Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Clothes Have No Emperor

Art: Vladimir Kush

by: Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson

Death of a queen

The opening chapter of the Purim Meggilah is strikingly enigmatic.

Here is the story in brief: The Emperor of Persia, Achashverosh, throws a party in his capital city, Shushan, to celebrate the firm establishment of his kingship. On the seventh day of the feast, "when the heart of the king was merry with wine," he orders seven of his chamberlains to bring Queen Vashti before him, "to show off her beauty."

Vashti refuses to appear. The king becomes furious and he has her executed.

Why did Vashti refuse to appear before the guests? The Talmud explains [1], that when Achashverosh offered to show them his wife's beauty, the guests insisted that she appear without any clothes. Vashti, a wicked queen who found special glee in torturing and violating Jewish girls and women on the Sabbath day, was punished with leprosy on her skin. Under such conditions she naturally refused to expose her body.

But if so, why did Vashti not send a private message to her husband explaining that it would be humiliating for her and him if she were to expose herself before the guests. Though the king was intoxicated, it is hard to imagine that he would bestow a death sentence on a wife who has just spared him tremendous shame [2]!

Also, why does this story occupy the entire first chapter of the Megillah? Though it is a prelude to understanding how Esther, the hero of the Purim story, became the queen of Achashverosh, nonetheless, the detailed description of the event that brought about Vashti's execution seems superfluous in the story of Purim.

The power of evil

In the Kabbalah, where all biblical figures and episodes are depicted as parables for metaphysical realities, Achashverosh, the mighty monarch of a world power, serves as a parable for the King of Kings, the Creator of the universe [3]. Vashti, the wicked queen of Persia, symbolizes the reign of evil in the world [4].

Naked evil has no appeal or power to attract. In order for evil to gain popularity among the masses, it must be "packaged" well; it must be "dressed" in nice garments that will cover up its true identity.

The two evil monsters of the last generation, Hitler and Stalin, presented their colossal murderous strategies as moral and noble programs dedicated to healing the world of its diseases. This was true throughout history. The inventors and implementers of bloodshed and violence usually presented their schemes as ethical and humane endeavors.

This is valid concerning the evil we perpetrate in our personal lives as well. We embrace many of the destructive and immoral temptations we feel in our heart only because they package themselves outstandingly well. The glittering veneer of comfort and happiness that these temptations display lure us into their trap. If every unhealthy craving we experience presented itself without any masks, we would immediately cast it away.

Thus, the Kabbalah teaches [5] that man's daily challenge in life consists of choosing substance over packaging, inherent value over good PR. When one feels an urge to eat something, to engage in a certain intimate act or to say something, he or she ought to reflect whether this is an inherently healthy and moral thing to do, or is indeed hollow and empty, merely exhibiting itself as promising and enjoyable.

The hallmark of a spiritual life is one that always seeks to be in tune with the true essence of things, and not merely with their external appearance.

Removing the masks

This is how Jewish mysticism understands the symbolism behind the opening story of the Meggilah: Vashti, symbolizing the power of evil, can only retain her power and glory if she is garbed in garments that conceal her real identity. If Vashti removes all her masks, she instantaneously loses all of her appeal and charm.

Therefore, when the King of Kings insists that Vashti appear at His feast in her bareness, she must refuse Him. Because the "clothes" of evil have no "emperor" within them.

This brought about the end of the Vashtinian rule. When evil is called on its nakedness, its nothingness is exposed and its power lost [6].


1. Megillah 12b.
2. The Talmud (ibid. Quoted in Rashi to Esther 1:12) explains, that Vashti sent her husband humiliating messages, thus kindling his wrath to an extreme. What follows is the mystical interpretation of the story, as it is presented in the writings of Chassidism.
3. Midrash quoted in Meoray Or 1:182. Cf. Rikanti to Genesis 29:10, quoted in Mechir Yayin to Esther 1, 12:13. Erkay Hakenuyim under the entry of Achashverosh.
4. See Or Hameir Megiilas Esther. Likkutei Levi Yitzchak Megillas Esther p. 79. Toras Levi Yitzchak p. 17.
5. See Tanya chapter 16.
6. See Tanya chapter 29.

The nucleus of this explanation was presented by the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760, founder of the Chassidic movement). It is quoted in his name by Rabbi Zee'v Wolf of Zhitamir (a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, heir to the Baal Shem Tov) in his Chassidic work Or Hameir on the Meggilah. Reference to it is made in Or Hatorah (by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek, 1789-1876) Megilas Esther p. 72.

1 comment:

Miriam said...

I love reading anything about the Purim story, especially because the real story behind it is so hidden. I just listened to Rabbi Yehoshua Zitron's 3 part lecture on the midrash of Purim - really fascinating! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quzBonaCG3Y. That's part 1.