Purim Megillat Esther and Political Theory

Nov 17, 2014
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Rabbi Yehuda Schnall

Megillat Esther revolves around the political intrigues of Achashveirosh’s Persian Empire. A closer look at a number of episodes in the Megilla reveals some of the moral and theoretical undercurrents of the Persian political life.

We first examine two seemingly contradictory comments by Rashi in Devorim in a passage about the Torah’s system of leadership and law.

The Optimal Government
In the first chapter of Sefer Devorim, verse 13, Moshe tells Bnai Yisroel, “Get for yourselves wise and understanding men, known to your tribes, and I will place them at your heads.” These men were to serve as judges. On the expression “at your heads,” Rashi comments, “Heads and honored ones over you, that you pay them respect and reverence.

Further on, in verse 16, Moshe says, “And I commanded your judges at that time. . . . . ,” on which Rashi comments, “When I appointed them, I said to them, ‘Now is not like the past; in the past you were under your own authority, now you are subjugated to the community.’”

There seems to be a conflict between these two comments of Rashi. In the first, he implies that the judges are to rule over the people; and in the second, he says that the judges are to be servants of the people, the people being, in effect, rulers over the judges. The resolution of this conflict may be that Rashi’s first comment is on what Moshe said to the people, whereas his second comment is on what Moshe said to the judges. Perhaps Rashi means that Moshe was prescribing that the people should view their judges as rulers over them, to be treated with respect and reverence; but the judges should view themselves as servants of the people, devoted to the task of promoting the public welfare.

One might see this as a prescription for optimal government: the people should resolve to follow their leaders respectfully, and the leaders should be concerned not with their own honor, but with serving the people.

Unfortunately, in many organizations – political and otherwise – the attitudes are exactly the reverse of this prescription. The leaders are concerned only with consolidating and increasing their own glory and power, while the people think of their leaders as their servants, to be manipulated for their own ends.

The Persian Empire
The Government

The Persian imperial court at Shushan, as depicted in Megillat Esther, is an extreme example of this reversal of Moshe’s prescription. King Ahashverosh views the people of his empire as his servants, existing only for his benefit and pleasure. The king has no obligations to his subjects; but they are entirely at his command, and it is their duty to satisfy the king’s desires. By extension, Haman, as a favored official in the court, is concerned only with his own glorification, in pursuit of which he is willing to trample the most basic rights of the people of the empire.

The Kidnapping
This attitude that all is for the sake of the king is exhibited in the wholesale kidnapping of all the beautiful young women of the empire so that Ahashverosh could choose a queen from among them. This kidnapping amounted to imprisonment for life (albeit in royal surroundings); for after the compulsory year of soaking in oil and spices and the subsequent night with the king, these maidens were relegated to the harem, never again to be with the king (and, we may assume, certainly not with any other man) unless and until “the king desired her and she was called by name.” Obviously these women in themselves meant nothing; they existed merely for the purpose of providing the king with pleasure.

The Killing
We can also see this attitude in Haman’s presentation of his case for killing all the Jews of the empire. He says to the king, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws differ from every people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so it is not worth it for the king to let them be.” (Chapter 3, verse 8). The last clause implies that if this people is of no benefit to the king, then there is no reason to let them live. The king is persuaded by this argument, and empowers Haman to do with this people as he sees fit. Another part of Haman’s case was to offer the king money, presumably to come from the spoils of the murdered Jews. The overall point seems to have been that the king has more to gain by the death of these people than by their continuing to live. In any event, the king declines the offer, allowing Haman to keep the money, perhaps as a manifestation of the king’s favor, and perhaps also as a reward for Haman’s having the king’s welfare so much in mind. But the Jews are, in effect, condemned to death, without consideration of their rights or welfare, and for that matter, not on the basis of any concern for the rights or welfare of any other peoples of the empire.

The Deposition
It is interesting to contrast the decision process that led to the decree to kill all the Jews with the decision process that led to deposing Queen Vashti. Vashti had committed the offense of refusing to obey Ahashverosh’s command to parade before the drunken revelers at the king’s party. All the solemnity of a court of justice is evoked as the king puts the matter before “the wise men,” the highest officials in the realm, “all who know law and judgement.” But when Haman suggests wiping out an entire people from the empire, Ahashverosh simply tells him to do what he wants. He does not even ask who these people are whom Haman wants to destroy. Without knowing or caring what harm will be done, he gives Haman his royal ring which enables Haman to issue decrees in the name of the king. It seems that the Megillah is satirizing the king’s pretensions to justice and responsible government when in reality he is completely irresponsible and unjust toward his subjects.

The Double Plea
There are many other examples of concern exclusively for the king’s happiness. One of the most striking is the fact that Esther has to plead twice for the lives of the Jews. The first plea (chapter 7, verses 3 and 4) seems to have the desired effect; for the king is duly angered by the news that Haman is planning to kill the queen and her people (verses 5-7). Furthermore, the king wastes little time in doing something about the situation – he has Haman hanged (verses 9-10). The chapter ends with the triumphant announcement that “the anger of the king abated.” But Esther had to plead again for the lives of the Jews (chapter 8, verses 3-6). This time the king took somewhat more appropriate action – he empowered Mordechai and Esther to save the Jews, saying, “Write concerning the Jews as you see fit, in the name of the king and seal with the king’s ring.”

Why did Esther have to plead a second time, when the first plea seemed to have had the desired effect on the king? The answer seems to be that the king was totally unconcerned with the lives of the Jews. The only problem with Haman’s plot to kill them was that it made the king angry. Once the king’s anger abated, there was no more problem. The fact that the Jews would still be killed was not a problem that concerned the king.

Also interesting is the way Esther presents her case before the king. She at no point appeals to the injustice of killing the Jews. Nor does she argue in terms of harm or benefit to the empire. She has to plead in a way that the king could understand and to which he could relate. After prefacing her plea with “If it please the king and if I have found favor before him…” (chapter 8, verse 5. See also chapter 7, verse 3), she argues that the fatal decree of Haman should be rescinded “because how could I endure to see the evil that will befall my people and how could I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” (Chapter 8, verse 6). The problem with the killing of the Jews is that it would make the queen unhappy. That is a problem with which the king could sympathize. Perhaps he also reasoned that the queen’s unhappiness might affect the king’s peace of mind as well.

The Scepter
Another case in point is the king’s inaccessibility. As Esther told Mordechai, “All the servants of the king and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who comes to the king, to the inner courtyard, not summoned, there is one law for him, to be killed, except one to whom the king will extend his golden scepter that he may live.” (Chapter 4, verse 11). The king does not have to make himself available to others to address their needs. But when the king summons someone, that person had better make himself available to the king – a lesson that Vashti learned the hard way.

The Persian People
As I said before, there are many more examples. But now let us turn to the other aspect of Moshe’s prescription, i.e., that the people should follow their leaders with respect and reverence. At first sight, it seems that the Persian Empire exemplified this part of the prescription, taking it to the extreme. Everyone bows and scrapes before the king, as well as before Haman (with the glaring exception of Mordechai, who barely escapes paying a dire price for his insubordination). But this bowing and scraping is not the same as sincere respect. Nor is it the same as following and obeying a leader.

King Ahashverosh, since he is concerned only with himself, not with his subjects, in fact does not govern or lead at all. He lets others issue decrees in his name as they see fit. Those others manipulate the king for their own ends. And the general populace, as well as the lower officials of the empire, do what they think is in their own self-interest. Thus, when confronted with conflicting decrees about the Jews – one from Haman to destroy them, the other from Mordechai and Esther to defend them, and both sealed with the king’s ring – it is the fact that Haman has been killed and disgraced, while Mordechai enjoys power, that determines how provincial officials and the people in general behave. (See Chapter 9, verse 1-4.)

Indeed it is one of the ironies of the Persian imperial government that the king can, on a mere whim, have decrees issued in his name, that these decrees can be matters of life and death for hundreds and thousands of his subjects, that he may not even know what these decrees entail, and yet these decrees cannot be repealed even by the king himself. The result can be anarchy, as was the case on the thirteenth of Adar, when throughout the empire, a war was going on over which the king had little, if any, control.

A Prayer
There is a saying that people get the kind of leaders they deserve. May we be inspired by the messages of Megillat Esther to merit leaders who will be devoted public servants and whom we can follow with respect and reverence.

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