I need help navigating the perils of Purim! I do not like Purim. I find it to be a very troublesome holiday. Just about everything involved in the story and the celebration is distasteful to me, but two issues in particular have begun to stand out and bother me lately.
First, I am put off by the drinking that goes on during the Purim celebrations. Second, I am very disturbed by the position the Megillah takes in regard to women. There are two queens in the story: Vashti and Esther. Vashti behaves as any strong woman might. She holds her own, while Esther seductively uses her feminine wiles. Vashti is banished and Esther is glorified. This is supposedly a happy and festive occasion -- the food, the dressing up, the parties -- but I just can't get into the fun mood because of my concerns. Please help!
These are two very good issues to investigate, and I thank you for raising them.
Let's start with the drinking: I too am very put off by the alcohol ingestion. The matter of substance abuse is of great concern, given our time and the challenges we all face in this regard. Drinking and the losing control of one's rationality seems contrary to everything we usually expect from Judaism, so you are justified in being disturbed.
Let's take a look at the sources for the custom of drinking on Purim. The first indication that drinking might be a part of the celebration is the Megillah itself. Notice the number of times that drinking parties occur. From start to finish, with several more in between, I can count a total of eight drinking parties. The imbibing is all-pervasive. The story, and thus the miracle, unfold through the raising of the cup. This may be the origin of the drinking practice, but it is usually a passage from the Talmud that is the source offered for why we drink on Purim.
In the Tractate Megillah 7b, we are told that Raba said, "It is the duty of a man to mellow himself with wine on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordecai.'"
Here it is spelled out. You've got a duty to get drunk on Purim, drunk enough to not be able to tell good from evil, friend from foe or hero from enemy. Though no explanation is provided, there is a clearly a tradition to get intoxicated on Purim. Yet the Talmud does not stop there, interestingly. The passage continues with a remarkable anecdote: Rabah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabah arose and cut Rabbi Zera's throat.
On the next day Rabah prayed on Rabbi Zera's behalf and revived him. The next year, Rabah said, "Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together?"
"A miracle does not take place on every occasion," a suspicious Rabbi Zera replied.
The plot thickens. Though we are enjoined to drink on Purim, it's interesting that the text follows the injunction with a cautionary tale, as if to say, here's what happens when you get drunk on Purim -- rabbis have been known to cut each others throats! Though he is invited back to Rabah's Purim celebration, Rabbi Zera's circumspectly begs off.
Ultimately, the Talmudic directive to be inebriated on Purim is tempered significantly by the sobering tale of the accidental death. Rabbi Zera came back to life. But like Rabbi Zera says, none of us can count on a miracle.
Drinking leads to dangerous behavior that may cause loss of life. In our own times there have been specific instances of tragic accidental deaths on Purim. Hence, I am absolutely and indeed vehemently opposed to getting drunk on Purim. To become dangerously inebriated is a misinterpretation the tradition.
It is always interesting to me how many people suddenly become pious and scrupulous about observing Jewish tradition when it comes to this tradition of getting drunk on Purim! Where is that zeal when it comes to other, more sober practices of Purim, such as gifts to the poor and the inclusion of the less fortunate at your celebration? A more palatable practice is suggested by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the Code of Jewish law: to fulfill the requirement of not knowing the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai," drink a small amount of wine and then doze off. Would it not be momentous if all Jewish leaders were to actively encourage their constituencies to refrain from intoxication on Purim?
Now, on to your Megillah issue: the differences concerning the behaviors of Vashti and Esther is a weighty one. It indeed seems puzzling that our Esther behaves the way she does. After all, whose conduct would you want your daughter to embrace -- Vashti, who confidently stands up to the king and refuses to comply to his request, which the Midrash views as being of a particularly unsavory nature? Or would you want your daughter instead to emulate Esther, who takes advantage of her beauty to cleverly entice Achashverosh to save her people?
It's not an easy choice. Esther does not stand alone in her employment of feminine wiles, however. She is joined by Tamar of Genesis, Yael of the Book of Judges and Judith of the Hanukkah story. Sometimes extreme situations need extreme actions. This should never be our first line of defense, but charm and allure most definitely have a place in the arsenal.
Keep in mind that Esther's actions involved deep sacrifice on her part. Though we are led to believe as children that Esther willingly participated in the "beauty pageant" to become the queen, as adults we become more aware of the not-so-pretty circumstances that resulted in her becoming the wife of Achashverosh. The text tells us in Hebrew "vatelachach" -- Esther was taken, that is, by force.
She was not a willing participant, until she had to take action and voluntarily offer herself to the king in order to save her people. Esther was in a precarious situation, and placed there against her will. She behaved heroically considering her dire circumstances. Though she starts off quiet and subdued, Esther finds her voice and summons up the courage to ingeniously save her people. That, I feel, is what we need to teach our daughters. I hope that this has helped get you into the Purim mood. If not, try a few hamantaschen!