The modesty of slutty butterflies

"Since when did Purim become a holiday of girls dressing up as slutty butterflies?" a friend asked this week. It''s a good question. Young women, teenaged and up, have been running around Tel Aviv this week dressed in really, really short skirts, bright tutus, a colorful wig, a low cut kind of bodice, and butterfly or fairy wings strapped to their backs.


Men''s heads have been turning all week as the slutty butterflies flitted down the street. While the decent and respectable thing would be to avert the eyes, it''s hard to blame them. Bright colors and short skirts can make a bumblebee out of even the most respectable fellow.


In Jerusalem, the costumes are a tad less racy. Long robes and occasionally a red (yes, red -- an exception can be made for the Festival of Lots) strimel, I''m told. Some haredim dress their children as secular soldiers, as the secular soldiers dress themselves as haredim. Everyone is mixed up, as per instruction.


But the question of the slutty butterflies is a bit of a conundrum. Are these young ladies dressing up as their social opposites, like the haredim and the soldiers do? Or maybe they''re simply taking an opportunity to let loose and fulfill a naive fantasy -- of being "cute but sexy," ultimately desirable but totally blameless.


Or is there another explanation? In the US, the daughters of Jews often dress up as Queen Esther. In a show of royal modesty, flowing silk robes and maybe even an exotic Persian veil make up the costume.


But Esther was no mere coquette. She had entered herself into the service of the king''s harem. There, she followed the instructions of Hegai, the "keeper of the women," and in doing so ingratiated herself to the master of the king''s harem. She received special favor from Hegai, favors of priority but also of dress, of ointments and oils that would make her more appealing in the eye of fickle Ahashverosh.


When Esther finally came to the king, it was not as a blushing bride. "If he wanted to find in her the taste of a virgin, he found it; if the taste of a married woman, he found it," says the Megilah of our heroine. It seems that Esther knew more than just how to flit around the eyes of men, and was not shy about doing so.


Despite all this, Purim can be as a celebration of modesty. Esther''s rise to the station of queen was guided by Mordechai, who all along the way told her do this but not that. And Mordechai''s own struggle to power was guided by his service to his people -- not to himself. He did not seek out power for its own sake, but for the sake of his fellow Jews.


Yoram Hazony illustrates in The Dawn that, in this, Mordechai was the opposite, the moral and political counterbalance to the evil of Haman, for whom power was an instrument to shape the world in his own image -- which is the essence of idolatry.


For Mordechai, power was a means of ensuring the life of a people whose existence is proof of God''s covenant. Without his belief that the wellbeing of the Jewish people was more important than his own, Mordechai would never have risked angering an already paranoid king and his bloodthirsty vizier. And without faith in the reality of the covenant, he may not have had the confidence to undertake what he did.


In this, there is a supreme modesty. But the modesty of Esther goes beyond even this. After becoming queen, she does not remain a passive doll in the hands of men. She affirms her own belief, and for the sake of her people takes risks more daring than even those of Mordechai, eventually going so far as to transgress the king''s law by approaching the court unsummoned in order to subvert Haman.


In her earlier wantonness, Esther had performed her part. The adopted daughter of a righteous man, it''s not likely that she enjoyed it. There is modesty in this too, even without the redemption that comes with the rescue of her people and affirmation of her faith.


So the girls of Tel Aviv dress up more like Esther than they realize. On this holiday, which allows for, not licentiousness, but the appearance of it, the question of modesty is not about the costume that is donned but the lives that are lived. Hopefully, they are lives made modest by the love of their people -- and the meaning that love entails.