Absolutely – but that is not all we learn. Vashti was also beautiful, according to the simple meaning of the text. She had self-respect as well, and would not submit to being ogled and hooted at by her husband’s drunken friends, even at his own request and even though he was the king. However, her beauty and independent will did not protect her from being demoted, exiled or worse (we aren’t told what happened to her). The Megillah begins by teaching us that in the court of a capricious monarch with absolute power, these traits are insufficient.
Enter Esther. She gets chosen as a “contestant” for the juvenile wife-finding method of choice—the beauty contest. She is chosen by the king as the most beautiful, partly due to her innate beauty and charm, and partly due to her wise strategy of only putting on the makeup/outfit suggested by Hegai, the eunich in charge of the contestants. Esther understands that “charm” is not a noun but a verb. In other words, she realizes that Ahasuerus probably has his own taste, and if she wishes to be the queen and not just one of the concubines she should try to “charm” him. That means finding out what he finds attractive, not trusting in her own tastes. Bottom line, Esther brings a new quality to the position of queen—she is shrewd.
This is demonstrated yet again when Mordechai begs her to go to the king and plead with him to save the Jews. Esther intuits that, although Mordechai is morally correct, this will not work. One cannot reason with Ahasuerus; he is a creature of passions. Yet she does not give up on her people. She understands that the first step is a risk. Ahasuerus has not “called on her” (certainly a euphemism) for a month. He is bored with her, perhaps, and it is against palace law for anyone, even the queen, to approach him uninvited. She takes the risk, and he is happy to see her. One danger averted.
However, she does not jump into the pleading that Mordechai suggests at this point; she still doesn’t believe it will work. The king is too invested in his advisor, Haman, whose idea it was to kill the Jews. The last time the king's wife (Vashti) went up against his will and that of his advisors, she was banished. No, Esther would need more than just fairness and beauty to pull this off.
She invites her husband and Haman to a private banquet that she has prepared for them. "Ok," Ahasueros answers, "let’s have this banquet." "But," he thinks to himself (at least so I imagine) – "what is this about? If Esther misses me—why wouldn’t she?—what is Haman doing at this banquet?" As the old Persian saying goes, “Two is company; three is a crowd.” "Oh well," he thinks, "she will tell me what is on her mind at the banquet."
Comes the banquet, and Ahasuerus gently prods. “What is this all about my dear? Anything you want I will grant.” Esther begins to answer but stops. She stammers out that there will be another intimate lunch for three tomorrow, and then she will tell the king what is really on her mind. Now Ahasuerus is worried. "Clearly, Esther is having trouble saying what is on her mind. It must be some sort of problem, something she is afraid or embarrassed to say," Ahasuerus thinks to himself. "But what could it be… and why was Haman invited again?"
And then it hits him—it must be about Haman. “But what embarrassing secret would my wife feel the need to tell me about her and Haman?” Then it really hits him. As any jealous husband would intuit, there can be only one answer to this question. But would Haman really have the gall to have an affair with the queen? How could he not be afraid of consequences? Then this hits him too. As any paranoid monarch would immediately intuit—there can be only one answer to this question. “So,” Ahasuerus thinks to himself, “my number two wishes to be the number one. And the queen—my wife—is in on it.” To quote the Megillah, “that night the king could not sleep.” Hardly surprising.
Think of the intense relief Ahasuerus must feel the next day when, at the party, Esther says what is bothering her. It is not about an affair at all. Someone is trying to kill her and her people. “Oh, is that all it is?” asks Ahasuerus. “This is easily solved. I am the king after all.” He is feeling powerful now. His poor helpless wife is scared. "Well, never fear," he thinks, "Ahasuerus is here." He goes in for the kill. “Who is it,” he asks, “that is threatening you?” “It is the wicked Haman,” Esther responds, with tears in her eyes. “Haman!” Ahasuerus exclaims, “That guy! I hate that guy! Always have!” He has been stewing all night about Haman and Esther and what might be passing between the two—the man had little chance of surviving the day anyway.
In other words, it was Esther’s calculated hedging and her invitation to Haman that planted the seeds of this hatred towards the advisor her husband preferred more than any other just the day before. Although the story has many more fascinating details, at this point the way to the saving of the Jews and the destruction of their enemies was paved.
This was the long answer to a short question. In short, although it is true that Esther used her looks and charm to for a good cause, just as important—perhaps even more so—she used her God given wit and intelligence, her shrewd ability to manipulate Ahasueros’ emotions to position him such that her beauty and charm would work. The lesson of the Megillah seems to be that in a world where God’s face is hidden and capricious, self-indulgent powers reign supreme, we—men and women—will have to use all of our God-given gifts to survive.
The ruchani (spiritual) part of me says that the lesson of the book of Esther is that all of our positive attributes; our wit, intelligence, beauty or our dedication; all can be utilized in the service of God. This elevation of the mundane, such as our good looks, seems like a lovely way to remind us that we can serve God in many ways.
The intellectual, modern, feminist side of me rejects this notion. A woman forced into using her attractiveness to fool a buffoonish and misogynist king in order to save the Jews of Persia sends an ugly message. Namely, that Judaism condones gender stereotypes, and that playing by the rules of those stereotypes ultimately vindicates us from destruction. As it says “Let fair young virgins be sought for the king… and let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” (Esther 2:3) The text goes on to describe the way the women endure six months of beauty treatments and then ‘audition’ for the king. The text might be read by some, then, to imply that it is a Jewish belief that a woman is an object of beauty only. To our tradition’s credit, a number of commentators take pains to describe Esther’s beauty as spiritual in nature, but the pshat (on-the-face) read is clear- Esther is attractive, and that’s how she succeeds.
Our society objectifies women at an alarming rate. American media, from magazine covers to television stars, are selling a one-size-fits-all notion of beauty. Society idealizes pretty and thin in women, strong and fit in men; the outward appearance over the inward substance. Society often tells us that youth and beauty are the most important attributes for success in the modern age.
Judaism is whole-heartedly opposed to this notion.
I do think Esther is a hero for her guileful rescue of the Jews from catastrophe. I do think there is great Torah to be learned from the book of Esther and its commentaries. But no, I don’t think the message is or should be that Judaism affirms using charm and beauty above more noble attributes, like wisdom, skill, and goodness.
I suppose that's one way of looking at it. Or, one could say, when in Shushan, do as the Shushanites do--for after all, Esther's maneuvering and use of feminine wiles is not, precisely, sporting. Although I prefer to see the book of Esther through the lens of Mordechai himself: "Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis." (Esther 4:14). That is to say: sometimes we are called upon to do amazing things even when we feel powerless.
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