April 18, 2024
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Why Is Everyone So Angry in Shushan?

A City of Rage

The saga of Megillas Esther was swathed in gripping drama and swirling palace intrigue. Former queens were deposed, and newly-minted ones were crowned. Mid-level bureaucrats were hanged, while royal advisers were promoted to viceroys. Nothing was stable in the political quicksand of Shushan. Here today, gone tomorrow.

The saga was also flooded with powerful and radical emotional swings. The story commences with a half-year-long celebration in the city that never sleeps. The widespread pleasure and delight were quickly replaced by awful terror, as the Jews learnt of the vicious decree and their dreadful fate. Three suspenseful days of pious fasting and fervent prayer triggered a miraculous and sudden turnaround. Within days, our enemies were subdued and Shushan shifted from sorrow into celebration and festivity. The emotional revolutions of this story were acute and extreme.

Unexpectedly, within this emotional storm, the main characters—many of them wise—appeared to act foolishly. Clever leaders succumbed to folly, suffering self-inflicted wounds. King Achashverosh hastily executed his recalcitrant wife, but soon reminisced about his love for her. Had he responded more cautiously to the marital crisis, his beloved wife would still be sitting alongside his throne. Plunged into loneliness, he conducted a nationwide search for a replacement queen. Had he just thought twice before pulling the trigger on his wife’s execution, he would have been less lonely and less desperate.

Haman—the shrewd advisor of the king—can’t seem to get out of his own way. Astonishingly, he constructed the very gallows which will one day snap his own neck. Foolishly, he intruded into the king’s nighttime chambers—inciting against Mordechai—but, in reality, trapped himself in his own lair. Two days later, he rushed headlong into a private royal party which would launch his own execution. The pace of Shushan was maddening, everyone was in a rush and wise men behaved like fools. In this Shakespearean comedy, folly replaces discretion and careless decisions sink the best laid plans of man.

Driven by Anger

The recklessness of Shushan was driven by rage and anger. Fury clouds our better reason and upends balanced decision making. Infuriated by his wife’s insubordination, Achashverosh hurriedly executed her without fully calculating the outcome. Enraged at the sight of a single defiant Jew who refused to bow to him, Haman devised a full-scale genocide to avenge his affront. Upon encountering Mordechai’s insolence a second time, literally hangs himself on a tree. Finally, Achashverosh was thrown into a fit of rage when he perceived Haman molesting Esther, and he rapidly slayed his own trusted advisor.

Anger and rage drove the main characters into foolish acts of self-destruction. Driven to anger, everyone had gone mad.

Angry World

Shushan is still alive today. We inhabit the modern version of that ancient city of anger. We wrestle with road rage, workplace rage and hostile communication. Civil politics have been replaced by toxic politics of anger and retaliation. Why are we always so angry?

Grievance Anger

Haman was a descendant of Esav, who resented his younger brother for usurping his natural title of firstborn. Resentment ran deep in his bloodlines and justified any retaliatory response, including genocide. Haman came from a long line of angry people.

Feeling aggrieved, we become indignant, angered and self-righteously justify moral violations. Perceived victimhood enrages us, paving the way for moral crimes committed in the name of retribution. A year ago, a madman in Russia launched a vicious attack against a peaceful country, because he felt aggrieved. The “unfortunate” collapse of the Soviet Union stripped his country of its natural empire and, to him, the reversal of this injustice justifies the mass murder of innocent civilians and, potentially, the wreckage of his own country. Grievance muddies reason.

Democratic societies are becoming poisoned by the politics of grievance. Democracy raises great expectations which, when unfulfilled, breed frustration and anger. Feeling victimized by lack of political influence, opposition parties and electorates become angry and disenfranchised. When those aggrieved parties re-achieve power, they descend into retaliatory politics. Life, liberty and the pursuit of anger are the inalienable rights of every citizen in the modern city of rage.

Rising Stress Levels

Life moves faster than ever before, and we are all expected to be online, all the time. The endless time demands of modern society leave us with free time for repose and relaxation, and we are left with brittle patience. Living under intense time pressures, we become irritable and impatient when our time is taken either by others or by circumstance.

Ironically, technology and mechanization were meant to provide us with more time, more leisure, more space and greater emotional equanimity. Spared from manual labor, we were meant to lead more balanced and thoughtful lives. Sadly, we are haunted by a productivity paradox in which the introduction of technology has not necessarily boosted our productivity. We have less time available, live with less patience and are less tolerant upon encroachment of our time or space.

The Tree of AI

It is about to get worse. There is a storm brewing, and it is called “artificial intelligence” or “AI.”

Artificial intelligence will cause a seismic shift in our work culture and in our general society. Will the availability of automated intelligence lighten our workload, alleviate our stress and afford us more time for human wisdom and interpersonal relationships? Or, will we continue to spiral into a free fall of stress and limited time availability?

Before eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Chava lived a blissful and quiet life of innocence and serenity. By eating from the forbidden fruit, they acquired more knowledge, thereby wrecking their world and ruined human history. Are we about to take a bite from the modern tree of knowledge called AI? How will it affect us? Unfortunately, we won’t know the answer until we taste the fruit. Of one thing, this is certain—our world will never be the same. There is no turning back and this storm will wash away much of the old order.

Family Life in Shushan

The recklessness in Shushan was even more stunning, because there were no checks and balances against unconstrained anger. Family relationships in Shushan were hierarchical and paternalistic—leaving little room for women to moderate the behavior of their male masters.

At the outset, the king’s advisory board launched a chauvinistic power grab, assigning husbands as the king of the castle, while consigning women to manual labor and obedient submission. Vashti’s interests were irrelevant to the drunk revelers at the king’s bash. Voicing her own independent will, she was quickly liquidated. Esther fared no better as she must solicit her husband for an audience, and even when finally granted an appointment, she must enchant him with her charm and beauty—instead of simply requesting a favor. Unsurprisingly, Shushan, the den of sexual exploitation, doesn’t promote healthy marriages.

Haman’s wife, Zeresh, felt like a cardboard cutout rather than an actual human being. As her husband’s murderous plans developed, she riled his anger—rather than questioning his motives or his conscience. When her husband begins to falter, she ominously warns him of the impending disaster. At no point do any of the men receive stable or steadying input from their spouses or children. Without any checks and balances, the wheels quickly fall off and unchecked anger derails any and every agenda. Everyone in Shushan was angry and alone.

We have more stress in our world and fewer tools for managing or handling it. Family life is fraying—depriving us of the comfort and solace which the home should provide. Homes should be peaceful zones, which soothe stress and douse anger. Sadly, they often induce stress and frustration. Too much grievance, too much stress, too little time and weakened family support.

Tragically, we think that we are angry heroes but, in truth, we are all just foolish comedians.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has a semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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