Women, Leadership and Laughter
She who laughs last.
Women feature prominently in the Purim story. Vashti, probably the first radical feminist, sent all of male Persia into a tizzy, by refusing to heed her husband King Achashveirosh’s demands to show off her beauty at his party – setting off a tumultuous series of events, beginning in a nation-wide proclamation legislating male dominance in all domiciles.
Clearly, in ancient Persia, subservience was the preferred status for females. But then, shockingly, the entire kingdom is turned upside down, by another woman whose name, Esther, actually means hiddenness, and whose rulership seems to provoke no resistance at all. What was Esther’s power?
The Sages of the Oral Law flesh out the bare-bones story of the Megillah and present us with a nuanced – and fascinating – heroine. First of all, they tell us, Esther was beloved by all. Since she did not reveal her nationality, no one really knew where she came from, but all assumed that she was their kin.
Some of this appeal was connected to the fact that Esther was totally lacking in arrogance. Esther was an orphan and suffering tends to take people off their high horse. And while the power and grandeur of monarchy can create a complete disconnect between subjects and monarch – in a “let them eat cake” style – vulnerability and pain tend to strip away artificial barriers and connect people.
Esther was totally uninterested in the limelight – yet strong enough to do the right thing at the right time. Haman was the fascinating foil to Esther’s humility and ability to move herself over for another’s good. His conniving and striving for more and more power sets the backdrop for her greatness. Haman’s illusions of grandeur – envisioning himself being led through town amidst accolades and hoopla – stands in such stark contrast to Esther, who had to be tugged reluctantly on to center stage by Mordechai’s admonishment that now was not the time for rectitude and who sacrificed her all for the good of the Jewish people.
Hide and Seek
The Sages see particular greatness in the fact that Esther made it clear that it was Mordechai who had saved the king’s life and did not take the credit for herself. This episode becomes the root of the Talmudic injunction “Whoever attributes an idea to its source, brings redemption”. While giving credit where it is due is certainly praiseworthy, one wonders why attribution to its source brings redemption.
If there is room for someone else in your narrative, then there is also room for Someone Else.
Perhaps this is because if there is room for someone else in your narrative, then there is also room for Someone Else. Generally, our ego has such a stranglehold on us that attributing our brilliant ideas to someone else triggers the existential fear of being knocked completely off stage. But when we acknowledge our interdependence and interconnection, as Esther did, we redeem ourselves from the prison of our tiny little self-branded world. And in the broader scheme of things, attribution to a human source is both a metaphor and a necessary exercise that we need to go through in order to recognize the Ultimate Source, the Source of all our successes and ideas.
This was particularly important in connection to the Purim story – which because it contains no obvious miracles – could easily be misconstrued as a long string of happy coincidences. Esther “happened” to win the beauty contest. Mordechai “happened” to overhear the assassins’ plot, and Haman “happened” to walk in to the king’s room in the middle of the night just when the king was thinking about this. Haman just “happened” to set up a gallows for Mordechai which was ready and waiting at just the moment that the king’s wrath was awakened. Seeing the Hand of God pulling the strings behind scenes requires an Esther-like ability to make room for Someone Else in humanity’s narrative.
Esther introduced a new voice of connection and love.
While monarchy is often associated in our minds with domination and exhibitions of power, Esther introduced a new voice of connection and love. Esther’s ability to make room for others, her kindness and humility were like a magnet, drawing people to her – even the most wicked. Maharal tells us that even evil Achashveirosh, Haman’s more-than-willing accomplice, was felled by Esther’s power of connection – which is why at the crucial moment he aligned himself with her instead of with Haman. Yet she was able to maintain her balance on an incredibly narrow bridge. She was able to inculcate a sense of affiliation with her, even among those whose very essence was diametrically opposite to hers, yet at the same time, the Sages testify that she remained completely impervious to the influence of her evil companions – she was as beloved in the Heavens as she was down on this earth.
Esther saw the Hidden Hand, and with her open heart, took a nation that is described in the beginning of the megillah as “scattered and dispersed” and brought them together into one unit with one heart, pulsating with love for each other and for God – as she commands Mordechai “go and gather together all the Jewish people to pray for me”.
The paradox of this kind of power can be seen in the very words “Megillat Esther”;“megillah” means revealed, while “Esther” means hidden. Megillat Esther is the name of a book which reveals the power of the hidden – the power that lies in being great enough not to need the world to tell you that you are great; in being strong enough that you don’t have to keep shoring up the differences between “wonderful I” and the rest of the world; in being open and vulnerable instead of arrogant and power hungry.
She Who Laughs Last
It is not surprising that the holiday which is so intricately intertwined with this feminine kind of leadership is a day of joy and laughter.
Both biologically and metaphorically, Woman personifies affiliation and bonding. Woman has permeable boundaries; she expands her borders to receive, to encompass and to give of herself to nurture the other.
Laughter, at its essence, is about breaking boundaries. People laugh when something out-of-the-box happens – when rigid protocol is overturned, when unbreachable walls suddenly collapse. The classic image of a pompous individual slipping on a banana peel and landing inelegantly in a heap on the sidewalk brings us to laugher at the complete inversion of our expectations.
Purim is a day of joy, of love, and of laughter.
On a deeper level, laughter is a taste of the World of Truth. In This World, false hierarchies and divisions between people abound: the “haves” and the “have-nots”; the “with-its” and the hopelessly and pathetically “non-with-its.” But in a world of truth, in Esther’s world and the world of Purim, divisions and demarcations slide away. Purim is a day of joy, of love, and of laughter.
On Purim we take all condemnations, judgments and withering critiques, all our disparaging, disapproving, discriminating thoughts, and wrap them up tightly in some extra cellophane, tie them with a bow – and then throw them out. Then we open ourselves up to the feminine deluge of love, caring, kindness and connection that is Purim.
Four Ways to Connect
To aid us in this process, our Sages give us four mitzvot: seudah – eating a festive meal, shalach manos (food gifts to friends), kriat megillah (reading the megillah, the Book of Esther) and matanos l’evyonim (charity to the poor). How do these four mitzvoth open our hearts?
At the festive Purim meal there is a special injunction to drink enough wine that one reaches a state of ad d’lo yada – when one is incapable of making judgments. Wine disengages our intellect – which thrives on distinctions, on borders and boundaries – but gives free rein to our feminine hearts, opening up the faucet and releasing a cascade of a love – which eschews demarcations.
While all year long, we give charity with discernment, the law is that on Purim we “give to all who stretch out their hand”. Our giving is released from our everyday cynicism; it flows outward with no judgement.
We give food gifts to friends, addressing not their needs, but our friendship. No one needs that extra box of wafers, even if it is color coordinated and theme related. What they do need, and what shalach manos addresses, is the statement of love and friendship that comes with it.
And when we read the megillah, we read a story which strips the mask off this world of hierarchies and judgements to show us the hidden world of Purim – where bad turns to good, and disjointed, random events turn out to be a lovingly and intricately woven plan for salvation.
What “on earth” is so funny? Honestly, on earth, nothing much. It’s breaking out of this world – reaching up from below, reaching out and beyond – which allows us, like the woman in Eishet Chayili, to “laugh at the very last day.”
i. The song Women of Valor which is sung on Friday night
A version of this article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine