Death of a Queen

The opening chapter of the Purim Megillah is strikingly enigmatic.

The story in brief: The Emperor of Persia, Ahasuerus, throws a party in his capital city of 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 is furious and, after a consultation with his advisors, he has her executed.

Why did Vashti refuse to appear before the guests?

Why did Vashti refuse to appear before the guests? The Talmud explains that when Ahasuerus offered to show them his wife's beauty, the guests insisted that she appear without any clothes. (Megillah 12b) Vashti, a wicked queen who found special glee in torturing and violating Jewish girls and women on the Sabbath day, had been punished with leprosy, and 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!

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 Ahasuerus, nonetheless, the detailed description of the event that brought about Vashti's execution seems superfluous in the story of Purim.

The Face of Evil

The Talmud explains that Vashti sent her husband humiliating messages, thus kindling his wrath to an extreme. (ibid. Quoted in Esther 1:12, Rashi) The following is the mystical interpretation of the story, as presented in the writings of Chassidism.

In the Kabbalah and Chassidic spirituality, where all biblical figures and episodes are depicted also as parables for metaphysical realities, Ahasuerus, the mighty monarch of a world power, serves as a parable for the King of Kings, the Creator of the universe; Vashti, the wicked queen of Persia, symbolizes the reign of evil in the world 1.

The term for evil in Kabbalah is "kelipa," a shell or a husk. Naked evil has no ability to exist, never mind a power to attract. In order for evil to exist and to gain popularity among the masses, it must be "packaged" well; it must be "dressed" in nice garments that will cover up its ugly face.

The inventors and implementers of brutal massacres usually present their schemes as ethical and humane programs.

Take as an example the two evil monsters of the last century, Hitler and Stalin. Both of them presented their colossal murderous strategies as moral and noble endeavors dedicated to healing the world of its diseases. They were thus embraced by millions, creating the bloodiest century in human history. This was true throughout all of history: The inventors and implementers of brutal massacres usually present their schemes as ethical and humane programs.

This is valid concerning the evil we perpetrate in our personal lives as well. Many of the destructive and immoral temptations we feel in our heart are welcomed by us 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 teaches2 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.

The Clothes Have No Emperor

This is how Jewish mysticism understands the symbolism behind the opening story of the Megillah: 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. It perishes.

War In Israel

The above mentioned insight, culled from a teaching of the great spiritual master the Baal Shem Tov3 sadly reflects the nature of the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

Sixty years ago, Arab leaders created in their minds a plan of enormous evil: to exterminate the Jews living in the Land of Israel. The Arab nations initiated six wars against Israel, and the PLO charter still calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.

Arab leaders learned skillfully to package this program of destruction in a garb of morality and justice.

Yet as all faithful representatives of evil must do, Arab leaders learned skillfully to package this program of destruction in a garb of morality and justice. For example, "granting three million refugees the right to return to their homes," or "liberating ancient Palestinian land from an alien conqueror," sound like meritorious things to do.

If gunning down eight yeshiva students or blowing up a bus in Tel Aviv were presented as an attempt to kill as many Jewish men, women and children as possible — as it is indeed designated to do — it would not sell well with the world.

But when it is exhibited as "an expression of deep frustration coming from an oppressed people," the act of sheer and horrific evil assumes a sophisticated veneer.

The sad thing in all of this is that many Jews, in their earnest craving for peace, passionately embrace the masked story of the Arab leaders. By Israel deceiving itself that evil is not evil and hate is not hate, it empowers the evil and gives it additional momentum, causing the deaths of innumerable Jews and Arabs. Making peace with evil could never work, for the evil only comes back to haunt and destroy you.

If Israel would once and for all acknowledge the evil that exists in its midst and treat it as such, thousands of lives — on both sides — would be saved.

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