Esther didn’t only save the Jewish people; she transformed the power of women.
Wonder Woman. Captain Marvel. Today we are celebrating stories of women who save the world from dark times and bad guys.
While many critical moments in Jewish history revolve around great women, perhaps none express this theme more than the Book of Esther. The Purim story doesn’t just have a strong female lead; it’s a story that reframes the entire Biblical perspective on the power of women.
We are all familiar with Haman’s genocidal decree against the Jewish people and the salvation brought about through the heroic acts of Mordechai and Esther. But if we take a closer look, the very first decree in the story is not against the Jewish people. It is a decree against all women.
In chapter one, after the Queen Vashti’s refusal to appear before her husband, the villainous King Achashverosh, the king’s advisors are concerned:
For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Achashverosh himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!
The Talmud explains that the advisor being quoted here is none other than the evil Haman, who then goes on to suggest that in addition to the execution of the queen:
“Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.”
The significance of Esther bringing about the salvation at the end of the story by ordering her powerful husband Achashverosh to kill Haman isn’t just a turn of events for the Jewish people, it is a complete reversal of the original decree for women to be subservient to their husbands.
But there is so more depth being revealed here.
The Talmud suggests a fascinating connection between the Purim story and the story of Adam and Eve. The Talmud says (Chulin 139b):
They asked Rav Mattana: From where in the Torah can one find an allusion to (the hanging of) Haman? He replied (with a verse that occurs after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge): “Have you eaten of [hamin] the tree, about which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Genesis 3:11).
The Hebrew word for “Have you” is Hamin and is spelled in the same manner as Haman: with the Hebrew letters heh, mem, nun.
The Talmud is weaving together two stories to show us that the impurity and evil residue from the sin of eating from Tree was somehow manifest in the personality of Haman. The connection between Haman and the Tree is further emphasized by the very fact the Tree brought spiritual concealment into the world, the very force that is represented by Haman’s ancestry, the nation of Amalek.
But the connection between these stories becomes even more apparent when we continue reading about the punishment that is decreed on both Eve and the snake. Let’s first take a look at the punishment given to Eve, and we will immediately see the connection to our Purim story:
And to the woman He [God] said, “I will make most severe Your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.”
This final words which seem to subjugate women to men is chilling. If we contrast it to the words that the Torah uses when Eve is first created, we see what seems to be a complete reversal of what the original plan was supposed to be:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting supporter (eizer) opposite him (kenegdo).”
The word used for a supporter, the word eizer, is a word used for an individual who is coming to the aid of another struggling person; it refers to someone who is in a place of power using their ability to assist someone who needs their help. And the word kenegdo means ”opposite him” – facing him, equal.
Eve’s curse that seems to lower the status of the woman creates a major problem for humanity. A heroic force is now being diminished to what seems to be secondary status. This was precisely the intent of the snake when he went after Eve. He understood Eve’s role in regards to her husband and knew that if he could get Eve to fall, Adam’s demise would inevitably follow. By getting Eve to eat from the Tree and causing her role to be diminished, the snake would have accomplished what he had set out to do.
But the story is not over. Like any good book or movie, the conflict that is set up in the early scenes will come to a resolution in the grand finale.
What is the closing book of the Prophets? It’s the Book of Esther. And, indeed, the Book of Esther begins with a decree against women that parallels the decree against Eve, suggested by that snake Haman himself, the physical embodiment of the original downfall!
It is against that backdrop that the heroine of the story, Esther, steps in. The great mystics reveal that Esther contained sparks of the soul of Eve, and that her fasting and her bravery was all to bring about a rectification of the original sin of Eve. By doing so, she not only saves the Jewish people, she also reverses the original decree against women and is therefore able to rise above Haman and the evil that was introduced into the world in that original sin.
This idea is truly brought home when we look at the punishment that was meted out against the real perpetrator of the original sin, the snake:
Then the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you did this, More cursed shall you be Than all cattle And all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl And dirt shall you eat All the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, And you shall strike at their heel.
What is being referenced when it speaks about the woman and her offspring striking at the snakes head?
This is a revelation of the climax of the Book of Esther, when Esther decrees that Haman, who is connected to the primordial snake and the original sin, should be hung up on a by his “head” from a “tree”! Esther is now the supporter and savior of the Jewish people and at this moment we see the power of the woman being restored to its original holy status, as it was before the sin.
Much has been written about the power of femininity both in the world at large and in Torah literature as well. We are living in an incredible time in history where the world is celebrating the great accomplishments of women. It is truly fascinating when we see that the struggle and emergence of strong, powerful women is woven into the fabric of the Torah, highlighting both the very first story of humanity and the very final book of the Prophets, where the emergence of a strong woman sets the story of humanity back on course and defeating the evil in the world.
by Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum
Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum is the founder and director of The LEV Experience, a Jewish non-profit in the Greater Washington DC area that empowers individuals to find greater meaning, purpose, and possibilities in life by deepening their connection to Jewish wisdom and values.