Getty Images// Children in the Philippines protest against sex trafficking
In the Purim story, Vashti’s expulsion, we know, is the result of her refusal to present herself before King Achashverosh. The text is ambiguous about the reason for her refusal, leaving much room for modern-day, feminist interpretation. Perhaps Vashti did not appreciate being summoned, did not want to be paraded around in front of the king and his presumably inebriated friends. Maybe she did not want to be put on display, appreciated solely for her body. Or conceivably, as commentators have suggested, Vashti did not want to be forced to appear in her crown and only her crown. we read the text through this contemporary lens, we commend Vashti, admiring her for preserving her dignity and remaining true to herself. We marvel at her choice to refuse the king given the high price she had to pay — losing her title, her husband, and her royal home, and who knows, maybe even her life — all to send the unequivocal message to her husband that no one could force her to put her body on display. It’s as if we wish we were sitting with Vashti as she received the king’s request, commiserating with her about the king’s chutzpah to even ask such a thing.
Nevertheless, in our own day, we struggle to support girls and women (and let’s not forget boys and men) who are being asked, as we imagine Vashti was, to put a price on their bodies and on their sexuality. We know that every day in the United States and abroad, women — including Jewish women — are forced, lied and coerced into selling their bodies. Though the prevalence of trafficking is difficult to approximate, the United States Department of State estimates that there are as many as 27 million victims of labor and sex trafficking worldwide. One study presents a conservative estimate that 100,000 American minors are trafficked for sex each year.
Through this crime of sex trafficking, women are beaten, raped, humiliated, and paraded around from one john to the next. As a result of profound isolation and sustained psychological torture, many lose their connection to the outside world and their conviction to say no. Even if they maintain a desire to escape, most victims have severely limited options. If they leave, where would they sleep, what would they eat, who would take care of them, and how would they and their families truly escape the reach of their traffickers?
Let’s not forget that our contemporary culture — as well as our imagined depiction of the time that Achashverosh and Vashti lived in — allows men (and sometimes women) to make such requests of other human beings. In the Megilah, just as soon as Vashti is out the door, Achashverosh is sorting through a new batch of women. In fact, the modern-day trafficker’s/pimp’s so-called “stable” of women is uncomfortably reminiscent of Achashverosh’s vast harem. When women are seen as commodities, they can be discarded when deemed overpriced, burdensome or beyond their useful shelf life. In fact, the Jewish people’s survival in Megilat Esther hinges on the fact that Achashverosh did not similarly banish Esther when she acted indecorously.
Seeing Megilat Esther as a call to examine contemporary societal and cultural dynamics serves to explain why this Megilah is included in the canon despite the absence of God’s name and of overtly religious material. Through the Megilah we are compelled to consider the godliness in our relationships rather than outside them. It is thus so telling that the mitzvot at the conclusion of the Megilah — matanot l’evyonim, mishloach manot, mishte v’simcha (feast and happiness) — are not only mitzvot that sidestep God but they are mitzvot that require community and the participation of more than one person. True observance of these mitzvot requires us to look at other people, to notice their suffering, and to help bring all of us m’evel l’yom tov, from mourning to celebration.
Instead of waiting until Passover to revive our abolitionist spirit, this Purim let us not be blind to suffering as Achashverosh, his princes and even Esther may have been. Let us truly “see” Vashti for the victim she was and may this open our eyes to the devastating realities that exist in every part of the world and in our own backyards. Inspired by Vashti’s heroism, let us instill the values of personal control of our bodies, deep love and appreciation of ourselves, and earnest respect for and commitment to all of God’s creations.
Countless organizations are working to end both international and domestic sex trafficking. A few notable organizations that are trying to rehabilitate victims and to combat sex trafficking through advocacy and legislative change are: End Child Prostitution & Trafficking, Polaris Project, Free the Slaves and the JCCA’s Gateways Program.
Hadar Schwartz, MA is a Ph.D. candidate in City College’s Subprogram in Clinical Psychology and is writing her dissertation on the psychological effects of sex trafficking on domestic minor victims.
The Modern Day Vashtis