Commentary for Purim

25 Mar

The story of Purim has four major characters. There is Haman: a devious villain bent on genocide. Then we have Mordechai and Ester: the brave hero and heroine of our story, who risk their lives to stand up for and save their people. Finally, we have Achashverosh: King of all one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of Persia, who generally appears to be a complete and total doofus, unfit to be king of his own block, much less the most powerful empire on the planet.

As a leader, Achashverosh is, to put it mildly, irresponsible. Examining the scene where Haman proposes to Achashverosh that the Jews should be killed (Ester 3:8-11), we get a dialogue that can be summed up as follows: Haman says “There are these people who live in your kingdom who never follow your rules and who have different customs than everyone else. I will pay you ten thousand pieces of silver if you let me kill them all for you.” And Achasherverosh simply responds “okay.”

Setting aside the obvious moral abhorrence of genocide, a responsible leader would have at least done some research to try to determine if anything Haman was saying was true, and whether or not it was financially and politically worthwhile to eradicate the Jews. Are the Jews really disobeying the laws of the kingdom at every turn? Would eradicating the Jews in all of Persia wind up costing the royal treasury more money in lost tax revenues than Haman was offering to pay? Does eradicating the Jews set a bad precedent that might cause other minority groups to rebel, fearing for their own safety? Achashverosh considers none of this. He gives Haman the green light without a moment’s thought. Later, when he does decide to reverse the decision, he does not do so because he has found evidence that Haman’s statements are untrue (in fact, in chapter four, when he is presented with evidence that Mordechai the Jew saved him from an assassination attempt, Achashverosh orders that Mordechai be honored as a hero of the state, but does nothing to repeal the decree of legalized genocide which would leave this same hero of the state dead). Nor does he overturn the decree because it would not be politically or financially beneficial to the kingdom. He doesn’t even overturn the decree because he had a moral epiphany and came to the conclusion that genocide is wrong. He repeals the decree against the entire Jewish People simply because he finds out that his wife is a Jew, and in his mind, once this affects him, then it becomes a problem.

It’s safe to say that responsibility, either moral or financial, is not Achashverosh’s strong suit. In fact, determining what exactly is Achashverosh’s strong suit is something of a challenge. He is unique among Biblical characters in that he is the only one who is portrayed almost completely as a fool. Other characters have acted mistakenly or foolishly (such as those who rebel against God), but no one else is portrayed as being little more than a drunken, bumbling idiot.

His drunkenness- or at least his love of drinking and partying- is the trait most identified with him. The Megilah starts by describing two, back-to-back elaborate parties he held, lasting a combined total of one hundred and eighty-seven days. It seems that planning elaborate parties was the only thing he was good at.

While this section is necessary from a narrative perspective (telling the tale of the old queen’s expulsion, thus setting the stage for Ester’s ascent), the extreme amount of detail (what dishes were used, what color were the decorations, who sat where, etc.) that the text goes into about the party seems completely unnecessary. The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that all of these little details were, in fact, necessary, because they teach us to the following lesson which we can learn from Achashverosh’s example: “When a person is involved in an endeavor, his achievements must be equal to his abilities.” Everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Your performance should be measured not against how well others did, but by how much of your potential you fulfilled.

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