Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Paranoid King: Insights Into Achashveirosh

Over Shabbat, my husband pointed me to Shiurei Ha-Rav, specifically the section on Purim. There, I read a fascinating write-up of a lecture on Purim delivered by the Rav in 1973. Tonight, I found Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's 'Insights into M'gillat Esther' reprinted in this Tebah.org Purim Reader, and figured I would reprint the excerpt focusing on Achashveirosh that helps shed some light on this king's character.


The king had a paranoid fear of an insurrection against the throne. The Talmud relates that he was not the legitimate heir to the kingdom, rather the son of the steward of the royal stables. His only connection with royalty was through his wife Vashti, daughter of Belshazzar. She obviously despised him as a social climber who lacked any royal grace and dignity. There was an underground movement to overthrow the government and restore the old order, as evidenced by the assassination attempt by Bigtan and Teresh. Ahashverosh tried to “buy” the country’s loyalty by making those lavish parties and inviting everyone to eat and drink and view his wealth and women. But this is all clearly the workings of a mind that feels very insecure and fears revolt. The absurd law (4:11) proclaiming death to anyone who entered the throne room without an appointment seems also to be an outgrowth of his paranoid fear of revolt or assassination. When Vashti publicly insults him, he was worried that if he should kill her, this would inspire a revolution. M’mukhan (1:16-20) gave him the following brilliant analysis: “True, if you kill Vashti you may trigger off a revolt, but if you allow her to survive after publicly insulting the king, then she will serve as a model for all the women of royal blood to insult their husbands.” It was the custom in antiquity for the victor to marry the widow or daughter of the vanquished power. Thus, many of Ahashverosh’s officers had married women of the old order. “If they saw that the queen was not punished for her insolence, they too would start fighting their husbands and join the underground movement to restore the old order. The way to nip that in the bud is to execute Vashti.” Thus M’mukhan, whom the Talmud tells us was Haman, gained the confidence of the paranoiac king, appearing as one who loyally defended the throne. Immediately following the assassination attempt by Bigtan and Teresh, we find that Haman was appointed Prime Minister. The king was really frightened, and in his paranoia he turned to the person who had proven his loyalty M’mukhan (Haman)—and placed his faith in him.

Feeling slighted by Mordekhai, Haman decides to destroy the Jews. He plays on the king’s paranoia by casting suspicion on the loyalty of the Jews. He tells the king (3:8) that the Jews are a unified nation, widely dispersed in the kingdom, with queer laws and customs. Being a strange nation, no one can guess whether they are planning a revolt. Should they decide to join the underground, their unity as well as their dispersion geographically could make the insurrection very successful.

The king fell for this ploy and agreed to kill the Jews. When a paranoid lives in fear of an imaginary monster, all moral controls are abandoned. He has only one irresistible urge—to destroy. Esther understood all this very well and therefore could not agree to Mordekhai’s plan of immediate action. Once Haman had succeeded in arousing in the king fear of Jewish revolt, no human power or pleading could dissuade him from destroying his imaginary enemies. In grappling with the realities of the situation it was a woman’s mind, not a man’s ideas, that was needed. Esther decided that the only way out would be to turn the tables on Haman and accuse him of plotting against the king. She procrastinated day after day, waiting to find a possible opening, a possible way to shatter the king’s faith in his trusted Prime Minister. It seemed that only a miracle could weaken his trust and indeed a miracle happened: Balaila ha-hu nad’da sh’nat ha-melekh (6:1). This is the turning point in the whole story, the prime miracle. The most significant aspect of that night was not so much the king’s new respect for Mordekhai, but his loss of confidence in Haman. You feel the king’s malicious joy in taunting Haman while ordering him to honor “Mordekhai the Jew” (6:10). Whether it was Haman’s mention of the royal crown (6:8) that made the king suspect his loyalty, or his failure to reward the king’s benefactor Mordekhai, or the shifting perception of the universe in the mind of this paranoiac king, it was time for Esther to plant the seeds of distrust in his mind. This is the kind of subtle hester panim miracle, a change of mood in the mind of a deranged king, for which we give thanks to God on Purim. The next day, when Esther charges Haman with treason, the king willingly accepts the accusation. She explains to the king that had Haman really felt concern for the better interest of the king, he would have placed the Jews in forced labor camps, thereby keeping them under surveillance in a profitable set up. “But the villain is not concerned about the threat to the king” (7:4). By proposing to arm the countryside with weapons to kill the Jews, he was really making it much easier for the revolutionary elements of the population to organize their revolution. Esther made the king believe that Haman was plotting against the throne. The king’s paranoia took over where Esther’s words ceased. Upon returning from the garden to find Haman on the couch where Esther was lying he screams, “Do you even plan to seduce the queen while I am in the house?” (7:8). He was so convinced of Haman’s treachery that everything he did was viewed through the lenses of his paranoia. He “saw” Haman not only planning the revolt but even trying to steal the queen! This was the ultimate sign of revolt. Haman’s fate was sealed. The very strategy and the fate planned for the Jews now backfired on Haman and his associates.


Anonymous said...

My favorite Purim "read" is Torah Anthology / Meam Loez on the megillah. It is extremely interesting.

Unknown said...

Anonymous 8:07,

This one? Can you tell me a bit about what type of stuff is in it (so I can decide whether or not to buy it?)

Anonymous said...

Yes. If you're familiar with any of the other Torah anthology books its the same concept. He brings a ton of medrashim and expounds on them quite nicely. Another way to put it is its the story of the megillah as you've never seen before.

Unknown said...

I haven't read the Torah Anthology books. (I'm more of a Little Midrash Says/ Legend of the Jews person.) Do you recommend as a series?

I've read 'Turnabout' by the Malbim (link) which seems to fit your second description (story as you've never seen it), but I will try to hunt this book down and see what I make of it. Any ideas where it might be available?

Anonymous said...

It is one of the best series on Tanach Ive ever read. His sefer on Bereishis is amazing, he describes wars which took place at the time which are reminiscent of Gulliver's Travels. Torah Anthology and Our People are my two favorite English jewish sets.

Hmmm. Amazon has it in stock. Every shul ive ever davened in has had a set of Torah Anthology. If there is a Jewish library where you live they will probably have it as well.

Unknown said...

Okay, thank you!

Why'd you start off Anon and then change to your real handle?

Anonymous said...

The first comments were left from my phone, the last ones from my computer.