Dear New Queen,
If you are reading this, I am long gone. I left the palace behind. I may have even left Shushan. I’m not sure where I will be when you receive this letter, but I’m far away from the king, his ministers, and a life that was never mine. Wherever I am, my story is now my own. I am free.
My name is Vashti. The king sent me away because I refused to dance at his party. As a child, I loved dancing. I spun barefoot circles with my mother and her sisters. My palace was in her arms, her stories were in my ears, and her song was my heartbeat. When I think of dancing, I think of my mother, even though she is long gone too.
I’m sure they told you the story. On the seventh day of his banquet, the king’s eunuchs came to fetch me from the women’s quarters. We’d had seven days without those men–without the alcohol on their breath, without their hands, greasy with food. Over that week, the women in that room shared our own stories and learned each other’s songs. The animosity between us melted as our own words returned us to ourselves. When the eunuchs arrived on Shabbat, we were at our tisch–our table. I was happy to dance. I just didn’t want to dance for him.
I suppose at this point you’re accusing, “A queen who prefers the company of women to the company of her king?! A queen should yearn for her king’s praises!” And you’re right. But I never wanted to be a queen. I only wanted to be Vashti.
The fear that rippled through the kingdom because I wanted to be Vashti! The horror. The rage. The king’s ministers worried my refusal would lead all other women to refuse their husbands too! If the bond that ties husband and wife is so delicate a thread, that no one dare tread upon it, for fear of breaking – perhaps the edict was necessary. Banish me, so women stay with their husbands. Banish me, so women witness my punishment. Banish me, so women fear what their husbands have feared all along: loneliness, separation, isolation. These fears are part of my story too.
I came to the palace as a captive. My great-grandfather was King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. My grandfather was King Amel-Marduk. My father was King Belshazzar. During my father’s rule, Persians attacked my father’s palace. I was a child. I ran to my father’s quarters where I found my parents murdered. There was a scream that started in my stomach. King Darius of Shushan kidnapped me, and he handed me, still screaming, to his son – your new husband, Ahasuerus. My story was now written for me.
My dear successor, I don’t know what stories bring you to this place. I don’t know what you are seeking, but I hope you find it. You may learn nothing from my leaving, but I wanted to leave you something besides an empty chamber. I wrote my own story in my own hand, and I leave it now in yours. Do what you wish with it, but if some part of my story is helpful to you in crafting your own, all of this will be worth it. My story matters and yours does too. Your story, mine, and the story of every woman who shares this chamber with you, before you, and after you.
Inscribe it on the doorposts of your heart: You do not have to forget who you are just because you are now the Queen of Shushan. I know this is true because I still know my mother’s song like my own heartbeat. It’s the song that calls me homeward now, as I close this letter and these palace gates behind me.
Blessings on your next chapter, dear one. May your story return to you again and again, as mine has to me, a reminder that your voice alone will be the one to set you free.
Former Queen of Shushan
Heather Paul (she/her/hers) is the assistant director of the Springboard Fellowship at Hillel International and she is a rabbinical student at ALEPH Renewal Seminary. Heather also volunteers as the assistant director for Milton Marks Neuro-Oncology Family Camp, which serves families coping with brain cancer. Heather is an experienced educator, writer, liturgist and ritual designer; find more of Heather’s work on her website, www.scatteredleaves.net.