.  I was so busy focusing on what everyone else had, and what everyone else's life must be like, that I neglected to nurture my own strengths and validate my own journey.

For me, coveting has rarely been about material items, but it has nearly always been about personhood.  Simply put, I was never satisfied with who I was, and I felt that if I could only have whatever "it" was that other people internally possessed, I'd finally be a person worthy of positive attention, a person who mattered.  I think this mindset of self-negation is what makes coveting so dangerous.  When we want something someone else has so badly that we convince ourselves that we need it in order to be worthy/happy/successful/etc ourselves, we invalidate our own value as the people we actually are.  Additionally, coveting leads us to forget that Hashem designed each of us to fill a unique space in the world.  We are not meant to all look the same, act the same, or all have the same things.  When we covet that which is not ours, we are essentially saying that we know how our lives are supposed to be better than Hashem does.  This is NOT to say that we should just sit back and passively take whatever comes our way with the understanding that Hashem will provide us with everything we need.  On the contrary, we should take an active role in our own lives, but we should do so in a way that is authentic to who we really are--not in a way that tries to make us into someone else who we assume, "has it all."

I have by no means mastered the art of Thou Shall Not Covet, and I have a feeling that it is going to be a work in progress for a while.  But, I do feel that I am more aware of when I slip into that mindset, and I understand better the harm it causes to my relationship with myself and to my relationship with Hashem.  I wish for all of us--myself included--the ability to replace thoughts of, "I don't have enough ________", with the thought (and belief) that not only do we HAVE enough, but we ARE enough--as is.