Am I correct in noticing that Purim features the role of a woman, Esther, as heroine more so than other Jewish holidays? If so, why might this be and what is the message?
Purim is not the only holiday which features a female protagonist. The holiday of Pesach which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt also includes women in the theme of Redemption: The Jewish women in general, and the midwives in particular, who defied Pharaoh’s decree, are considered an instrumental part of the salvation. Similarly, Chanukah extols the role of Yehudit, alongside her father and brothers, the Maccabees, in overcoming the oppressive Greek enemy. And many other holidays and important events also feature women in prominent roles.
Nevertheless, it seems you are correct in observing that the Purim story features a woman, Esther, as the prime role and the major character through which salvation was achieved for the Jewish People. Thus it is worth exploring why that might be, and what the message is.
The Talmud (Megilla 11a) states: “Reish Lakish would introduce his discourses on the Book of Esther with the following verse, ‘Like a roaring lion and a ravenous bear, so is the wicked ruler over a destitute people’ (Pr. 28:15). When the verse says, ‘a roaring lion’, it refers to Nevuchadnezzar; ‘a ravenous bear’ refers to Achashverosh; the ‘wicker ruler’ is Haman; and ‘a destitute people’ is the Jewish People, who were destitute of mitzvot”.
Nevuchadnezzar’s ferocious roar is described in the verse, “Whoever does not bow down and serve the idol will be cast into a raging, fiery furnace” (Dan. 3:6). It was from fear of this that Israel bowed down to the idol of Nevuchadnezzar during the earlier Babylonian period.
Achashverosh is referred to as a ravenous bear since he presided over the voracious consumption at the feasts of which he commanded that “all the people in Shushan (that is the Jewish People) the capital, be gathered for the feast” (Esther 1:5). He thus ensnared them into transgressing in this gluttony.
These two sins – bowing out of fear to the statue of Nevuchadnezzar and partaking of the hedonistic feasts in deference to Achashverosh – made the Jews destitute of mitzvot, thus enabling Haman to rule over them, because of their guilt in these two sins.
Rabbi Moshe Alshech, in his commentary on the Megilla, notes that since the Jews were liable for these two separate sins, G‑d sent two separate redeemers, Mordecai and Esther. Israel was protected from each of these sins through the merit of a redeemer. And through the combined efforts and merits of Mordechai and Esther, the complete redemption was achieved.
The Alshech further elaborates that since Mordechai was the one who cried out in the streets, exhorting the Jews to keep away from the banquet, it was he who protected against the sin of the feast. And thus it was Esther’s merit which protected against the sin of the idol.
But of the two redeemers, Mordechai and Esther, why was it specifically Esther, a woman, who shielded the Jewish People from the very severe transgression of idolatry?
This is because, unlike the Jewish men, Jewish women always repudiated idol worship. As such, they did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. And for this reason, the miraculous salvation of the Jewish People in the Purim story was wrought specifically through Esther’s replacing the idolatrous Queen Vashti, granddaughter of Nevuchadnezzar, thereby uprooting idolatrous influence over Israel, as befitting a righteous Jewish woman!