Vashti’s Pimples

February 14, 2018

Mishenichnas Adar, when Adar begins, we increase many things. Rejoicing, for sure. And practical preparations for Purim, naturally: we’re choosing costumes and mishloach manot themes (or non-themes; no judgment here!), we’re planning our seudot, and we’re scheduling our Megilah readings. And of course, we’re teaching our children the story of Purim.

Too often, we’re teaching them that Vashti disobeyed Achashverosh’s summons because she had pimples. This detail of the story is so widely taught that I recently saw someone express shock that her students had been taught other details of the story but not that one, as if it was a major deficiency in their education. She went on to report that she had quickly moved to correct the problem. Because of course, every Jew must learn about Vashti’s pimples!

So close, I thought. One more classroom full of young, impressionable children that almost escaped being told this detail – but alas, they were “saved” from their ignorance.

Why does the spread of this bit of Torah learning get to me so much? Well, for one thing, I have seen no indication that it is Torah. The text of Megillat Esther offers no explicit reason for Vashti’s refusal to come to Achashverosh’s party. If we turn to midrash, the Gemara in Megillah 12b mentions two physical anomalies that may have suddenly appeared and held her back: tzaraat or a tail. I have not found any midrash that mentions “pimples” in this story; while tzaraat certainly is a skin affliction, I have also never seen any suggestion that it is identical with acne.

Why, then, are so many teachers so dedicated to telling their students this detail of Vashti’s complexion, if it’s not in Tanach or in midrash? I can only presume that it arose from an attempt to make the midrash more relatable. Four-year-olds don’t really know what tzaraat is, but they can certainly draw a lovely picture of Vashti with pimples to bring home for the fridge.

This, however, is exactly the (second) reason I think it should be abundantly clear that it is a mistake to teach young children that Vashti had pimples: precisely because they are so relatable. Virtually every four-year-old who learns that Vashti was too embarrassed to be seen with pimples, will one day develop some real-life acne. And as if the preteen years weren’t inherently awkward and embarrassing enough, we have now ensured that long before the first appearance of the first spot, every Jewish child will be primed to be embarrassed by this entirely natural – and often unavoidable, at least without expensive and even unpleasant treatments – phenomenon. Every child growing into adolescence will have learned that those spots are a good reason to be embarrassed to be seen.

Lest it seem that I am making a mountain out of a pimple, I will share the following remarkably cringe-worthy anecdote from a friend. Her preschool daughter came one week excited to share what she had learned about Purim at the Shabbos table – a Shabbos table attended by her three preteen sisters and two of their preteen friends. The younger sister was showing off a set of Purim characters she had made at school, and began telling the story by pointing out each one, including emphasizing the pimples on Vashti’s face. She then began to assign parts to each person at the table, for a little spontaneous role-playing. In a stroke of relative good fortune for all involved, she chose her mother to be Vashti – “because you have pimples on your face” – rather than one of her sisters or their friends. Despite her parents’ attempts to curtail the situation in various ways, the young stage director kept repeating “you have pimples on your face, so you are not going to the party.” Because that’s what she had learned. And that’s what her sisters and their friends had to keep hearing – that “pimples on face” leads to “didn’t go to the party.” And that’s what she herself would grow up to associate, regardless of any damage control her parents might attempt. We all know the power of a preschool teacher to shape a child’s perspective!

As the mother in this all too real anecdote pointed out in an email to the school, “Pimples are real things that many people have, and that these kids will very likely have one day as well. Introducing such young children to pimples, and presenting them as something that means you do not go to parties, demonstrates a remarkable lack of common sense.”

I, too, have spoken to teachers and administrators of various early childhood programs multiple times about this lack of common sense and the potential damage caused by teaching that Vashti had pimples. Less remarkably, they have agreed with me; after all, it is only common sense. Yet, year after year it persists: even in schools where the administration has assured me that they would speak to the teachers and leave out the pimples, I have seen kids coming home the very next year having learned about it all over again. Many teachers just seem unable to give up on Vashti and her pimples.

Why is it so hard? This brings us to an issue that is broader and more fundamental to the ways in which we teach our children the stories of Tanach, and the third reason I believe we should think twice before teaching even what the Gemara actually does say about why Vashti didn’t want to go.

Somehow, over the centuries, certain midrashic details have become ingrained in our communal consciousness to the point that we cannot separate them from the text. How many of us have been surprised, as we got older and read the pesukim for ourselves, to find that the Torah says nothing about Avraham smashing his father’s idols or debating with Nimrod? Or to discover that Bat Pharoh’s Go-Go-Gadget arm is not in the text? These details are so widely taught that they are assumed to be an integral part of the Torah, even though they are not actually there. And unfortunately, we have reached a point at which they are often taught automatically, with little or no thought to why the midrash says what it says or how best to convey its message to a particular audience.

It is the beauty of midrashic tradition that midrashic details are not included explicitly in the text of Tanach, but are arrived at through a process of questioning and uncovering hints in textual anomalies. When we remove that process, teaching the midrashic details just like any part of the Biblical story without considering the distinction and relationship between the two, we risk destroying an integral piece of our beautiful midrashic heritage.

Why does the Gemara suggest that Vashti had either tzaraat or a tail? The Gemara itself tells us: because Chazal had determined just above, from the location of Vashti’s party for the women, that she was as interested in licentiousness as was her husband. It is only because of that characterization that the Gemara then raises the question: If she shared that interest, why would she not consent to appear before the king and his party? It could only be because of something terribly embarrassing – like pimples! – no, like sudden tzaraat or a tail, both of which are much less typical, and therefore more embarrassing, than pimples.

If we are not teaching our four-year-olds about sexual promiscuity, as I hope we are not, then there is no real need to follow up with a discussion of what could possibly have overcome that inclination. We do it because this is one of those details we tend to forget isn’t actually in the pesukim, so widely has it been taught. I wonder, though, what would happen if we simply told them “Vashti didn’t want to go.” And maybe the students would then ask, “Why?” And maybe we would ask them, “Why do you think she would or would not have wanted to?” Young children are capable of a great deal of deep thought, if we give them a chance. Maybe they will come up with suggestions that enhance their own understandings of Vashti and of the Purim story. (Remember that even within midrashic tradition, the tzaraat/tail approach is not the only possibility.) And maybe we could even steer the conversation to the idea that Hashem orchestrated events so that Esther would end up in a position to help her people. We may or may not mention the tail, or the terrible rash all over her body – not because they make good projects, but as Chazal’s suggestions as to the means by which Hashem orchestrated events.

Because ultimately, that is the point. Midrashic tradition exists to uncover the hints and allusions between the lines and reveal depths of meaning which might not otherwise have been apparent from the text. In this case, the form of the interpretation is remarkably similar to the content of the message: delving into questions of Vashti’s character, and why she didn’t want to go, help reveal indications of hashgacha even though we don’t see Hashem’s presence in the Megillah explicitly. There is a lot of potential for important learning here, with or without turning to midrash, and we need to give serious thought to which midrashic details we will choose to teach, at what age, and for what educational purpose.

Certainly, these questions of chinuch require more thought than simply providing a silly word to giggle about (“Pimples! Hee hee!”) or an easy embellishment to a project. And certainly, the thought we put into our teaching of midrash must include accuracy regarding what the midrashim actually say, as well as forethought as to how a midrash, conveyed in a particular way at a particular stage of development, will enhance or detract from our children’s growth.



The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.