Chazal debate (Megillah 12a) as to whether Achashveirosh was evil and shrewd or simply a fool. In other words, a major question facing readers of Megillat Ester is whether Haman was manipulating Achashveirosh or vice versa. Unlike Ester and Mordechai who clearly are Tzaddikim, and Haman is undoubtedly a Rasha, we are unsure regarding Achashveirosh (Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik is quoted as suggesting a third possibility, namely, that Achashveirosh was both shrewd and a fool). In this essay, we will explore both possibilities which raise some vitally important contemporary ramifications.
Achashveirosh as a Fool
The Gemara (Megillah 13b) cites Rava, who states that, "No one was as skilled at Lashon Hara (slander) as was Haman," meaning that Haman was a master manipulator. Rava interprets Haman's speech to Achashveirosh (Ester 3:8) as convincing him to view the Jews as a threat to his kingdom who could be eliminated with no cost to his rule. This passage provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at the conspiracies and thought processes of our enemies. The conversation that Rava describes between Haman and Achashveirosh seems, regrettably, to have occurred on many occasions throughout our turbulent history.
Haman begins the conversation saying, "let's eliminate them (the Jews)." Achashveirosh responds, "I am afraid of their God," for he knew that the enemies of the Jews are severely punished. Haman, in turn, says, "They neglect the Mitzvot," and their God will not save them. Achashveirosh responds that their Rabbis, though, observe the Mitzvot faithfully. Haman responds, "They are one nation," and their Rabbis will not save them (this teaches that each Jew must assume spiritual responsibility and not assume that others will perform Mitzvot on his or her behalf). Haman then tells Achashveirosh (because, according to this view, Achashveirosh is too simple to perceive these threats) that he should not be concerned that eliminating the Jews will create a "bald spot" in his kingdom, meaning that a vacuum will not be created by eliminating the inhabitants of a portion of his kingdom, which would cause instability and a major disruption in the empire. Haman explains that since the Jews are scattered throughout the empire, their elimination will not create a vacuum.
Haman continues that Achashveirosh should not be concerned that the empire benefits from the Jews, because they are comparable to mules that do not produce any offspring. (We Jews have understood throughout the generations that we must benefit the national weal, in order for our presence to be tolerated; similarly, the State of Israel must contribute to the world economy lest its existence not be tolerated.) Haman then tells Achashveirosh not to be concerned about an entire area in which there is a large concentration of Jews (who could effectively resist an extermination plan), since they are spread out throughout the kingdom (this teaches us that Jews should live in close proximity to each other; see the Netziv's comments to Shemot 1:7).
Haman then tells Achashveirosh that the Jews' rules differ from everyone else's, as the Jews do not eat with the Persians nor intermarry with them (this teaches that Kashrut preserves our cultural identity; similarly, Chazal forbade us to consume non-Jews' wine and cheese as a bulwark against intermarriage). Haman adds that the Jews do not honor the king's rules, as they always have some sort of excuse for why that they cannot work, such as by claiming that "today is Shabbat" or "today is Pesach." This is a typical technique of a slanderer; they make a claim that contains a minor resemblance to the truth, which is removed from its proper context and proportion (see Rashi to BeMidbar 13:27). This continues to be a tactic of current anti-Israel slanderers as well, who claim there were Israeli massacres in Jenin in 2002, Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2014.
Rashi here adds that Haman claimed that Jews did not pay their taxes. This teaches that paying taxes is not only Halachically required (see Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369) but is also quite a threat to our safety if ignored.
Haman's concludes his speech to Achashveirosh in a most dramatic and effective manner (we must recognize that many of our enemies are effective speakers who have the ability to sway audiences with their words; Hitler, Yemach Shemo VeZichro, unfortunately, was a mesmerizing speaker). Haman told Achashveirosh that he should destroy the Jews because they eat, drink and disgrace the king. Haman explained, "If a fly falls into a Jew's wine, he removes the fly and drink the remaining liquid. If, however, the king would touch the wine of a Jew, the Jew would stamp the goblet into the ground and not drink the wine." This is yet another example of the deceptive exaggerations of the anti-Semite.
Rava presents for us a portrait of Achashveirosh as a fool who was manipulated by Haman to annihilate the Jews. A basis for this approach is that in the first chapter of Megillat Ester, Achashveirosh is manipulated by one of his advisors (whom Chazal, not surprisingly, identify as Haman; see Megillah 12b and Tosafot s.v. Memuchan for an alternate identification) to kill his own queen. We should note that even according to this approach, Achashveirosh is not an individual of strong moral character who was overtaken by Haman. In addition, he harbors negative feelings towards Jews and needed only a Haman to overcome his inhibitions to express them.
Achashveirosh as a Manipulator
The Gemara (Megillah 13b-14a) continues, citing Rabi Abba's alternative analysis of Achashveirosh. He presents a Mashal (analogy) that illuminates Achashveirosh's thinking and tactics. He tells a story of two field owners, one who had a big mound of dirt in his field and one who had a big ditch in his field (this Mashal is alluded to in the Selichot recited by Ashkenazim on Ta'anit Esther). The one who had the ditch admired the big mound of dirt and wished he could purchase the mound of dirt to fill his ditch. The one who had the mound of dirt wished to purchase the ditch in order to dispose of his dirt. One day the two field owners met and the ditch owner asked if he could purchase the mound of dirt. The individual who owned the mound, in turn, enthusiastically urged the ditch owner to take the mound free of charge.
Haman is analogous to the ditch owner and Achashveirosh can be compared to the individual who owned the mound, as Haman was missing something and Achashveirosh had something he wanted to dispose. Haman wished to eliminate us, but he lacked the legislative authority that would permit him to do so. Achashveirosh, on the other hand, wished to do away with the Jews but was unwilling to do so himself. He feared profoundly negative consequences if his plan backfired. When Haman offered to annihilate the Jews, Achashveirosh was willing to give him the authority to execute his plan. If the plan backfired, Haman would take the blame and serve as the "scapegoat", and Achashveirosh could emerge, politically speaking, unscathed. A proof to this approach is Achashveirosh's decline of Haman's offer of 10,000 silver pieces as compensation for destroying the Jews (Ester 3:11), which demonstrates Achashveirosh's eagerness to destroy us. According to Rabi Abba, Achashveirosh is an evil individual who brilliantly manipulated Haman.
Both approaches to Achashveirosh teach very sobering lessons for today's less than ideal circumstances. The opinion that he was a fool is quite frightening, as it teaches that at times foolish individuals assume positions of great responsibility. Such leaders can be easily manipulated by corrupt advisors who guide the leader solely with the aim of advancing their own personal agendas.
On the other hand, the opinion that Achashveirosh was shrewd presents an even more sobering message. The Megillah ends with Achashveirosh still in power. Thus, a powerful individual who desires to destroy us remains on the throne of the Persian Empire. Moreover, it teaches that we need be concerned for not only the Hamans of this world, but of the Achashveiroshes as well. Unfortunately, there are many Achashveiroshes in the world who wish for the Jews to be eliminated but do not want to assume the risk entailed in doing so. They do not actively seek to harm us, but if another assumes the risk in doing so, they support him and might even cooperate with him if they feel it is safe.
A poignant example of this phenomenon would be the many Germans, Poles, Lithuanians and other Europeans who quietly harbored their hatred of Bnei Yisrael for many years but did not act on that hatred due to fear of severe negative consequences. However, when Hitler, Yemach Shemo VeZichro, assumed power, many Europeans eagerly served as accomplices to the Nazis' crimes. Unfortunately, the ambiguity regarding the character of Achashveirosh is, much to our chagrin, quite relevant today.