Lessons from Achashverosh

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17 Feb 2013

And it was in the days of Achashverosh – the Achashverosh who ruled from Hodu to Kush – one hundred and twenty provinces. (Megilat Esther 1:1)

1.     The messages of the Megilah story

The story related in Megilat Esther is constructed around the interplay between four personalities.  Mordechai and Esther are the hero and heroine of the narrative.  Haman is villain.  Achashverosh is somewhat of an enigma.  He is initially deftly manipulated by Haman, but later he emerges as the protector of the Jewish people.  In other words, Achashverosh seems to be a passive figure in the narrative.  Rather than initiating action, he is acted upon by others.  Given this role, it would be expected for the Megilah to give him scant attention.  Yet, the Megilah lavishes its attention upon Achashverosh and devotes the entire first chapter to developing a portrait of his personality.

According to the Talmud, the events described Megilah had a significant impact upon the attitudes of the Jewish people.  Their experiences during the events, portrayed in the Megilah, provided compelling evidence of Hashem’s ongoing providential relationship with the Jewish people.  In addition, the events provided a moving lesson regarding human behavior and its consequences.  They observed two powerful figures – Achashverosh and Haman – trapped by the failings of their own personalities.  Their observations of these two personalities provided an object-lesson in the consequences of blind pursuit of honor and power or self-indulgent pleasure.  Therefore, the Megilah does not only include a description of events unfolding according to the irresistible plan of providence.  It also explores the behaviors, attitudes, and personalities of the main characters.  This biographical component is designed to communicate the rewards of virtue and the consequences of evil and corruption.1 The first character sketch in the Megilah is of the king – Achashverosh.  In the following discussion, a few aspects of that sketch will be explored.

In the third year of his reign, he made a party for all of his ministers and servants, the army of Paras and Madai, the nobility and the ministers of the provinces, before him.  (Megilat Esther 1:3)

2.    Achashverosh’s celebration provides insight into his character

Megilat Esther begins with a description of the celebration convened by Achashverosh in the third year of his ascent to the throne.  This celebration ultimately led to a confrontation between Achashverosh and his queen, Vashti.  Her defiance of the king resulted in her removal from the throne.  This created the opportunity for Esther to replace Vashti as queen.  In other words, Achashverosh’s celebration played an important role in the events that are described in the Megilah.  Nonetheless, the reason that the Megilah devotes so much attention to the celebration is not evident from the text.  It would seem adequate for the Megilah to explain that Vashti was deposed as a consequence of a dispute with the king and that Achashverosh, in response to his loneliness, sought out a new consort.  Why does the Megilah devote so much attention to Achashverosh’s celebration?  Apparently, the details of celebration and the events that occurred there provide a revealing portrait of Achashverosh’s personality and his failings.

There, he displayed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honor of his excellent majesty, many days – one hundred and eighty days.  When these days were completed, the king made a feast for all of the people that were present in Shushan the castle, both great and minor people, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.  (Megilat Esther 1:4-5)

3.    The strange design of Achashverosh’s celebration

The Megilah explains that Achashverosh’s celebration was composed to two separate feasts.  The first was conducted for a period of 180 days.  All of the dignitaries, ministers, and nobility were invited to this fete.  The second feast was held for seven days.  At this party, Achashverosh hosted the entire population of Shushan.  Even the most common citizens were invited to attend.  What was the purpose of Achashverosh’s celebration and why did he create two events?

In discussing the first celebration, the Megilah explains that Achashverosh wished to display his wealth and glory. This objective becomes very meaningful when considered in the context of a comment by Rashi.  Rashi explains that the celebration was occasioned by Achashverosh’s consolidation of power and authority.2 Apparently, Achashverosh felt it necessary to impress upon the leaders, ministers, nobility, and the bureaucracy of his extended kingdom that he was now firmly in control and that he was the absolute monarch of the realm.

This explains Achashverosh’s motives for convening the first feast.  Why did he follow this 180-day fete with a second feast on behalf of the citizens of Shushan?

And they gave them drink in vessels of gold – vessels of diverse types – and the royal wine was abundant, according to the bounty of the king.  The drinking was according to the instruction; no one was compelled.  For so the king had directed to all the administrators of his household, that they should do according to every man’s desire.  (Megilat Esther 1:7-8)

4.    Achashverosh’s dual objectives and their relationship to one another

In describing the second party, the Megilah explains that the participants were served wine in vessels of gold of diverse styles.  An unlimited quantity of drink was made available to the guests.  Then, the Megilah adds that Achashverosh instructed his household servants to carefully respect the preferences of his guests.  Every guest was to be given as much wine as he wished.  No one was to be denied the opportunity to fully indulge his appetite for drink and no one was to be forced to drink more than he wished.  Rashi explains the importance of this instruction and its intention.  At many parties, guests are required to drink cup after cup of wine as a courtesy to the host.3 Achashverosh specifically instructed his staff to not create such an expectation.  Achashverosh wanted his guests to truly enjoy themselves.  He did not want their enjoyment to be marred by the necessities of protocol or social custom.  Each guest was free to conduct himself – in regards to drink – as he pleased, free from the imposition of protocol or custom.

This suggests that Achashverosh had a second objective in creating his celebration.  He wished to create a party in which the participants would be encouraged to fully indulge their desires free of social protocol or restrictive custom.  This objective was achieved in the second feast.  This party was a hedonistic experience.

In short, each of the two component feasts of the celebration had its own purpose.  The first fete was designed to impress upon the political and social leadership of the kingdom that Achashverosh was their supreme and absolute ruler.  The second component focused on pure pleasure, unfettered by social protocol.  However, the identification of the objectives of each component feast does not completely explain Achashverosh’s plan.  Why could the two objectives not be combined in a single feast?  Why did each feast with its unique objective also have its unique guest list?

In order to understand the odd structure of Achashverosh’s celebration, it is necessary to know more about his background.  The Sages explain that Achashverosh was not the scion of noble lineage.  He was a commoner who rose to power and deposed the royal family.  This insight adds a dimension to the purpose of the first party.  For 180 days Achashverosh hosted the leadership, royalty, and bureaucracy of his vast kingdom.  He asserted his authority.  The common people of Shushan were not included among the invited guests to this affair.  Achashverosh did not need to impress the commoners.  He did not need to assert his power over or demonstrate his authority to the plebeian class of Shushan.  However, after the first feast ended, he immediately convened a party for the common people of Shushan.  What does this reveal about Achashverosh?

Apparently, the second party was Achashverosh’s response to the first affair.  For 180 days he had been required to appear before and to impress the notables and nobility of his kingdom.  Furthermore, his objective was to impress upon his guests his authority and grandeur.  In order to accomplish his objective, he was required to conduct himself with dignity and restraint.  He succeeded and he completed the 180-day celebration without mishap.  However, the lengthy, dignified, and restrained affair was an ordeal for Achashverosh.  Therefore, he immediately convened a second celebration.  The second party was designed to correct the defect of the first party and provide Achashverosh with a release that he needed desperately and felt he had earned.  The second party paid no attention to protocol or social convention.  Demonstrations of authority were replaced by abandonment to pleasure.  This was not a feast for royalty and dignitaries.  Achashverosh realized the elite of society would scoff at such an undignified adventure in hedonism.  Instead, Achashverosh chose as his companions the common people – the members of the plebeian class who were his brothers.  For Achashverosh, this second feast was the true party and the reward for his previous ordeal.  However, at this second feast, Achashverosh faltered and thereby, he placed his reign in jeopardy.

On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Bizta, Harbona, Bigta, Abagta, Zetar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains that ministered before the king Ahasuerus to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty; for she was fair in appearance.  (Megilat Esther 1:10-11)

5.    Achashverosh’s motives for precipitating a confrontation with Vashti

On the final day of the second feast, Achashverosh precipitated a fateful confrontation with his queen, Vashti.  After 186 days of celebration, Achashverosh became mindlessly drunk.  In his intoxicated state, he commanded that Vashti appear before his guests so that he might display her astounding beauty.  How was Achashverosh able to contain his appetites and remain sober until this point and why did he now permit himself to become intoxicated?  Furthermore, why did his loss of control express itself in his precipitation of a confrontation with his queen?  Even drunk, Achashverosh must have realized that he was inviting a confrontation with Vashti!

Our Sages provide an additional bit of information that is essential to understanding the confrontation that unfolded between Achashverosh and Vashti. They explain that Achashverosh and Vashti came to the throne from very different backgrounds.  In contrast to Achashverosh’s humble origins, Vashti boasted royal lineage.  Achashverosh was a commoner and usurper who seized the throne and took Vashti as his queen.4 It is very likely that his marriage to Vashti was designed to consolidate and legitimize his position as sovereign.

In this context, Achashverosh’s treatment of Vashti provides another insight into his personality.  His treatment of Vashti expresses a need to demean her and to deprive her of dignity.  This suggests that Achashverosh felt intimidated by Vashti’s royal lineage and somewhat inadequate in comparison to his queen.  In other words, despite his power and authority, Achashverosh remained insecure.  He could not dispel his own sense, that ultimately, he was a commoner who had usurped the throne from the royal family.   Vashti evoked a deep sense of inadequacy.  Under normal circumstances, Achashverosh was in control of his feelings and did not give public expression to his attitude toward Vashti.  Now, in his drunken state, his resentments and his sense of inferiority overpowered his good sense and he engineered a showdown with his royal queen.

It is not surprising that only now – well into his second feast – did Achashverosh become drunk and lose his self-control.  As explained, Achashverosh was intimidated by Vashti’s noble heritage.  If this was Vashti’s affect upon him, one can imagine the strain he experienced during the first 180-day feast.  For 180 days, Achashverosh was surrounded by nobility and notables.  He was required to impress his guests and demonstrate authority.  However, these very people, whom he labored to impress, reminded him of his own plebeian origins and evoked a deep sense of inferiority.  Now, at his second feast, his ego was buoyed by the company of the common people of Shushan – the people among whom he felt secure and confident.  In this environment, he felt comfortable fully indulging his hedonistic desires.  He also became engrossed in his resentment of those who made him feel inferior and unworthy.  To Achashverosh, no person represented the class of privilege more than his own queen – Vashti.  Eventually, his state of mind and judgment were compromised by his drunkenness.  His anger and resentment gained control over him and he precipitated the confrontation with Vashti.

And the queen Vashti refused to come at the instructions of the king through the chamberlains.  And the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him.  (Megilat Esther 1:12)

6.    Vashti’s refusal and Achashverosh’s reaction 

Achashverosh’s reaction of Vashti’s refusal to attend to his wishes was immediate and extreme.  He was overcome with anger.  The remarkable intensity of Achashverosh’s reaction can be appreciated in the context of another comment of our Sages.  They explain that in response to Achashverosh’s ill-mannered invitation, Vashti delivered a sharp rebuke.  She reminded Achashverosh of his humble origins.  She attributed his drunkenness and boorish behavior to these origins and contrasted Achashverosh to her own regal father who never demeaned himself publicly.5 In other words, rather than achieving his goal of humbling Vashti, Achashverosh was reminded by her of his own inadequacy.  The very insecurities that motivated his confrontation with Vashti were intensified and transformed into indignant anger.

In summary, the first chapter of Megilat Esther provides two important insights into Achashverosh’s personality.  First, despite his ascent to the throne, in his heart he remained a member of the plebeian class.  He was capable of acting with restraint and dignity – for a period of time.  However, he was drawn toward the hedonistic lifestyle and could not resist its allure.  Second, Achashverosh was a powerful king.  Yet, he was plagued by a sense of inferiority and inadequacy.  He had risen to the highest rank within society.  Yet, he viewed himself as a usurper and interloper.  These character traits fatefully combined and led Achashverosh into a confrontation with Vashti and ultimately caused him to depose and kill his queen.

1. Masechet Megilah 19a

2. Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Megilat Esther 1:2.

3. Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Megilat Esther 1:8.

4. Masechet Megilah 12b and 11a.

5. Masechet Megilah 12b.