From Bad Advice to Wise Insights

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Haman’s meteoric rise and equally rapid downfall is one of the main plots in Megillas Esther. Immediately after his promotion, we see Haman act with a certain confidence, if not arrogance, deciding the fate of the Jews in a quick and efficient manner. After Mordechai refuses to bow to him, he blithely decides to kill off the entire Jewish race – they are all an extension of Mordechai. We know of course that Haman was the personification of Amalek, unable to ideologically co-exist with the Jew, and that this was the driving force behind his plan to destroy us. Yet, in two fascinating “side-stories” in the megilla, we see a different side of Haman, and an inkling into how he related to his friends and family, and how his seeking advice was, in fact, so harmful to his fate.

By Chapter 5 in the megilla, Haman is on top of the world. He was a short period of time away from destroying the Jewish people. He was one small rung of the ladder away from ruling the entire world. He was adored and revered by so many, a master politician with a bright future. And to top it off, he received an exclusive invitation to a banquet offered by the King and Queen. He leaves the palace, no doubt brimming with exuberance – and then he sees Mordechai (5:9-14).

“Then went Haman forth that day joyful and glad of heart; but when Haman saw Mordechai in the king's gate, that he stood not up, nor moved for him, Haman was filled with wrath against Mordechai.”

Yet Haman does not act. Strangely, this man of assurance runs home and seeks out advice:

“Nevertheless Haman refrained himself, and went home; and he sent and fetched his friends and Zeresh his wife. And Haman recounted unto them the glory of his riches, and the multitude of his children, and everything as to how the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above the princes and servants of the king. Haman said moreover: 'Yea, Esther the queen did let no man come in with the king unto the banquet that she had prepared but myself; and to-morrow also am I invited by her together with the king. Yet all this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king's gate.' Then said Zeresh his wife and all his friends unto him: 'Let a gallows be made of fifty cubits high, and in the morning speak thou unto the king that Mordecai may be hanged thereon; then go thou in merrily with the king unto the banquet.' And the thing pleased Haman; and he caused the gallows to be made.”

His sheer joy at this “brilliant” plan led to the fateful and rash decision to disturb the king that specific night.

Why did Haman turn to his friends and wife this time? And why was their advice so endearing to him? There is one other subtle inconsistency here. At first, the megilla tells us that Haman seeks out his friends and Zeresh. Yet when offering advice, Zeresh is listed first, and then the friends. Why the change in order?

There is another time Haman seeks the solace of his wife and friends, only this time, his world has been turned upside down. After leading Mordechai around Shushan, Haman returns home (6:12-14):

“And Mordecai returned to the king's gate. But Haman hasted to his house, mourning and having his head covered. And Haman recounted unto Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had befallen him. Then said his wise men and Zeresh his wife unto him: 'If Mordecai, before whom thou hast begun to fall, be of the seed of the Jews, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely fall before him.' While they were yet talking with him, came the king's chamberlains, and hastened to bring Haman unto the banquet that Esther had prepared.”

In line with the last question above, we once again see a switch between the order of Zeresh and the friends. This time, Haman first addresses Zeresh and then the friends. And when they turn to offer him insight, more than the order is changed – the friends are not just first, but morph into “chachamav”, wise men. How exactly are they to be viewed as wise men? And what was Haman searching for in this encounter?

Answering these questions requires us to understand on a deeper level the mindset of Haman, as he was the paradigm of egomania. As we mentioned, Haman left the palace at the peak of confidence. He sees Mordechai (who no doubt sees him) and Mordechai does not move or budge – in effect, he does not acknowledge Haman’s existence. This was different from Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Haman, which would have been a display of intrinsic importance in Haman. Haman had a high concept of self-import, viewing his achievements and invitations (as we see when he speaks to his wife and friend), along with public approval, as objective determinations of man’s significance. And even more so, in this situation, he held Mordechai’s life in his hands. Yet Mordechai is not affected whatsoever by the presence of Haman; he sees Haman as who he really was, just another person. This reality hit Haman, and it could only be described as a deflation of his ego. To go from the peak to the low in the framework of the egomaniac is extremely unsettling. It also acts as a barrier to be able to get to the root of the problem, to ponder a solution to his dilemma. In other words, Haman was bothered by the fact that he was so infuriated with Mordechai. And killing him was not the answer, as it would not give him back the greater sense of self, the inflated ego. So he turns to his friends and wife.

He seeks the advice of his friends – “ohavav”  – and his wife. Haman is searching for people to prop him up, to help solve his problem and give him back his lost sense of importance. Yet, the word “ohavav” , which really means loved ones, reveals something more subtle. On one level he wanted objective advice, and going to his wife would not be the answer (as we will soon see). On a deeper level, though, his friends were “ohavav. He admired them because they were “yes men” ready to offer the sycophantic advice that could only be destructive. If he went directly to his wife, she would most likely be sympathetic, but not necessarily objective. So Haman reviewed what he accomplished in his life. He had achieved much (interesting how his children are another notch in his belt), culminating in the invitation to the big party. And then he notes how with all he has accomplished, his entire sense of self import meant nothing as long as Mordechai was there. At that point, the obvious advice should have been to just relax, take it easy, be patient – victory was not too far off in the distance. Instead, Zeresh steps forward, and we see from her comments both her personality and how her advice hit home. She leads, with the friends now second, suggesting Haman build a gallows that could be seen from anywhere in Shushan, and to hang Mordechai on it. This would be more than killing Mordechai. It would be the ultimate statement of accomplishment, true victory, and everyone would acknowledge it. His ego was now inflated once again, the conflict resolved. Zeresh appealed to his egomania because she identified with it. Naturally, her advice served to increase Haman’s inflated sense of importance. He loved this advice so much that he acts imprudently, committing the blunder that began his downfall--he runs to the palace at night to request from the king that the gallows be built.

After the drastic turn of events, where Haman leads Mordechai through Shushan, he returns home, dejected and depressed. How could it all have gone so wrong? He turns to the person who was the driving force behind building these gallows, Zeresh. Only this time, the friends step forward, morphing into “chachamav”. The Talmud (Megilla 16a) explains that we learn from their statement to Haman how even when a non-Jew offers wisdom, he can be identified as a chacham, a wise man. This is strange, as we must ask what the assumption of the Talmud was. Why would we believe otherwise? One would think that a person’s perfection was intrinsically tied to being a chacham. Yet the Talmud tells us that we view wisdom as something in its own right. Truth is the ultimate objective; therefore the source becomes irrelevant if the idea is true. With this in mind, what are these friends, along with Zeresh, now pointing out to Haman? Instead of feeding his ego, they offer something completely different. They point out something critical about the Jewish people. When witnessing the events that took place, the extreme turnaround in Haman’s fortunes, they sensed something was different here. Natural order would not normally dictate such a turn of events. As Rashi on the verse points out, the friends noted that when the Jews fall, they fall to the dust, but when they rise, they rise to the stars. What they were commenting on was the pendulum of Jewish history, and how it was tied to something other than the natural order. For the Jews, their adherence to God’s directives and their devotion to His ways determine their (and our) fate. When they followed God, they were at the top. And when they strayed, they fell so low. Haman’s wife and friends noted this to him, resisting any attempt at dealing with his ego. In essence, the game was up. Before Haman could even reflect, let alone react, he was whisked away to the party and his own date with the gallows.

These two small side stories teach us some important lessons. We see how the megalomaniac Haman was driven to every decision purely by his ego. We also see how his being enslaved to his ego led him to accept bad advice. Finally, we see how his seeking solace the final time only brought out the truth – but too late for him to back away. In essence, we see in these episodes the power of the ego, and its ability to destroy man. A person who entire sense of self importance is built on a distorted view of the self is destined to fail. When a person is able to truly recognize his place in the universe, this powerful force takes a backseat, leaving open the road to true perfection.