Queen Esther and Purim:
Female leadership in Jewish national history
International Women's Day was held in the week before we celebrate the joyous Festival of Purim. The incidental calendar link between the two events is quite appropriate, because at the center of Purim is the celebration of a woman, the legendary heroine Queen Esther who saved the Children of Israel from genocide planned by the evil Haman.
The Bible recognizes many attributes and qualities of Esther. She combines "classic" and much-appreciated feminine attributes - great beauty, sensuality - with other qualities and virtues generally denied to women in ancient times: Esther was brave and intelligent; a genuinely sophisticated strategist who subtly persuades her husband King Achashverosh by transforming the actual danger his Grand Vizier Haman poses to their whole Persian Empire into a personal and intimate threat to the King himself.
In ancient societies and cultures, courage was generally associated exclusively with men. In the Biblical account, Esther is the person who places her own life in danger for her People, builds the plan of salvation and implements it, at least during its first phase. Judaism's recognition of her action is so large that the book of the Bible which narrates the salvation of the Jews in the vast Persian Empire[*] bears her name The Book of Esther, usually known as Megillat Esther ("The Scroll of Esther"), read in synagogues during Maariv and Shacharit prayers on Purim from manuscript scrolls that resemble actual Torah scrolls.
In an era in which Gender Studies are so popular in Western academia, it is appropriate to celebrate the millenniums-old traditional recognition of women in our Jewish sources. It is not just that women have been important personalities in our foundational books, from the Matriarchs (Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah) to Miriam in the Torah, or Yael and Hannah in the Books of the Prophets. It is much more "revolutionary" when qualities typically attributed to male personalities are also recognized in women leaders, such as courage and strategic thinking. We know well the courage of Yehoshua, Shimshon and King David, and the analytical thinking and leadership of Moshe, Shlomo and Ezra. The Bible reminds us that even 2,500 years ago, our People also venerates people like warrior priestess Devorah, the Prophetess Chuldah, and of course, our heroine, the central figure in the happiest Celebration in the Hebrew Calendar, Esther.
When we dress up, cheer as we listen to the reading of the Megillah and celebrate another joyous Purim this year, let us remember that the history of the Jewish Nation was forged by the actions of women and men who secured our future as a People; their legacy is that we are a nation restored, living today in our National Home.
May we meet in joy, in delight, in celebration, appreciating this glorious present in which we are blessed to live as a rebuilt Nation.
Let's all enjoy this Purim. We have much to celebrate!
With best wishes,
Chag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Carlos A. Tapiero
Deputy Director-General & Director of Education
Maccabi World Union
[*] 127 provinces, Esther I, 1: "Now it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh...which reigned from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces."