Delving into the Mind of the Rasha

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

There are few instances in Tanach, let alone Jewish history, where the nature of the enemy of the Jew is completely open for us to analyze. Megillas Esther is one of those rare opportunities to explore the enemy, personified in Haman. Understanding Haman’s machinations and schemes to destroy the Jews is crucial to truly comprehend the extent of his evil. What is most fascinating in this particular instance is that an insight into his mind is revealed through a minor, seemingly innocuous omission.

After Haman resolves to kill the Jews, he approaches Achashverosh with the following argument (3:8-9):

“Haman said to King Achashverosh, "There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation and who do not obey the laws of the King. It is not in the King's interest to tolerate them. If it please the King, let [an edict] be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand silver talents to the functionaries, to be deposited in the King's treasuries.”

Achashverosh’s actions and reply indicate willing acceptance of the proposal (ibid 10-11):

“The king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite, persecutor of the Jews. The king said to Haman, "The money is yours to keep, and the nation is yours to do with as you please.”

So, we have Haman and Achashverosh agreeing to wipe out the Jewish people. This is not simply a decision to raise taxes or take away collective bargaining rights from unions (although that might have engendered a strong response from the kingdom). This was the complete annihilation of an entire nation. And yet, there is no mention of the word “yehudim”, or Jews. No positive identification, no specificity – just “there is one nation.” Why was the identification of the specific nation omitted?  

Chazal adds a whole other dimension to this episode, as seen in Maseches Megillah (13b – due to lack of space, only a brief review and analysis will be presented). The Talmud explains that there had never been anyone as skillful at debasing another person as Haman, expressed through his justifications in annihilating the Jewish people. He first engages Achashverosh with, “Come, let us destroy them,” to which the king replies, “I am afraid of their God lest He do to me as He did to my predecessors.” A long back and forth ensues as Haman presents the rationale for killing the Jews and Achashverosh parries. As noted, the king’s first concern is the potential Divine retribution for killing the Jewish people. Haman essentially replies that the nation does not adequately adhere to the mitzvos, implying that there would be nothing to fear. Haman continues, explaining to Achashverosh that the Jewish people are spread out throughout the kingdom, lacking any cohesiveness. Furthermore, Haman presents them as being an unproductive people, equivalent to welfare recipients. Understanding the king’s sensitivity in how he was perceived by the public, Haman sought to reassure Achashverosh that the absence of interconnection and productivity would mean they would not be missed.  He then makes his final argument, an argument designed not to reassure Achashverosh that there is no danger in such a move, but to convince him of the merits of this venture. Haman states, “if a fly falls into the cup of one of them (the Jews), he throws it out and drinks the wine, but if my lord the king were to touch his cup, he would dash it on the ground and not drink from it.” This point is meant to prove to Achashverosh that the Jews’ way of life was incompatible with his own, their customs a personal affront. At this point Achashverosh agrees to Haman’s plan.

Once again, even with this intricate description found in the Talmud, the nation is not identified as “yehudim”. But it is clear the king knew exactly who Haman was talking about. When Haman approaches him, saying, “Come, let us destroy them,” he never questions Haman about who “them” refers to. One clear implication is that Achashverosh shared Haman’s desire in killing off the Jewish people. Yet his rationale for annihilating them was quite different from Haman’s (a subject for a different article), noted in the attempted evasions offered throughout their discussion, as well with Haman’s numerous arguments. If he clearly knew it was the Jewish nation that Haman was referring to, why not just come out and say it? 

The Talmud offers a “compliment” regarding Haman, that he was the most successful traducer to walk the planet. How so? As mentioned above, Achashverosh must have shared some of the desire to kill the Jews as Haman. He certainly had no love for them, as Chazal points out in his use of the vessels of the Bais Hamikdash at his party. However, he must also have seen some merit in their continued existence. For example, Mordechai, who was the gadol hador and a famed talmid chacham, was on his payroll. Many times in history, we see this dichotomous relationship between the Jewish people and a powerful non-Jew. On the one hand, he detests the Jews’ way of life. Yet at the same time, he sees value in tolerating the Jew, and enjoys the tangible benefits to his position. 

The key for Haman, then, was to reinvent the Jew for Achashverosh. As the verse begins, “there is one nation…” – the nation you thought you knew is in fact a mirage. Many of them do not follow the very laws they claim to live by. They have no political power and offer no substantial financial benefit to the kingdom. Furthermore, their way of life is not simply different from his own; instead, it is an attack against him. Essentially, the positive assumptions the king had about the Jewish people are an illusion. The Jews are a threat to the king, and must be destroyed. This might be why “yehudim” was never brought up – to even identify them by name would weaken Haman’s plan, referencing an identity to the king he sought to destroy. He created this perception of the Jewish people, which, ironically, contributed to his downfall.

At the second party Esther threw, the king once again asks of Esther what she desired, and she responds with a most eloquent plea (ibid 7:3-4):

“Queen Esther replied and said: "If I have found favor in your eyes, O King, and if it please the King, let my life be granted me by my plea, and the life of my people by my request. For my people and I have been sold to be annihilated, killed and destroyed! Had we been sold as slaves and maidservants I would have kept silent. But indeed the persecutor is not bothered by the King's loss.”

In the above request, she never identifies her nation as the Jewish people – instead, it is “my people.” It is unlikely Esther knew the details of Haman’s conversation with Achashverosh (although the Megillah [4:1] does state that Mordechai “knew all that had taken place”). However, it could be she sensed the distorted view of the Jewish people that was in the mind of the king. Rather than convince the king how Haman was wrong in his assessment, she turned the tables on him. Could it be that the queen was part of this caricature of a nation posited by Haman? No doubt, part of the anger expressed by the king was tied to this realization. 

Later on, when Esther approached Achashverosh one more time to rescind the letters allowing for the destruction of the Jews, we see a subtle change take place (8:5):

“She said, "If it please the King, and if I have found favor before him, and the idea is proper to the King, and I am pleasing in his eyes, let [an order] be issued ordering the withdrawal of the letters containing the plot of Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite, in which he ordered the destruction of the Jews throughout the King's provinces.”

She went from “my nation” to “destruction of the Jews” – the eradication of the distortion created by Haman complete.

This is not to say, by any means, that Achashverosh now had a profound love of the Jewish people. He was still someone who remained an ideological enemy. However, it is clear that in order for Achashverosh to convert his general dislike for the Jews into a desire for their destruction, it was necessary to re-characterize them. Chazal, in their expansion of Haman’s arguments to the king, show us the extremes this rasha went to in order to achieve his objective of killing off Judaism. Our enemy is not simply a “bad man”. He is wily and crafty, skilled in psychology, able to debate and manipulate, ultimately swaying the king to become a partner in his plan. To see into the mind of Haman in this episode teaches us the extreme importance in understanding our enemy. It is a crucial lesson offered by the Megillah, resonating throughout history, and one that we must internalize.