How should the world behave with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Should they consider him a Haman or should they consider him an Achashverosh? What is the difference between a Haman and an Achashverosh?
David Henshke is Professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University. In 1995, he wrote an article in the magazine Megadim, in which he argued that the real plot of the Purim story is not Haman versus Mordecai or Haman versus Esther or Haman versus the Jews. He argued that the real plot of the Purim story is about Achashverosh and what you face an Achashverosh. His kingdom is the subject of this story. This is not the story of a villain named Haman. It’s the story of a completely immoral, self-centered, paranoid and emotionally weak individual who controls the entire Middle East, and how dangerous that can be.
Haman may not be the most dangerous man in the Purim story. He is a wicked man and his intention is clear. He wants to destroy the Jews. However, he is not necessarily the most dangerous man. Achashverosh is portrayed in the megilla as someone trying to replace God. The Megillah describes a big party when everyone comes from all over the world to the capital to celebrate at the palace. Is this not also the messianic vision of a time when the nations will come to visit the Temple and celebrate with God for many days? The megilla also describes a time when the king says that one can only enter the inner chamber if the king summons him and if someone enters this chamber without permission, then that person will be put to death. Isn’t that also the story with the cohen gadol (high priest) who can only enter Kodesh HaKodashim (Holy of Holies) at the right time, otherwise he will die? The Megillah describes a world where Achashaverosh seems to have replaced God and hold all power.
What makes Achashverosh so dangerous is that he holds all the power, both at the beginning of the Purim story and at the end of the Purim story, and he acts according to the whims and wishes of everything people say. He makes life or death decisions like killing Vashti when drunk. As long as someone flatters him, then he will do what that person says, be it Haman, Esther or another minister. Achashverosh has no backbone. He is simply a vain king who has all the power to do whatever he wants and he does whatever he wants without any regard for reason, ethics and morals. It’s very dangerous.
Achashverosh is a king who wants to reward Mordechai the Jew for saving his life, so he orders Mordechai to be paraded all over town, when in fact he plans to have him killed in a few months along with all the rest of the Jews. Does that make any sense? Moreover, even after the death of Haman and his 10 sons, when I would have thought that the Jews had won and it should be a time of celebration, the decree against the Jews remains in force because it is contrary to the custom that the king rescinds the decree. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but the king doesn’t rescind the decree; he must instead issue a pro-Jewish edict and a battle between the Jews and their enemies is still expected – nearly a year after Haman’s death.
Perhaps the purpose of the megilla is to make us aware that sometimes there are dangerous people who may not seem dangerous at first glance, who may appear to be statesmen, but who are really very dangerous. how does the story end? The story ends with Mordechai becoming second to the king. He must do this because the king was, is and will remain a very dangerous and powerful man. Mordechai decides that the best way to deal with him is to become an officer and counselor in the king’s court and hopes he can persuade the king to make good decisions in the future.
The Purim story contrasts two villains, Haman and Achashverosh. We destroy Haman and we negotiate, flatter and appease Achashverosh. We destroy Haman because we can and because he clearly intends to destroy us. We negotiate, flatter and appease Achashverosh because we cannot destroy him and he does not necessarily want to destroy us. He just wants to do whatever he has to do to feed his ego.
How should the world behave with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Should they consider him a Haman or should they consider him an Achashverosh? The international intelligence community is wrestling with this question. Is the invasion of Ukraine a sign that Putin is flattered and told by those around him that it will increase his prestige and legacy, or is the invasion part of a grand strategy to bring Russia back to its glorious imperialist and Soviet days and to reestablish becoming a superpower again? Until the recent invasion of Ukraine, much of the international community largely viewed Putin as an Achashverosh, as someone very powerful and someone we could negotiate with willingly. The international community now sees someone willing to seize the opportunity to restore Russia’s sense of pride and place in the world, and it will not be appeased to do so.
Israel has good relations with Ukraine and Moscow, and Israeli Prime Minister Bennett visited Moscow last week to sit down with Putin in hopes of mediating between the two countries. If he can broker a fair deal for Ukraine, that is certainly in everyone’s interest. Putin’s recent assault demonstrated that, like Achashverosh, he is one of the most dangerous people in the world. However, he recently showed that he is not Achashverosh. Like Haman, he is someone with a distinct destructive ideology that he wishes to implement that will cost the lives of innocent men, women, and children. Like Haman, he is someone who cannot be flattered to withdraw from Ukraine.
Jonathan Muskat is the rabbi of Young Israel of Oceanside.