Working in the barn from the break of dawn was exhausting. Cleaning the barn, sweeping the refuse, and caring for the horses had become his life. Every muscle in his body reprimanded him: "There must be a better way. You were made for a better life. You are destined for greatness."
At that moment he heard a rustling sound from the direction of the palace, and he lifted his eyes as a ray of light filtered in through the open window, the dust dancing in the sunbeam; again - a sound drew his attention outside the barn. There, on the balcony of the palace, directly in his line of vision, stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was aristocratic, cultured, exuding wealth and refinement. She was the granddaughter of King Nevuchadnetzar, daughter of the new king. As he peered at her and at the palace, he said out loud for the horses to hear: “One day she will be mine, one day it will all be mine.” The horses did not seem impressed with his pronouncement, but the young stable boy was determined: One day this princess –Vashti – as well as the palace in which she lived and the kingdom over which her family ruled - would be his. His name was Achashverosh, and he would not be denied.
Flash forward to a few years later: Achashverosh has succeeded. He led a coup, and claimed the prizes he had vowed to take. He is king, emperor of 127 countries. He has taken up residence in the palace, and has taken Princess Vashti as his queen. Not surprisingly, though, Vashti loathes him. Sitting at the long, elegantly laid table, Achashverosh eats hungrily; the uncouth stable boy has none of the royal refinement into which his wife was born. Sitting at the other end of the table, the elegant Queen Vashti fidgets as Achashverosh mauls his food; she has lost her appetite. She mourns for her country, she mourns her lost family, and she mourns her life.
The central protagonists of the Megillah we read each Purim are the eponymous Esther and her cousin Mordechai; the antagonists are the wicked Haman and the powerful but unstable Achashverosh. Vashti is often an afterthought; she is present only long enough to make way for Esther to step into the spotlight. Nonetheless, Vashti casts a large shadow and provides insight into many of the events that unfold.
The union of Achashverosh and Vashti was not one of love, nor was it arranged by both sets of parents. The regal Vashti was out of reach of the plebian Achashverosh. Only the bloody coup he led enabled him to take Vashti as a trophy. She was, to him, the symbol of the realization of his youthful dreams: In the end, he "got the girl,” the house, the kingdom. What he had not anticipated was the price he would have to pay for his conquests: From the moment he ascended to power, he lived in constant fear that the next ambitious stable boy – or some other upstart hungry for power and fame, like himself - was plotting to take from him what he had taken from others.
When we first meet Achashverosh, he is eager to show off his trophies. He opens his home, displays his wealth. Nouveau richeAchashverosh is desperate to impress.
In the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all the officials and servants—the administration of Persia and Media, the nobles and the governors of the provinces in his service. For no fewer than a hundred and eighty days he displayed the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty.(Esther, 1:3-4)
In his first recorded act as king, Achashverosh throws a six-month long party for the people in his employ, ministers and slaves alike. All were gathered together for 180 days of revelry – but not out of a sense of social solidarity or shared purpose. What this group had in common was that they posed a tier-1 threat: These were the people with primary access to the palace. These were the people who made Achashverosh feel vulnerable, so he opened his home to them as if to say, “Let’s be friends. I will share my wealth with you willingly; there's no need for you to take it by force.” Achashverosh hoped to win the loyalty, if not the love, of his feted guests.
After the long party, a shorter seven-day party was made for all the residents of Shushan.
At the end of this period, the king gave a banquet for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in Shushan the capital, from the highest [echelons of society] to the lowest. [There were hangings of] white cotton and blue wool, tied with cords of fine linen and purple wool to silver rods and alabaster columns; and there were couches of gold and silver on a pavement of marble, alabaster, mother-of-pearl, and mosaics. Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design. And the rule for the drinking was, “No one will be forced!” For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes. [Esther 1: 5-8]
After another day of drinking and trying to impress the locals, he summons Vashti – to show her off:
…to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal crown, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman. (Esther 1:11)
One midrashic tradition reads between the lines, surmising that Vashti was "summoned before the king wearing onlyher royal crown.While this reading is tempting, it may be "overkill": Vashti’s humiliation was complete merely by virtue of being treated as entertainment for her disgusting husband and his lackeys.
But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command … The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him. (Esther 1:12)
Vashti made her choice: She chose defiance, her last act to preserve her dignity. The text informs us that while Achashverosh was entertaining his guests and showing off his riches, Vashti also had guests. At her party, though, there was no grandstanding - only drinking:
In addition, Queen Vashti made a mishteh(derived from the word shti'yah, drink) for women, in the royal palace of King Achashverosh.(Esther 1:9)
Vashti invited the other women who shared her fate, the other “trophies” who had been captured, kicking and screaming, in the course of the revolution, women who were taken as part of the riches inherited by Achashverosh’s co-conspirators. All of these women had been humiliated, violated, taken as spoils of war. Their families had been killed and they alone remained, chattel awarded to Achashverosh loyalists.
The parties hosted by the king and queen could not have been more different. The men celebrated their good fortune with laughter and merriment, while the women drank away their sorrow. The name Vashti, another derivative of the word shti'yah, describes the captive queen as “one who drank.” To make it through the day – and the night - she would anesthetize herself with alcohol. She was the victim of rape, both of her body and of her soul.
The struggle between the men and women in Shushan was not, as some recent commentators have suggested, a 2500-year-old case of feminism. This was a class struggle, in which the newly powerful took sadistic pleasure in violating the wives and daughters of the former elite.
The women, led by Vashti, drank. When Vashti became defiant, the ministers of the new regime were terrified of the domino effect her behavior might ignite: If Vashti were allowed to defy the king, none of the captured wives would treat their new husbands with respect, and the entire house of cards constructed by the new regime would be threatened.
Achashverosh found himself in a predicament. He had longed for the day that Vashti would be his. He had longed for the day that the kingdom would be his. Now his closest advisors hinted that holding on to this wife might loosen his hold on the kingdom. He was forced to choose between his queen and the loyalty and respect of his ministers and soldiers. Vashti was banished; some say she was executed,but the text is silent (Esther 1:19). Perhaps Achashverosh was so conflicted that he did not know what to do.
The profile of Achashverosh that emerges is of a weak personality tormented by the objects of his own desire. Moreover, there is a fragility about him: He cares far too much what people think about him, which leaves him subject to manipulation. He tries to please everyone - everyone other than Vashti, whom he regards as an object, a trophy. For her part, she is emotionally cold to him. She maintains her distance - and then she is gone. When Achashverosh succumbs to his fears, he loses the main object of his desire and becomes despondent, isolated, and paranoid.
To shake him from his malaise, Achashverosh's inner circle of advisors formulates a plan. Achashverosh will hold a “beauty contest” - but a contest that has very little to do with the sexist pageants of modern times. In this ancient Persian version, each participant is given months to prepare, supplied with all the beauty aids she can think of, soaked in oils and primed with makeup and perfume before being presented to the king. Each woman arrives in the evening and leaves in the morning after sharing a night of debauchery with Achashverosh. The "winner" is to be the new queen; the "runners up" are sent to the king's harem, and remain there until the king summons her by name. (Esther 2:14)
Presumably, all of the women who participated in this contest were enthusiastic; they very much wanted to win, to become the new queen. All the contestants, that is, save one: Esther. Her life as she knew it was ruined the moment she was forced to join the contest. Esther was an ambivalent contestant, at best: She asked for no props or preparations. She was not interested in perfume or makeup; she displayed no desire to win the king's favor. (Esther 2:15)
In order to best understand what happens next, we must channel the bruised psyche of Achashverosh: Rebuffed by his wife, he did not lack companionship. Every female contestant who arrived wearing too much makeup, reeking of too much perfume, showing a little too much enthusiasm in the bedroom, pleased him; these women were wonderful for a distraction, for a night's entertainment. They were all perfect for his harem- but they were not suited to be queen. A queen must be aristocratic.
Only one contestant caught his eye - the one woman who did not throw herself at him, the one woman who kept a careful distance, the one who did not seem cheap like the others. Esther reminded Achashverosh of the queen he had lost; her regal demeanor reminded him of Vashti. Esther’s emotional distance enchanted and enticed him. And so, in a grandly ironic twist, the one woman who had no interest in winning the contest was crowned as queen.
Up to this point in the narrative, Esther seems to be a passive personality. The most remarkable aspect of her profile is that she does as she is told: She is taken from her home (2:8), she remains silent regarding her identity (2:10), she asks for nothing (2:15), and she is taken - to the king, and by the king (2:16). In a word, Esther is obedient (2:20).
While Esther could have mimicked Vashti's defiance, she was not given the luxury of choosing death (or exile) over life with Achashverosh. Even as the narrative comes to an end, Esther lingers on in the palace, filling out a life sentence of torment and violation at the hand of Achashverosh.
As the events of the Book of Esther unfold, Haman is catapulted to a position of power. He is a notorious anti-Semiteand when slighted by one Jew, he plots the destruction of all the Jews (Esther 3:6). Playing on Achashverosh's survival instincts, Haman informs the tortured, paranoid monarch about a group of people in his kingdom who pose a threat:
Haman then said to King Achashverosh, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.” Thereupon the king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the foe of the Jews.(Esther 3:8-10)
Achashverosh does not question; without bothering to clarify the identity of this supposed threat, he approves the Final Solution. The prospect of complicity in genocide does not a disturb him, so long as it buys him safety from his foes, real or imagined.
From the beginning of the story, Mordechai stands in the shadows– watching, listening, taking care of his cousin Esther. When she was orphaned, he took her into his home; some say that he gave her the status of a wife, a means of insuring a woman's status in the ancient world.
Mordechai is a man of integrity. When he overhears a plot to kill the king, he does not evaluate whether this would be a convenient way of setting his protégé free. Mordechai informs Esther of the plot that is brewing; she, in turn, passes Mordechai's message to King Achashverosh. An investigation proves Mordechai's intel accurate;the plotters are executed.
But Mordechai is not simply a palace sycophant; his moral compass does not allow him to prostrate himself before the power-hungry Haman, and this slight sets Haman's plan to eradicate all Jews in motion.
With the entire nation of Israel in peril, Mordechai must capture Esther's attention. He dresses in sackcloth, the clothes of mourning. Esther, who is well- versed in palace protocol and all too familiar with Achashverosh's tastes and predilections, knows that such behavior might easily be construed as an act of sedition or rebellion. Messages are exchanged between Esther and Mordechai, and something dramatic happens: Passive, submissive Esther takes initiative. At first the shift is subtle; she sends new clothing to the sackcloth-clad Mordechai. But in each subsequent verse, she becomes more emboldened, more proactive. She resolves to go and see the king.
This is no simple resolution; seeking an audience with Achashverosh without being expressly invited is dangerous. The distrustful monarch has a law in place, stating that uninvited entrance to the palace is grounds for execution. The reticent queen had not seen her husband in over a month. (Esther 4:11)
Esther prepares herself; she knows that this time she will have to put on a performance. We may assume that this time she uses the perfume and makeup. She knows that she must catch Achashverosh’s attention without overshadowing her aristocratic persona. She sets out to arouse his interest, not his suspicion. She enters the palace, quivering under the weight of her responsibility to her People, and awaits Achashverosh's decision. Will her suspicious husband call for her execution, or will he invite her in?
What does Achashverosh see as he watches her arrive? Anyone who approaches the royal court is suspect, so as Esther arrives, Achashverosh must be anxious. On the one hand, he is always suspicious: Is this a plot? Does Esther again come with word of another attempt on his life? Nonetheless, when Achashverosh sees Esther, he is smitten. He quickly assesses the situation, and his male ego does his thinking for him: Obviously, he surmises, Esther misses him. She wants him. At last, she has come to the realization that she needs him, that she loves him. (5:2)
He begins to ask her questions, although we cannot be sure if he is motivated by his insecurity, or perhaps by a strange, giddy feeling that makes him playful. He wants her to articulate her need for him, and promises her "up to half the kingdom.” Esther (perhaps smiling coyly, perhaps blushing), tells him that she is throwing a party that evening. She asks him to come…and to bring Haman.
And just like that, Achashverosh’s world starts to spin out of control. Brilliantly, Esther knew exactly which “button to push.” The paranoid Achashverosh loses his equilibrium; something is not right. It makes perfect sense for him to be invited, but why is Haman on the guest list of what should have been an exclusive, private, and intimate encounter? Was this another plot against his life? Were Haman and Esther in cahoots?Would he have to get rid of another wife? Would Haman have to be replaced?
Haman, on the other hand, was ecstatic: A small, intimate party. The king, the queen, and I; a less self-absorbed man would have been worried, but not Haman.
Assisted Self -Destruction
Esther knew that in order to save the Jews she would have to drive a wedge between Haman and Achashverosh. Esther analyzed the personalities of the two antagonists, Haman and Achashverosh, brilliantly, and identified each one's Achilles heel. Her strategy was to exploit their weaknesses, to pit the erstwhile allies against one another and watch them self-destruct.
Achashverosh displayed all the textbook symptoms of “Paranoid personality disorder:”
Paranoid personality disorder is a mental disorder characterized by paranoia and a pervasive, long-standing suspiciousness and generalized mistrust of others. Individuals with this personality disorder may be hypersensitive, easily feel slighted, and habitually relate to the world by vigilant scanning of the environment for clues or suggestions that may validate their fears or biases. Paranoid individuals are eager observers. They think they are in danger and look for signs and threats of that danger, potentially not appreciating other evidence. They tend to be guarded and suspicious and have quite constricted emotional lives. Their reduced capacity for meaningful emotional involvement and the general pattern of isolated withdrawal often lend a quality of schizoid isolation to their life experience. People with this particular disorder may or may not have a tendency to bear grudges, suspiciousness, tendency to interpret others' actions as hostile, persistent tendency to self-reference, or a tenacious sense of personal right.
Haman was power hungry, but his need for power went far beyond the boundaries of normal personalities, displaying elements of narcissistic personality disorder, and perhaps bipolar disorder as well:
Narcissistic personality disorderis a personality disorder in which the individual is described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity. This condition affects one percent of the population. It is a psychopathological disorder characterized by delusional fantasies of power, relevance, or omnipotence.
Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, is a mental disorder that causes periods of depression and periods of elevated mood. The elevated mood is significant and is known as mania or hypomania, depending on its severity, or whether symptoms of psychosis are present. During mania, an individual behaves or feels abnormally energetic, happy, or irritable. Individuals often make poorly thought out decisions with little regard to the consequences. The need for sleep is usually reduced during manic phases. During periods of depression, there may be crying, a negative outlook on life, and poor eye contact with others.
Achashverosh was attracted to Haman’s magnetic personality, especially when he was manic. Haman got things done, made things happen, and always seemed to have Achashverosh’s best interests at heart. Achashverosh was happy to let Haman run the kingdom; the price of Haman's service was ridiculously small. Like Esther, Achashverosh knew that Haman craved adulation, so the king simply issued an order requiring all underlings to bow to Haman.A small price, indeed, to harness all of Haman’s manic energy to the running of the palace and the kingdom (Esther 3:1,2). Achashverosh was thus freed from the tedium of administrative tasks, and left with plenty of time to do what he enjoyed; after all, there was a harem full of women who required his attention…
Achashverosh was quite paranoid, and had good reason to be; it was, as we have seen, the price he paid for his own meteoric rise to power. He saw plots against his regime and against his person at every turn. The real threat uncovered by Mordechai only fueled Achashverosh's wild imagination. Haman had proved a loyal follower;it was he who had helped solve the quagmire presented by Vashti’s disobedience. Haman who was left to deal with the shadowy people who rejected the king and the law of the land. Achashverosh could keep his hands clean and be the friendly wine-pouring host as Haman did the dirty work.
From the moment Esther extended her invitation, Achashverosh was in a frenzy of anticipation; nightfall could not come quickly enough. Arriving at the party punctually, he quickly took stock of his surroundings to make sure nothing was amiss. Esther was understandably anxious; she had one chance, no more. Achashverosh was equally anxious; he was certain something was afoot. The only person enjoying the party was Haman. He was flying high, completely manic. He was finally getting the attention he craved, the attention he thought he deserved. Being so self-absorbed, he did not pick up on the emotional distress of the others. Alone with the king and the queen; what a perfect evening, he thought. Being a narcissist, he thought he belonged there; he had no reason to question why he, and no one else, had been invited.
When questioned by Achashverosh as to the purpose of the party, Esther leaves Achashverosh dangling, sharing no more than her plans for a second party. She invites Achashverosh and Haman to another night of drink the following evening; for Achashverosh, the already-unbearable pressure ratchets up another notch. The wait is painful; his mind is racing. Esther’s plan is working.
Haman, still sky high on a cloud of manic euphoria, is delighted by the second invitation. The life he had always imagined was becoming a reality.
And then, Haman steps outside and sees the always-defiant Mordechai, and Haman is completely deflated. Why is this terrible, wretched Jew destroying his wonderful mood and his perfect evening?
That day Haman went out happy and of good cheer. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the palace gate, and Mordecai did not rise or even stir on his account, Haman was filled with rage at him.Nevertheless, Haman controlled himself and went home.He sent for his loved ones and his wife Zeresh, and Haman told them about his great wealth and his many sons, and all about how the king had promoted him and advanced him above the officials and the king’s courtiers. “What is more,” said Haman, “Queen Esther gave a feast, and besides the king she did not have anyone but me. And tomorrow too I am invited by her along with the king. Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordecai sitting in the palace gate.”(Esther 5:9-13)
From his manic high, Haman crashes to a terrible low. The fall is precipitous; he had never experienced such heights, and the low he experiences is of equal magnitude. From the depths of his depression, he admits that everything he has achieved - all the glory, power, and fame - is meaningless.
Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordechai sitting in the palace gate.(Esther 5:13)
Objectively, his complaint is absurd. Haman has everything he has ever wanted (other than perhaps the throne itself). The thorn in his side, Mordechai, has a death sentence on his head, along with his entire nation. Soon enough Haman will have his pound of flesh - but he cannot wait.Rather than smiling at Mordechai and asking if he has started to dig the mass grave for his people who would soon all perish, Haman allows Mordechai to get under his skin, to get into his head, to gnaw at him until he is brought crashing down to the bottomless pit of depression.
Seeing Haman in this terrible state is disturbing to his family and followers, and they suggest a plan to cheer him up. Why wait eleven months, they say; put up a gallows and have Mordechai hung without delay.
Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Let a gallows be put up, fifty cubits high, and in the morning ask the king to have Mordechai hung on it. Then you can go gaily with the king to the feast.” The proposal pleased Haman, and he had the gallows put up. (Esther 5:14)
The advice Haman receives indicates that those closest to him are aware of the limits to his power: Even Haman, ostensibly second only to the king himself, needs to be careful with Mordechai, to obtain permission before he can have Mordechai executed. They are also well-acquainted with Haman's mania: They tried to focus him on something proactive, something Haman could do immediately to keep him occupied and help him swing out of his depression. Put up the scaffold now, they advise. Collect the wood, collect your tools, choose the best location, start to saw and hammer in nails; build the gallows. This burst of activity will restore Haman's sense of purpose and ability. Give Haman a task, and start him on the road toward recovery and mental health.
Crash and Burn
Haman, however, becomes manic; his therapy session was too successful. Once again on a high, he cannot wait until the morning, as his loved ones advised. He makes his way to the palace in the middle of the night, oblivious to the king’s distress or the paranoid episode that Achashverosh was experiencing. Thinking only of himself, self-absorbed, manic Haman hurtles blindly into what was probably the most dangerous place on earth.
Achashverosh is a powerful but tortured man. He senses that something is going on; he can smell a plot. He knows danger is near, and his unsure who he can trust. He tosses and turns in his bed, his mind racing, unable to sleep. Esther's plan is unfolding precisely on schedule: Both of her adversaries are agitated, confused. Achashverosh is paralyzed by his paranoia, and Haman's narcissism has pushed his mania into overdrive.
In his feverish insomnia, Achashverosh turns to history to help make sense of his situation. He tries to ameliorate his depression by reviewing his previous successes, searching for clues to help him plan his next move, looking for the thread of a previous episode to shed light on current events.Reviewing the details of a previous attempt on his life is the perfect place to look:
That night, sleep eluded the king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals, to be brought; and it was read to the king. There it was found written that Mordecai had denounced Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, who had plotted to do away with King Achashverosh. (Esther 6:1,2)
He remembers the incident quite clearly, but the person who saved him seems not to have been adequately rewarded.
“What honor or advancement has been conferred on Mordechai for this?” the king inquired. “Nothing at all has been done for him,” replied the king’s men who were serving him. (Esther 6:3)
If he knew nothing else, Achashverosh knew this: Those who are loyal must be publicly acknowledged.The person who saved his life should be honored, saluted. Suddenly, his thoughts are interrupted by fear: Someone is lurking about, scurrying around his palace in the middle of the night. Has his would-be assassin arrived? The fear in his voice leaps from the page:
The King said: “Who is in the courtyard?” For Haman had just entered the outer court of the royal palace, to speak to the king about having Mordechai hung on the gallows he had prepared for him. (Esther 6:4)
Haman could not wait until morning, nor does he take the time to be briefed by those attending the king. He knows nothing of the king’s sudden interest in Mordechai. Haman sees only himself and his own needs; he becomes careless.
At this point in the story, Esther’s plan is so close to completion, all that Haman has to do is say a few words - that he has come to arrange for the execution of Mordechai – and his own fate will be sealed, dramatically and suddenly. His strange nocturnal visit has most certainly awakened Achashverosh's paranoia; had he tipped the scales by speaking against the man who had saved the king's life, Haman's head would have been probably have been separated from his body then and there.
But instead, as fate would have it, Achashverosh asked a question which Haman was obliged to answer before he could speak his mind – and that question became his reprieve. The question posed by Achashverosh was a test, designed to force Haman, who was behaving strangely, to show his hand. Evidence had been mounting up against Haman - the parties, the late-night visit, the failure to reward a loyalist. Achashverosh decides to test how far Haman is willing to go for power? Is he satisfied with his current position, or does he have designs on the throne?
Haman entered, and the king asked him, “What should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor?” Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king desire to honor more than me?” So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king desires to honor, let royal garb which the king has worn be brought, and a horse on which the king has ridden and on whose head a royal crown has been set; and let the attire and the horse be put in the charge of one of the king’s noble courtiers. And let the man whom the king desires to honor be attired and paraded on the horse through the city square, while they proclaim before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!”(Esther 6:6-9)
Haman has gone too far; had anyone else suggested this royal treatment they would have been executed for treason. But Achashverosh is too weak to "pull the trigger” on Haman.Of course, Haman never let on that he was referring to himself, so Achashverosh lets it slide. He commands Haman to implement this public honor ceremony for Mordechai:
“Quick, then!” said the king to Haman. “Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordechai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate. Omit nothing of all you have proposed.”(Esther 6:10)
We strongly suspect that Achashverosh is well aware that Haman is an anti-Semite; he deliberately refers to Mordechai as "the Yehudi” – the Jew. Haman, only a moment ago riding high, as second in command of the empire, has been reduced to acting as a servant for a Jew – the same Jew he wished to kill. In a flash of midrashic poetic justice, his physical death is postponed, but Haman is reduced to taking care of the king's horse, a role which Achashverosh, the former stable boy, knew all too well. Haman is effectively cut down to size in one fell swoop.
The Final Gambit
Esther's second party is very different from the first. Now, Haman is no longer manic; his humiliation at the hands of Achashverosh - and Mordechai - has brought him down to earth with a thump. By now, he must know that he will not easily be able to kill Mordechai. Suddenly neutered, Haman is uncharacteristically still. Achashverosh, still at his wits' end with suspicion, begins to panic. Esther is clearly holding the reins, although it is unclear if this second party is an improvisation or part of a carefully mapped-out choreography. Had she known before the first party how she would accomplish her goal? Had it always been clear to her that she would need to let Haman and Achashverosh stew for a day or two before tearing off the masks? Either way, now the second night had begun to unfold, Esther was ready. While she may have been unaware of what had transpired between the first party and the second, she could sense the emotional tension in the air, the sparks leaping from the two men's eyes when their glances met. She had only one more card in her hand, and she needed to play it with care.
So the king and Haman came to drink with Queen Esther. On the second day, the king again asked Esther at the wine feast, “What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as slaves and servants, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” Thereupon King Achashverosh demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” “The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. (Esther 7:1-6)
Esther launched a frontal assault on Haman only when she understood that his position had already been significantly weakened. She was hoping the king would be decisive, and rid the world of Haman. Instead, Achashverosh -uncharacteristically - decided to behave responsibly; rather than shooting from the hip, as it were, or taking a major decision while under the influence of alcohol and in the heat of the moment, Achashverosh walks outside into the cool night air to clear his head. He stands alone, with no advisors he can trust.
The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him.(Esther 7:7)
Esther was at her wits end. She had showed her hand, had played her final card. She had accused the king's most trusted confidant of treason, painted him as untrustworthy and self-centered - and now, of all times, Achashverosh had picked a fine time for sobriety. Haman, shocked by the swiftness of his turn of fortune, pleads for compassion. According to one midrash, Esther assesses the situation and does the only thing she can do to further defame Haman. She does the unthinkable: She pulls the pleading Haman on top of her. The innocent, reticent, obedient Esther is nowhere to be found. After the successful seduction of Achashverosh, Esther knows that her sexuality is her last hope. Perhaps in this moment of desperation, the thought crossed her mind: What difference does it make if I sleep with one despicable person or the other? In a burst of strength that may even have taken herself by surprise, she pulls the now sniveling Haman on top of her.She reasons that if Achashverosh did not have the gumption to kill Haman for political treason, she would give Achashverosh another reason – one far closer to home. She is determined to be found by her husband in this compromised position.The midrash paints her in Samson-like hues: Mustering up great strength,Esther pulled Haman onto the divan where she lay, and said, "The two of us (Esther and Haman) will be killed, but the nation would be saved”.
Given a moment to collect his thoughts and choose sides, Achashverosh chooses Esther. He assesses the scene, which certainly could have been interpreted in any number of ways. Rather than concluding that his wife and his right-hand man were perfidious lovers, he places the blame squarely and entirely on Haman. This traitor has been trying to usurp his power – by taking his wife:
When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. “Does he mean,” cried the king, “to ravish the queen in my own palace?” No sooner did these words leave the king’s lips than Haman’s face fell.(Esther 7:8)
Many details follow this climactic scene, but the story ends here. Esther's strategy of pitting Haman against Achashverosh proved to be a stroke of genius that saved the Jews from annihilation.
Other than her brilliance as a strategist and tactician, it is no simple task to "read" Esther herself. Who was she? What did she think or feel? How did her life experiences affect her inner world? Various midrashim stress her unflagging fidelity to Jewish tradition despite the many challenges she faced.
מדרש תהלים -בובר- מזמור כב ד"ה -טז- אלי אלי
-טז- אלי אלי למה עזבתני. אלי בים סוף, אלי בסיני. למה עזבתני. למה נשתנו עלי סדרו של עולם, וסדורן של אמהות, ומה אמנו שרה על ידי שנשבית אל פרעה לילה אחת, לקה הוא וכל ביתו, שנאמר וינגע ה' את פרעה -נגעים גדולים ואת ביתו- -בראשית יב יז-, אני שאני נתונה בתוך חיקו של אותו רשע כל השנים הללו, אין אתה עושה עמי נסים, אלי אלי למה עזבתני, מבטן אמי אלי אתה -תהלים כב יא-, למה שלש פעמים, אמרה אסתר לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע שלש מצות נתת לי נדה וחלה והדלקת הנר, אע"פ שאני בבית רשע זה, כלום עברתי על אחת מהן.
'My God, my God why have you forsaken me?' My God - at the [Splitting of the] Sea, my God at Sinai, why have you forsaken me? Why have you changed for me the ways of the world, the ways of the matriarchs? Our mother Sarah was captured by Pharaoh for one night, and he and his entire household were struck [with plagues], as it says, 'And God struck Pharaoh with great plagues, he and his household.' [Bereishit 12:17] As for me, I’ve been placed in the bosom of this wicked man for all of these years; why don’t you do miracles for me? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 'From my mother’s womb you have been my God;' why is God mentioned three times? Esther said before God, 'Master of the universe, you have given me three commandments: the laws of ritual purity, Challah, and lighting candles. Even in the house of this wicked man I have never broken any of them.' (Midrash Tehilim Buber 22:16)
According to this teaching, Esther would prepare for the rape perpetrated on her body by immersing herself in a mikvah. She kept all the laws expected of a Jewish woman. She was a believer who never stopped hoping for a miracle that would save her from her plight - just as God had split the sea to save His people, and as He spoke to the Israelites at Sinai, she never stopped hoping that she, too, would be redeemed from her bondage or that God would communicate His wishes to her.
A passage in the Tikunei Zohar goes even further. In a discussion of the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, the mystical text makes reference to Esther dressing in royal clothing, and draws a parallel between Esther's entrance into the king's inner sanctum and the Kohen's service on Yom Kippur.
This is Yom Kippurim, when (the Kohen Gadol) is clothed in beautiful garments, clothing of atonement: the tzitz, the mitznefet, the avnet, the four white garments from the right side, the four garments of gold from the left side.
At that time, (Esther) beautified herself with clothing of forgiveness. That is what is meant by the verse, “And Esther put on royal clothing.” And with these garments she entered into the inner sanctum. That is the meaning of the verse “She stood in the inner chamber of the King.” “She found favor in His eyes”- herein lies the mystery…Immediately 'God heard, God forgave,' …Purim is named for Yom Kippurim …(Tikunei Zohar 57:2)
On a literary level, this passage is fascinating; on a theological level, it is even more so. When Esther prepares to see the king, prima facie, she is about to commit a serious offence. She plans, willfully and in full consciousness, to initiate a tryst with Achashverosh. In terms of Jewish law, this is not an easy act to justify.On the other hand, her motives are selfless and pure: She is on a mission to save her people. Her plan is complicated and dangerous: One misstep and Achashverosh will have her killed. The Tikunei Zohar draws a parallel between her entrance into see the throne room of the lecherous king, and the entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Holy Temple - an experience that is at once the most spiritual moment of the year and the most fraught with spiritual and physical danger. The Tikunei Zoharcreates an absolute parallel between these two seemingly polar opposites.
The message is breathtaking: While it is true that Esther is in Persia and about to give her body to a non-Jewish man, her soul is pure.Experientially, she is in Jerusalem. In her mind's eye, she sees herself walking into the Holy of Holies; the fate of the Nation of Israel is in her hands. Esther does not suffer from psychosis; she does not employ the simple psychological tool of disassociation to avoid dealing with the enormity of her actions. This Tikunei Zohar makes a value judgment: The Kohen Gadol puts on special clothing to perform his lofty task – like Esther. He enters the Inner Sanctum- like Esther. Esther is the prototype of the great spiritual leader who saves her People. Although it has become fashionable among certain agenda-driven modern readers to rail against Esther's passivity, their ire could not be more misplaced: Esther was a spiritual giant who took initiative, at her peril, and used every ounce of her intellect, body, and soul to save the Jewish People. Purim, our tradition teaches us, is like Yom Kippurim, and Esther is the Kohen Gadol.On this day, and through her self-sacrifice, the Jews find salvation.
The approach employed in this essay is based on ideas of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, although many of the applications and examples are my own. The psychological terms and ideas were reviewed by my father Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Kahn; his comments and suggestions appear in the footnotes identified as “RDPK.”
‘Instead of the brier’: Instead of the wicked Vashti, the daughter of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar who burnt the ceiling of the house of God, of which it is written, "its lining is of gold' [Shir HaShirim 3].
The literary license and embellishment is based on a passage in Talmud Bavli, Megilah 12b, where Vashti ridicules her husband and reminds him of his modest background, when he worked in her father’s stable. See Oruch Hashalementry אֲהוּרְיָירֵי
'And the king was very angry.' Why was he so enraged? — Raba said: She sent him back this answer: You, (son of) my father's stable boy! My father drank wine with a thousand guests and did not get drunk, and that man has become senseless with his wine'. Straightway, his wrath burnt within him.
Vayikra Rabbah (Margoliot) Shmini Parasha 12; also see Esther Rabbah 3:13.
ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשת שמיני פרשה יב
להביא את ושתי המלכה לפני המלך בכתר מלכות להראות העמים והשרים את יופיה כי טובת מראה היא. ותמאן המלכה ושתי לבא בדבר המלך אשר ביד הסריסים ויקצוף המלך מאד וחמתו בערה בו (אסתר א, י - יב). ביקש להכניסה ערומה ולא קיבלה עליה לפיכך קצף עליה והרגה.
"'To bring Vashti the queen in front of the king wearing the Royal crown to show the nations and the ministers her beauty, because she was beautiful.' Queen Vashti refused to come in to obey the word of the king in the hands of the eunuchs. The king got extremely upset, his anger burned within him. He wanted to bring her naked, and she refused to accept that upon herself therefore he got upset with her and killed her."
The word vayivez, which is used in Chapter 3, verse 6, may provide a hint to Haman's mindset. Haman, we read, found it 'disdainful' to do away with his nemesis Mordechai alone. This word, vayivez, is used in only one other context in the Torah: When Esav sells his birthright to Yaakov – arguably, the act which precipitates the hatred between the brothers - we are told that Esav 'disdains' the birthright. See Bereishit 25:34.
ובמות אביה ואמה לקחה מרדכי לו לבת תנא משום רבי מאיר אל תקרי לבת אלא לבית
“And when her father and mother died, Mordecai took her for his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). A tanna taught in the name of Rabbi Meir: Do not read, 'for a daughter' [bat], but rather read it as 'for a home' [bayit]. This indicates that Mordecai took Esther to be his wife.
It is interesting that this plot was investigated, but the charge hurled against the Jews was taken as truth, with no investigation.
The Talmud Megilah 12b states that some Jews lamented the birth of Mordechai.
See Talmud Megilah 15b, the suggestions of R’ Eliezer, and R’ Yehoshua ben Korcha.
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that Achashverosh was paranoid, citing the Talmudic passage (Megilah 12a) which records an argument over whether Achashverosh was clever or a fool. Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that the terms of this argument are unusual: Rather than examining the question of Achashverosh's intelligence along the normal scale, the debate is between polar opposites. Rabbi Soloveitchik understood the Talmudic debate as an attempt to clarify whether Achashverosh's above-average intelligence was overshadowed by his emotional illness – specifically, paranoia – which led him to make stupid mistakes, or if he was not exceptionally bright, but his paranoia heightened his awareness and sharpened his vigilance.
For a Midrashic precedence to Esther see Yalkut Shimoni Esther 1053.
ילקוט שמעוני אסתר רמז תתרנג
דבר אחר לפי שצפה דוד שעתיד להוליד מרדכיאמר היום לא ימות איש מישראל, ומי נקרא שמו איש, מרדכי איש יהודי, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לדוד אתה הצלת לשמעי בשביל שיוליד את הצדיקעל שבטך אני כותבו שנאמר איש יהודי, עליו נאמר זכר צדיק לברכה, בוא וראה כמה גדול זכותה של אשת שמעי, בשעה שברח צדוק ואביתר שבקש אבשלום להרגם מצאו דלת של שמעי פתוחה נכנסו שם וירדו לתוך הבור מיד באה אשת שמעי ופרסה מסך, על פיו ופרסה עליו הריפות שנאמר ותקח האשה ותפרוש את המסך על פי הבאר ותשטח עליו הריפות ופרעה ראשה וישבה על המסך כאשה שנפנה לצרכה, באו עבדי אבשלום ומצאוה שהיתה יושבת וראשה פרוע, אמרו עבדי אבשלום אפשר שהצדיקים בתוך הבאר וזו יושבת עליהם, מיד חזרו, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא הואיל ועל ידה נמלטו עתידה שיצאו ממנה שני צדיקים שפודין את ישראל על ידיהם, אלו מרדכי ואסתר:
For more on the association of Esther with the Kohen Gadol, see “Echoes of Eden,” Sefer Shmotpp. 243 - 270.