Two Faces of a Mysterious Leader
Perhaps the most intriguing, and definitely the most mysterious, character in the Purim Megilah is King Achashverosh, the Persian leader who ruled over the world.
Every story has its heroes and villains. Mordechai and Esther are the obvious heroes in the story; they came out triumphant at the end, celebrating Jewish victory. Haman and his cronies are the villains who were humiliated and hanged. But what about Achashverosh: was he a hero or a villain?
Initially he went along with Haman’s plot and issued the decree to annihilate the Jews in his 127-country kingdom. But then, after he wed Esther, she prevailed over him to reverse the decree and direct his wrath at Haman and his compatriots. Instead of Purim being a day of tragedy it became, at Achashverosh’s behest, a day of Jewish celebration as they prevailed over their enemies.
Was Achashverosh simply ambiguous and impressionable, or was there something else going on?
A closer look at Achashverosh’s life exposes unpredictable and erratic behavior – a man who appears at times to be a parody of sorts, demonstrating antics that range from one extreme to the other: First he loves Vashti, then he hates her and has her killed. He then begins an outrageously hilarious search for a new bride; women of all sorts line up, preening and perfuming themselves in quest of the King’s hand in marriage, finally he chooses Esther as his queen. He then is convinced by Haman to exterminate all the Jews. He suffers from insomnia, decides to reward Mordechai, and then, in response to Esther’s appeals, reverses his decree and has Haman hung and Mordechai rewarded and promoted to prominent leadership.
What’s with this Achashverosh? Was he a good or bad man? Was he a hero, a villain or just an idiot who can’t make up his mind?
Two opinions in the Talmud define the enigmatic personality of Achashverosh. Rav and Shmuel: One says he was wise, one says he was a fool (Megillah 12a).
Some feel that he was more hateful to the Jews than even Haman (Esther Rabba 7:20). “He was cruel from beginning to end” (Megillah 11a). Others feel that he was manipulated by Haman.
Perhaps Rabban Gamliel said it best when he described Achashverosh as “hafachfach” (lit. flip-flop) – a “fickle minded king” (Megillah 15b).
To understand Achashverosh’s conflicted psyche we need to probe into the deeper story of Purim and retrace its roots.
The story of Purim actually began 957 years earlier at Sinai. The Talmud explains (Shabbos 88a) that on Purim the Jewish people “established and accepted” (Esther 9:27) – they reaffirmed and upheld their acceptance of the divine law which they had received close to a millennium earlier at Sinai, but this time (Purim) they did so at their own volition, with no hint of “coercion” from Above.
Why was it so important for the Jews to reaffirm their commitment on Purim?
The Sinai experience was no small matter. It essentially represented the fusion of dichotomous worlds – the world of matter and the world of spirit, fulfilling the purpose of existence: To sanctify the universe and create a “Divine home” out of the “lowest states of existence.” Until Sinai a schism existed between “above” and “below;” Sinai infused us with the power to integrate the two. Transforming the material universe into spiritual energy is a partnership – a symbiotic relationship between the Divine and the human. Such a partnership requires not just Divine revelation, but complete human cooperation and acceptance.
Thus the need for Purim: Sinai was Divine revelation. On Purim the people, with their own initiative, embraced the Divine mandate, thereby consummating the Sinai experience nine-and-half centuries earlier.
However, the story of Purim doesn’t end there. Even if the Jewish people accept the Divine mandate, what happens with the rest of the world? There is no way to transform the physical universe into a “Divine home” if all the nations on earth are not part of the process.
Purim therefore influenced all the nations (Esther 9:2-3):
And all the ministers of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s functionaries honored the Jews, beginning with their leader, King Achashverosh. (1)
Yet, despite the happy ending, deep tensions still remained – as “we still remain servants of Achashverosh.” Purim provided a respite, but much work still remained to bridge the dichotomy between the Divine plan and the selfish world. Indeed, the harshest times were still to come.
Achashverosh, the leader of his time, reflected this duality in his own personality: One side of him gravitated toward Haman and genocide; the other toward benevolence, supporting Mordechai and Esther.
What Purim achieved, however, was not a temporary reprieve; it had a perpetual effect on all of history – empowering the nations of the world to tame their “Haman-like” tendencies and reveal their “divine” personalities.
This is the essence of the Purim celebration: “The Jews established and accepted upon themselves and upon their descendants” to annually celebrate Purim and to:
“commemorate and celebrate these days in every generation, by every family, in every province and every city. And these days of Purim will never pass from among the Jews nor shall their memory depart from their descendants” (Esther 10:27-28).
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Purim contains many lessons for us today, not the least of which are related to current events originating in the Middle East– the locale where the original Purim story took place — and spreading to Europe, as evidenced in the latest brutal attack in Brussels, Israel, the USA and around the world.
[Modern day Iraq originates in ancient Babylon, which was conquered in 372 BCE by Cyrus, the ruler of the Persian Empire, with the slaying of Babylonian King Belshazzar, grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple. Cyrus was succeeded by King Achashverosh, who is equated with Nebuchadnezzar (Megillah 11a), and he also married Vashti, daughter of Belshazzar and granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar].
The two-faced, split-personality of Achashverosh has his counterparts incarnate in our times, and can offer us fascinating insights into today’s global battles centered in the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran – ancient Persia and Babylon.
So let’s move the clock forward, from the original Purim in 356 BCE (2372 years ago) to our current 2016, with the challenges we face today.
Debates have been raging about what America’s role ought to be in this increasingly obvious global World War III. Especially after this week’s brazen terrorist assault in the capital and heart of the EU. President Obama is being seriously criticized, among other things, for his adamant refusal to have the USA enter this conflict, not to mention in his inexplicable unwillingness to name the enemy.
History has sadly taught us that avoiding a problem that threatens all free and innocent people is never a solution. Silence and neutrality simply doesn’t work when your way of life is under attack. And this is not just about the Middle East and Europe as 9-11 made abundantly clear.
The world looks to the USA for leadership. This country is based on the universal principles of justice and virtue, and when necessary, has stood up to fight for this cause.
If I were advising the President and the current Presidential candidates, I would succinctly define two key priorities that we must fight for today:
1) The values that the United States was founded and stands upon. Namely: All people are created equal,
“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”.
2) The need for Islam to mature and become tamed, like its elder cousin, Christianity did over the past few centuries.
By no means does this suggest that America and the Western world are the heroes and the Muslims and Arabs are the villains. Both of them have their virtues and vices, and both have the free will to choose their destinies.
Achashverosh of old, the leader of ancient Persia, illuminates for us the two personalities and the two options that our present day leaders face.
Like the two faces of Achashverosh, both the Western/Roman/Christian world and the Arab/Muslim world have their dual personalities.
A bit of genealogy first: You may recall reading in this column that the current crisis global confrontations – coined by some as a “clash of civilizations” – can be traced back to the battles in the home of Abraham (see Esau, Ishmael and Sinai, How Far Are we From Sinai? Babylon Unplugged).
Abraham, the “father of nations,” had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac – ancestors, respectively, of the Arab/Muslim nations and the Jewish nation. Isaac in turn had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau would become the ancestor of the Western/Roman/Christian world.
The battles between these children of Abraham – an early citizen of southern Babylon/Persia (modern day Iraq) – foretold the clashes that would be waged between their progeny, essentially a battle reflecting the tensions between a material universe attempting to finds its spiritual direction.
Abraham learned and then taught his children his hard earned wisdom, that true peace, true inner harmony, true purpose, could only be achieved when we struggle and make our peace with G-d. When we learn how to overcome our natural egocentricity and become beacons of altruism and love; when we transcend our proclivity to self-interest and assume our responsibility to refine and spiritualize our universe.
At Sinai the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob formally received and committed their lives to fulfill the Divine mandate to build a civilized world, while the children of Ishmael and Esau rejected it.
But as the centuries rolled on, first the children of Esau (Rome), with the birth of Christianity two millennia ago, began to embrace Abraham’s original principles, followed by the children of Ishmael with the birth of Islam in the 7th century.
But as children of Esau, Rome – and its European and American descendents – have two faces (see The Two Faces of Esau): One, aspiring to Abraham’s values. The second, following Esau’s predatory-like warrior instincts.
Haman, a grandchild of Esau (via Amalek) manifested Esau’s hatred to Jacob, grandfather of Mordechai (via Benjamin). Achashverosh had both faces of Esau: One that leaned more to Abraham’s legacy and the other to Haman’s aggression. The victory of Purim demonstrated and consummated the Sinai experience with Achashverosh’s better side prevailing.
But Esau’s “schizophrenia” – the conflict between his dual personalities – remained strong, and actually is one of the most powerful factors that define the story of history: Which one of Esau’s two faces will prevail?
Will Esau’s sword dominate, expressed in the brutal dominance of the church and the monarchies, terrorizing their populations and infringing on people’s personal rights, with special persecution of the Jews, epitomized in the Crusades that began in the 11th century?
Or will Esau’s gentler Abarahamic genes prevail – through respect of personal dignity and individual rights, and commitment to the Divine mandate to civilize and refine our world, to live according to the higher moral code taught by Abraham, formalized at Sinai and consummated Purim?
It’s difficult to overstate or even fathom how this battle of Esau’s dual psyche has impacted history – causing untold agony, spilling the blood of millions, especially Jews, and tearing the world asunder in the past two millennia.
Finally, after many painful centuries, Abraham’s vision became manifest with the birth of democracy and America – a nation built on the Divine principles of morality given at Sinai, as well as other nations that have embraced and continue to embrace these bedrocks of civilization.
But Esau (the Western world) is only part of the story. Esau was not alone in his dual nature. Not to be outdone, his uncle and father-in-law, Ishmael, was no slouch when it came to duality. As a son of Abraham, Ishmael had many great qualities, which were passed on to his grandchildren. Just as Christianity brought a new spirit of G-dliness to the pagan children of Esau, Islam did the same for the pagan children of Ishmael.
Then there is another side to Ishmael – sadly coming to the fore in our own times: His aggression, intolerance and fanaticism aggravated by a suicidal philosophy, “justifying” the killing of innocent people in the name of “jihad.”
Like Christianity before it, Islamic countries (slowly spreading to Europe) have become a breeding ground for forces terrorizing the world. And like Christianity, these forces need to be tamed and reeducated in the teachings of Ishmael’s father Abraham.
America’s role in the Middle East is justified only if it serves as an “Esau” in search of Abraham, living up to Abraham’s principles and reminding his Middle Eastern uncles (as well as his European brothers) about Abraham’s message of virtue and morality.
But America and the West must never forget they (Esau) have another selfish, warrior-like side, and must therefore always be careful not to succumb to Esau’s imperialistic leanings and other self interests, financial or other.
Thus, even if Esau needs to justifiably enter the Middle Eastern fray to fight the cruel forces that have declared war against the West – it’s vital to maintain strong discipline and know when to get out of the quagmire of Ishmael’s maturing process and its own internal immunity checks and balances.
Let your Western presence be felt, but not to the point where you get too enmeshed and impede the growth of the Muslim world which must come from within.
Perhaps G-d blessed them, and us, by splitting their ranks into Sunni and Shi’ite – a schism that goes back to Islam’s infancy – as a “reality check” to keep each other in check and maintain a balance.
As Iran (Shi’ite) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) face off, the Western Esau must keep a healthy distance, even as it uses its influence to shape a stable future.
Now allow the Muslims figure out how to make peace with Abraham’s standards and with each other. Let them be. Let the brothers work it out.
We should be placing pressure on them to reform, using various methods, including through freeing ourselves from being held hostage by oil blackmail. As their best customers we are in the unique position to challenge them to reform their education systems from within: Teach your children the beauty of faith, but also how faith should cause us all to love, not kill, yourself and each other. If you feel spiritually elevated inspire the so-called “infidels.”
The key for America is to find the proper balance of pressure and distance to allow Ishmael to work out its issues, while influencing them from afar, and not allowing its Esau personality to get distracted and seduced by oil revenue and other self-interests. By weakening our overdependence on Ishmael’s oil, we will only strengthen our options to influence that region.
As such, Esau will have done his duty to remind and awaken Ishmael to the truths of Abraham. Remember the great wedding between Esau and Ishmael. At the time, Esau was the one inciting his impending father-in-law, Ishmael, to join him in killing Isaac and Jacob, and being left Abraham’s sole heirs. Now Esau has the opportunity to correct the past and encourage Ishmael to better its ways.
And as it has been throughout history, Persia and Babylon of old stand center stage of this debacle. Ancient Babylon, the place of the Garden of Eden, the place where Abraham was born and began his journey – reflects the journey of Abraham’s descendants as well, from paganism to G-d.
Just as Abraham, father of all nations, embarked on a journey 3758 years ago, along the Euphrates, on his way to Israel, his children today need to journey though the same geographic location, and climb the path to make their peace with G-d, with Sinai and with Israel.
The message of Purim is that we have been given a Divine blueprint for life – a universal mandate for all human beings how to live our lives in the noblest way possible. Abraham, father of all nations, taught his children how to live up to their Divine calling and how to co-exist in total peace with their brothers and neighbors. This mandate was formalized at Sinai and consummated on Purim.
It took centuries for the nations of the world to first embrace the blueprint and then integrate it into their institutions. For over a millennium and a half the nations went through their “growing pains” and killed millions of Jews and others in the process.
Now, 3328 years from Sinai and 2372 from Purim, we are behooved to declare that the calling of our time is to finish the process – to empower each other with the responsibility that all peoples of the world, the children of Esau, Ishmael and all the other children of Abraham over the world, will embrace, once and for all, the Divine teachings of Abraham.
(1) As the Megillah concludes: King Achashverosh levied a tax upon the mainland and the islands of the sea. And the entire history of his power and strength, and the account of Mordechai’s greatness, whom the king had promoted, are recorded in the Book of Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia. For Mordechai the Jew was second to King Achashverosh, a leader to the Jews, and loved by his many brethren. He sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace for all their descendants (Esther 11:1-3).
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Question of the Week: Which character in the Purim story (Megillah) do you most identify with? Why?