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Most of us perceive Achashverosh as a character who was manipulated by Haman. This, however, is only one approach to Achashverosh. Chazal (Megilla 12a) argue as to whether Achashverosh was shrewd or a fool. A major question facing readers of Megillat Esther is whether Haman was manipulating Achashverosh or vice versa. Unlike Esther and Mordechai, who clearly are tzadikim, and Haman is undoubtedly a rasha, we are unsure regarding Achashverosh.

The Gemara (Megilla 13b) cites Rava who states that “no one was as skilled at lashon hara [slander] as was Haman,” meaning that Haman was a master manipulator. Rava interprets Haman’s speech to Achashverosh (Esther 3:8) as convincing him to view the Jews as a threat to his kingdom who could be eliminated without threatening his rule.

Haman begins the conversation, saying, “Let’s eliminate them [the Jews].” Achashverosh responds, “I am afraid of their God.” Haman, in turn, says, “They neglect the mitzvot,” and their God will not save them. Achashverosh responds that their rabbis, though, observe the mitzvot faithfully. Haman responds, “They are one nation,” and their rabbis will not save them. Haman then explains that since the Jews are scattered throughout the empire, their elimination will not create a vacuum.

Haman continues that Achashverosh should not be concerned that the empire benefits from the Jews, because they are comparable to mules that do not produce any offspring. Haman then tells Achashverosh not to be concerned about an entire area in which there is a large concentration of Jews (who could resist an extermination plan), since they are spread throughout the kingdom.

Haman then tells Achashverosh that the Jews do not eat with the Persians nor intermarry with them. Haman adds that the Jews do not honor the king’s rules, as they always have some sort of excuse for why that they cannot work, such as by claiming that “today is Shabbat” or “today is Pesach.”

Haman concludes his speech by telling Achashverosh that he should destroy the Jews because they disgrace the king. Haman explained, “If a fly falls into a Jew’s wine, he removes the fly and drinks the remaining liquid. If, however, the king would touch the wine of a Jew, the Jew would stamp the goblet into the ground and not drink the wine.”

Rava presents for us a portrait of Achashverosh as a fool who was manipulated by Haman to annihilate the Jews.

The Gemara (Megilla 14a) continues, citing Rabi Abba’s alternative analysis of Achashverosh. He presents a mashal (analogy) that illuminates Achashverosh’s thinking and tactics. He tells a story of two field owners, one who had a big mound of dirt in his field and one who had a big ditch in his field. The one who had the ditch admired the big mound of dirt and wished he could purchase the mound of dirt to fill his ditch. The one who had the mound of dirt wished to purchase the ditch in order to dispose of his dirt. One day the two field owners met and the ditch owner asked if he could purchase the mound of dirt. The individual who owned the mound, in turn, enthusiastically urged the ditch owner to take the mound free of charge.

Haman is analogous to the ditch owner and Achashverosh can be compared to the individual who owned the mound, as Haman was missing something and Achashverosh had something he wanted to dispose of. Haman wished to eliminate us, but he lacked the authority to do so. Achashverosh, on the other hand, wished to do away with the Jews but was unwilling to do so himself. He feared profoundly negative consequences if his plan backfired. When Haman offered to annihilate the Jews, Achashverosh allowed him to execute his plan. If the plan backfired, Haman would take the blame and Achashverosh could emerge unscathed. According to Rabi Abba, Achashverosh is an evil individual who brilliantly manipulated Haman.

Both approaches to Achashverosh teach very sobering lessons for today’s less-than-ideal circumstances. The opinion that he was a fool is quite frightening, as it teaches that at times foolish individuals assume positions of great responsibility. Such leaders can be easily manipulated by corrupt advisers who guide the leader solely with the aim of advancing their own agendas.

On the other hand, the opinion that Achashverosh was shrewd presents a sobering message. The Megilla ends with Achashverosh still in power. Thus, a powerful individual who desires to destroy us remains on the throne of the Persian Empire. Moreover, it teaches that we need be concerned for not only the Hamans of this world, but of the Achashveroshes as well. Unfortunately, there are many Achashveroshes in the world who wish for the Jews to be eliminated but do not want to assume the risk entailed in doing so. They do not actively seek to harm us, but if another assumes the risk in doing so, they support him and might even cooperate with him if they feel it is safe.

The ambiguity regarding the character of Achashverosh is, much to our chagrin, quite relevant today. The same uncertainty applies to anti-Israel bias. It is unclear if anti-Israel spokesmen are fools who are duped by anti-Israel propaganda or if they harbor a deep-seated hatred of the Jewish nation and therefore lend support to our enemies.

The Gemara (Megilla 14a), after presenting the opinions of Rava and Rabi Abba, discusses why we do not recite Hallel on Purim like on our other celebratory days such as Chanukah. The Gemara’s last answer is that “we remain slaves of Achashverosh.” We omit Hallel on Purim because the Purim story does not have a completely happy ending. Although Haman was removed from power, Achashverosh was not. We Jews must exercise caution and not be naïve; we must beware of the Achashveroshes of this world as well as the Hamans.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

 Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

 

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