By Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – Once upon a time, one of the foremost Jewish communities in the world was found in a land whose head of state was notorious for his exasperating inconsistency. He was forever surprising his subjects with volatile shifts in mood and in policy.
His frequent attitude-changes were paralleled by his erratic relationships with the women in his life. He was married more than once, and had no hesitations about publicly humiliating women; though he appeared genuinely devoted to his current First Lady.
As regards the Jewish citizens of his domain, his attitudes were no less baffling. On the one hand, he had no visible objection to counting Jews among his top political advisors, nor even to having them married into his family. And yet this very same leader could also be observed in the company of the most unsavoury anti-semitic rabble-rousers who had no difficulty in rallying him to oppress the ethnic minorities that were scattered through his land.
Such, then, was the exasperating personality of the Persian emperor Ahasuerus, or Xerxes, whose reign provides the historical setting for the events of the Purim story.
The Jewish heroes of the story, Esther and Mordecai, are generally painted as virtuous and loyal to their faith; whereas the main villain, Haman, is irredeemably wicked.
And yet Ahasuerus does not lend himself neatly to such stereotypical classification. Initially he seems to be a passive dupe in Haman’s plot, but he later shifts sides completely when confronted by Esther. Indeed, the Talmud records a dispute between the two prominent third-century sages Rav and Samuel as to whether the king was a wise ruler or a fool. Their disagreement was prompted by the Megillah’s statement that Ahasuerus first held a banquet for the people of his empire, and only afterwards convened a feast for the residents of Shushan, his capital. One side argued that it was strategically wiser for him to curry the goodwill of the provincials, since the loyalty of the locals was more readily assured. The opposing side believed that it was more prudent to surround himself with allies who could defend him in the event of an uprising by the outsiders.
How are all these contradictory tendencies to be reconciled?
Rabban Gamaliel in the Talmud characterized the king as essentially a “hafakhfekhan”: fickle and volatile. This assessment of his personality informed Esther’s strategy when she invited Haman to the banquets at which she exposed his treachery before Ahasuerus. As Rashi understood it, the very fact of Haman’s meeting a person on repeated occasions would feed the king’s paranoia, and eventually provoke him to reverse his attitude toward Haman from one of trust to extreme hostility. (Can you imagine a modern political leader constantly turning against his top appointees?…)
The eleventh-century French exegete Rabbi Joseph Kara was convinced that Ahasuerus had an impulsive personality that—especially while under the influence of alcohol—would constantly leap about from one mood-swing to the next without any logical pattern. This psychological profile was evident in the king’s reaction to Vashti’s disobedience, when he summoned the queen to display her charms before the guests at the royal banquet. Rabbi Kara sides with the queen in her attempt to uphold the dignity of her royal station, and criticizes Ahasuerus for reacting hastily out of unrestrained rage when he should rather have allowed himself some time to sober up.
This episode convinced Mordecai that they were dealing with a rash monarch who could be counted on to be unpredictable. For this reason, according to Rabbi Kara, Mordecai urged Esther to take immediate measures while she was still in the king’s favour. “Lest God forbid, today or tomorrow he might become angry at you and depose you. Therefore, while you are still in his good graces, approach him and entreat him on behalf of your people.”
It was out of similar considerations, suggested Rabbi Jacob Reischer, that Esther had insisted on Haman’s presence at the dinner at which she intended to expose him. This tactic would not allow the capricious Ahasuerus any time to undergo a subsequent change of heart. The weak-willed ruler would be open to convenient manipulation, whether by Haman or by Esther.
When Esther did finally inform the king of the peril to which her people were being subjected, he reacted in astonishment, “Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so?” It sounds as if he was entirely unaware of the horrible threat that he had himself authorized.
Arguably the most common trend among the Jewish commentators was to paint the king as a malevolent villain. Although it was Haman who instigated the edict to murder the Jews of the empire, these interpreters felt that Ahasuerus was not just casually signing a document that had been placed on on his desk, but that he was in fact a willing collaborator in the scheme.
The king comes across as even more nefarious in the commentary of Rabbi Zechariah ben Saruk, an exegete who lived in Spain and north Africa in the fifteenth century. Rabbi Zechariah was an admirer of Aristotle, especially of the philosopher’s Politics; however his depictions of the ancient Persian government might owe more to the events of the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion from Iberia (his commentary to Esther was completed in Algiers in 1493). According to Rabbi Zechariah’s interpretation, when Haman approached the king he was only requesting permission to outlaw their religion and to confiscate their property; but it was Ahasuerus who expanded that original decree into a broad mandate “to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews,” with the expenses of the campaign being borne by the government.
From this we may conclude that Ahasuerus was an active participant in the persecution of Persian Jewry.
Or then again—he might have been just a weak-willed, vacillating figurehead who was led along by his advisor.
But on the other hand, maybe I’ll see it all differently next year…
Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.