“And Mordechai told him all that had befallen him, and the full account of the silver that Haman had proposed to weigh out into the king's treasuries on the Jews' account, to cause them to perish. And the copy of the writ of the decree that was given in Shushan he gave him, to show Esther and to tell her, and to order her to come before the king to beseech him and to beg him for her people.” (Meggilat Esther 4:7-8)
Meggilat Esther narrates the efforts of Haman to destroy the Jewish people and the response of Mordechai and Esther to this threat. Haman slanders the Jewish people to the king, Achashverosh. He tells the king that the Jewish people adhere to their own standards and laws. They are not faithful the king and do not obey his directives. He urges the king to decree the destruction of the Jewish people. He offers to deliver to the king’s treasury ten-thousand silver talents in exchange for the king’s acquiescence to his advice. Achashverosh accepts Haman’s offer and advice. He authorizes Haman to write and promulgate an appropriate decree in his name regarding the Jews. Haman selects the thirteenth day of Adar as the day for the destruction of the Jewish people throughout the kingdom. He writes the decree announcing this plan and distributes it throughout the kingdom.
Mordecahai appeals to Esther to intercede with the king. He communicates with a messenger sent by Esther. Our pesukim records Mordechai’s message to Esther. Mordechai’s description of the events leading to Haman’s decree is interesting. Mordechai tells Esther that Haman has placed a sum of silver into the king’s treasury in order to procure the right to destroy the Jews. But he makes no mention of Haman’s slander of the Jews to Achashverosh. This is an odd omission. Mordechai is appealing to Esther to intercede with the king. In order to be successful, she will require the best possible intelligence regarding the king’s motives for handing over to Haman the fate of the Jewish people. Haman’s accusation of disloyalty was a fundamental element of the argument he made to Achashverosh. Why does Mordechai omit this information?
“Then Memuchan declared before the king and the princes, "Not against the king alone has Vashti the queen done wrong, but against all the princes and all the peoples that are in all King Achashverosh's provinces. For the word of the queen will spread to all the women, to make them despise their husbands in their eyes, when they say, 'King Achashverosh ordered to bring Vashti the queen before him, but she did not come.' And this day, the princesses of Persia and Media who heard the word of the queen will say [the like] to all the princes of the king, and [there will be] much contempt and wrath.
If it please the king, let a royal edict go forth from before him, and let it be inscribed in the laws of Persia and Media, and let it not be revoked, that Vashti did not come before King Achashverosh, and let the king give her royal position to her peer who is better than she. And let the verdict of the king be heard throughout his entire kingdom, although it is great, and all the women shall give honor to their husbands, both great and small." (Meggilat Esther 1:16-20)
Achashverosh is the most mysterious character in the Meggilah. We can easily grasp and appreciate the righteous motivations of Mordechai and Esther. Haman is the villain. He is motivated by a deep personal hatred of the Jewish people and their Torah. But what are Achashverosh’s motivations? Is he a fool – easily influenced by devious advisors? Does he share Haman’s hatred for the Jews? In order to understand Mordechai’s message to Esther, we must develop a firmer grasp of Achashverosh’s personality and behaviors.
There are two enigmatic episodes in the Meggilah that must be explored in order to better understand Achashverosh. Achashverosh made an elaborate celebration for his ministers and subjects. During the celebration, he directed his queen, Vashti, to appear before this audience. His intention was to demonstrate her remarkable beauty. Vashti refused to appear. Our Sages offer various explanations for Vashti’s refusal. But the simple explanation is that Vashti recognized the king’s motivations. She regarded his request as demeaning. She was not willing to compromise her dignity as queen by being paraded in front of an assembly of drunken ministers and subjects.
Achashverosh responded to this refusal with intense anger. But he could not identify the proper course of action to take against Vashti. He consulted with his advisors. One of his counselors – Memuchan – suggested a response. He told Achashverosh that he should not treat Vashti’s refusal as a personal issue. Instead, he should deal with it as an affair of state. Vashti’s rebuff should be regarded as the beginning of a social movement. Vashti’s behavior will suggest to all women that they need not obey the wishes of their husbands. Vashti’s expression of independence will be the catalyst for a liberation movement that will undermine structure of the family and the authority of all husbands. Vashti must be removed as queen and replaced by a more suitable role model. This action will send a message to all women that they must honor and obey their husbands. Achashverosh accepted this suggestion, designed and distributed the decree, and removed Vashti.
It seems that Memuchan’s essential advice to Achashverosh was that Vashti should be deposed as queen. Obviously, this was an option that Achashverosh would have contemplated without Memuchan’s help. But Memuchan added an innovation. He suggested that Achashverosh explain his decision to oust Vashti as a response to a subversive social movement. Why was this necessary? How did this suggestion suddenly resolve Achashverosh’s quandary regarding the appropriate course of action?
Apparently, Achashverosh was reluctant to depose Vashti simply because she refused to comply with a command of questionable propriety. Achashverosh was eager to punish Vashti and depose her. But he was reluctant to add another display of unseemly behavior to his previous licentiousness. He needed some pretext behind which he could hide his true motive. Memuchan recognized the nature of Achashverosh’s dilemma and provided the requisite pretext. In other words, Achashverosh’s true motive for deposing Vashti was personal, juvenile anger. Achasheverosh recognized the shabby nature of these motives but did not abandon them. Instead, the sought some pretext behind which he could hide his true motivations.
“After these events, when King Achashverosh's fury subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done, and what had been decreed upon her. And the king's young men, his servants, said, "Let them seek for the king young maidens of comely appearance. And let the king appoint commissioners to all the provinces of his kingdom, and let them gather every young maiden of comely appearance to Shushan the capital, to the house of the women, to the custody of Heyge, the king's chamberlain, the keeper of the women, and let their ointments be given them. And let the maiden who pleases the king reign instead of Vashti." And the matter pleased the king, and he did so.” (Meggilat Esther 2:1-4)
There is a second incident – described in the above pesukim – that seems to confirm this interpretation of Achashverosh’s behavior. Achashverosh’s anger abates. He misses Vashti and regrets deposing her. The king’s young servants suggest a solution to his problem. The king should collect all of the beautiful young women of the kingdom into a compound in Shushan, the capital. Each will be brought, in turn, to the king. The most worthy of these candidates he will select as his new queen.
This seems like a remarkably absurd suggestion. Achasheverosh was a powerful king. An appropriate queen for such a ruler would be a woman of royal lineage and prominence. Achasheverosh’s servants suggested that he select a replacement for Vashti through a process that was essentially a beauty pageant! However, despite the absurdity of this suggestion, Achashverosh readily and immediately accepted the proposal.
The apparent conclusion is that Achashverosh accepted this suggestion because he was not seeking an appropriate woman to replace Vashti. Neither was he seeking a single woman to serve as his queen. He wanted a female companion with whom he could enjoy intimacy, not another queen. However, a king cannot compromise his dignity by inviting a series of women into brief intimate encounters. Again, Achashverosh needed a pretext under which he could pursue his licentious desires. His servants provided the required pretext. Achashverosh would announce an elaborate plan for finding a new queen. This pretext would provide him with the opportunity to enter into intimate relationships with a virtually endless series of beautiful women. In other words, Achashverosh understood that, if revealed, his true motive would be easily recognized as simple lust. But he was unwilling to reconsider this motive. Instead, he sought, found, and implemented a strategy for concealing his true motive. He would disguise it as an elaborate process by which he would select a new queen.
“And the king took his ring off his hand and gave it to Haman the son of Hammedata the Agagite, the adversary of the Jews. And the king said to Haman, "The silver is given to you, and the people to do to them as it pleases you." (Meggilat Esther 3:10-11)
Before explaining Mordechai’s message to Esther, one further observation will be helpful. The above pesukim describes Achashverosh’s response to Haman’s proposal to destroy the Jewish people. It is interesting that Achashverosh does not instruct Haman to carry out his plan. He accepts Haman’s proposal to deposit a large sum of silver into the king’s treasury. In exchange, he gives Haman the authority to deal with the Jews as he pleases.
This is a strange response. Haman had argued that the Jews were unfaithful. They deserved to be destroyed as dangerous subversives. Yet, Achashverosh showed no enthusiasm for the destruction of his supposed enemies. He made no comment regarding his wishes for the treatment of these seditious traitors. He left their fate in Haman’s hands.
It seems that Achashverosh was not convinced that the Jews were traitors. He was not concerned with their supposed sedition. He did not feel compelled to address this presumed threat. He recognized that Haman’s accusation was not credible. But if Achashverosh recognized Haman’s duplicity, why did he turn the Jews over to their enemy? The inescapable conclusion is that Achashverosh coveted the money Haman offered to pay into his treasury.
If this is the case, why did Haman feel it necessary to slander the Jews? Why did he not just offer the king the silver he craved and demand that in exchange he receive control over the fate of the Jews?
Haman understood Achashverosh’s personality. He knew that Achashverosh could be motivated by his intense desire for even greater wealth. But also he knew that Achashverosh would not demean himself by responding to this offer of wealth. He would need some pretext in order to acquiesce to his offer. Haman provided the pretext. Haman recognized that in order to secure Achashverosh’s support, he did not need to convince him of the justice of his accusations. He merely needed to provide some pretext.
We can now understand Mordechai’s message to Esther. Mordechai understood Achashverosh’s personality and behavior. He knew that Haman had accused the Jews of disloyalty. But he realized that this accusation had not motivated the king to hand over the Jews to Haman. He knew that this accusation was intended, and served, as a pretext. He did not tell Esther about Haman’s slander against the Jews because this accusation was not the true reason for Achasheverosh’s agreement to Haman’s proposal. Esther need not develop a defense of the Jews. She did not need to prove their loyalty. Any effort to defend her people would be misguided and ineffectual. He revealed to Esther Achashverosh’s true motivation – Haman’s silver. His message to Esther was that she needed to counter Achashverosh’s desire for silver with an even stronger desire. Mordechai hoped that Achashverosh’s devotion to Esther and his need for her would serve as this opposing desire. Achashverosh would not risk losing Esther’s love. Mordechai hoped that Achashverosh’s deep need for Esther would motivate him to abandon Haman and rescind his decree.