We don’t often think about Vashti. She has only a small walk-on part, but it is well to remember were it not for her brazen refusal to do her king and husband’s will, Esther could never have countered wicked Haman and his plot to destroy us all. In modern Persian, Vashti’s name means ‘goodness’, but linguists posit that it means ‘best of women’.
There is dispute in the Midrash over her status before her marriage but in any case she as the scion of the licentious Babylonian court. One midrash tells us when Belshazzar died, Vashti took refuge with Darius, who married her to his son. These are interesting stories relating to women’s power, one teaching us that the king and the queen were equals, thus explaining her sense that she could defy his will to display herself at his banquet, another, even more powerful, teaching us that she was his superior.
The Midrash Panim Rabbim goes further. Vashti is seen as gossipy and boastful. She has enslaved Jewish women and compels them to work on Shabbat. Her comeuppance is when she is told to show herself off to the other men, and she is degraded.
The Gemara in Megillah 12b talks of how the menfolk were discussing the most beautiful women in the world, and Achashverosh boasted about Vashti. The other men accepted his offer to show her off as long as she appeared naked.
Midrashim written contemporaneously in Israel show her in another light. Vashti tries to reason with the king by showing how logically displaying her will benefits nobody. He rejects her arguments. These midrashim condemn her nonetheless for opposing the return to Jerusalem.
What happens to Vashti? In the direct narrative she just drops out of the picture. The Midrashim infer that because she is spoken of in the past tense, she must have been executed.
Christians admire Vashti’s ability to withstand the pressure to conform to the king’s command, and with this we can concur. “No” is often a very hard word to say, and Vashti’s short response gave her a very long time to contemplate her fate.
Zvi Solomons is rabbi of the Jewish Community of Berkshire
in Reading. www.JCoB.org