Recovering the Lost Sisterhood of Vashti & Esther

A resource for educators

Silhouettes of two friends sitting on a stone wall chatting during the sunset.

This discussion guide invites students to create feminist Midrash by considering: What if Esther and Vashti from the Purim story had met and were in a community together?

Read the following aloud:

As you know, in the Purim story as told in Megilat Esther, we meet two queens: Esther and Vashti.

Often we talk about who the better queen or the better feminist was. But today let’s explore something else: what if Esther and Vashti had a chance to be in a community together? Vashti, the leader who says no, I’m leaving, I’m in charge of my own body. I’m willing to risk everything for what I know to be right. And Esther the leader who takes her time, considers her choices and how to stay safe, calls upon her community for support, and leads her people to safety.

What could they have learned from each other?

Questions like these are part of the Jewish feminist practice of Midrash (another way to think of it is biblical fan fiction). Midrash challenges us to expand upon and reinterpret stories, giving a voice to the voiceless or mostly voiceless characters – often women.

Imagine that during Esther’s fast, when she was facing the biggest decision of her life – whether or not to risk death and confront the King to plead for her people,  she got in touch with Vashti or Vashti came to visit her.

In that moment, how might Vashti have helped Esther prepare to make change? How might their differences have helped sharpen each other’s activism?

  • If Vashti visited Esther during her fast, what might their conversation sound like? What advice would Vashti have given Esther? What do you think Esther would have said to Vashti? (You might invite teens to reflect on this through writing out or roleplaying a script of what the conversation would sound like, or by visually depicting the scene through a drawing or collage.)
  • If Esther and Vashti were to meet and talk, what do you think they would learn from one another?
  • What stands out to you about both Esther and Vashti’s leadership?
  • When you think of your own personality, activism and/or leadership style, do you feel you are more like Vashti or Esther? Why?
  • When might it be beneficial to think carefully before acting, and when might it be better to act quickly?
  • When have you worked with or been in a community with someone with different experiences, perspectives, or identities from yours? What was that like? What did you learn from them? What might they have learned from you?
  • Who are some modern day Esthers and Vashtis?
  • In what ways does it feel different or the same for you to stand up for your rights as a Jew and your rights as a teen, as a feminist or feminist ally, as an LGBTQ+ person or ally, as a person of color or anti-racist ally?

Note: Here are a few pieces of the story that are important for understanding these two women. Depending on your educational context, you may want to share this or just have students use the actual megillah text.

We meet Vashti at the beginning of the story. Her husband, the King Ahasuerus of Shushan (which is in modern day India to Ethiopia) threw a huge party to display his riches.  He got really drunk and asked his servants to get his wife (Vashti) to appear before him in her crown (in some interpretations JUST her crown, so naked). Vashti said no. Ahasuerus got angry and banished Vashti. In some interpretations he had her killed.

Then, Ahashuerus put on a beauty pageant to choose the new queen and chose Esther, whose foster-father Mordechai told her to keep her Jewish identity a secret. When Haman, a man high up in the government planned to kill all the Jews, Mordechai asked Esther for help. Esther said, “I can’t! Anyone who goes to the king unsummoned gets sentenced to death.” Mordechai reminded Esther that her life was in danger too. Perhaps, Mordechai said, it was destiny that she was in a place of power to respond to this crisis.  After consideration, Esther asked Mordechai to assemble all the Jews in Shushan to fast for three days on her behalf. On the third day, she confronted the king, revealed she was Jewish and saved the Jews of Shushan.