Sign In Forgot Password

Trump and Ahasuerus (Purim 5777)

12/03/17 10:25:22 AM

Mar12

  1. Let’s discuss three pieces of Gemara that characterize King Ahasuerus. The first (TB Megillah 11a):

 

"המולך" אמר רב: שמלך מעצמו. אמרי לה לשבח, ואמרי לה לגנאי. אמרי לה לשבח - דלא הוה איניש דחשיב למלכא כוותיה, ואמרי לה לגנאי - דלא הוה חזי למלכותא, וממונא יתירא הוא דיהב וקם.

[Ahasuerus rose to power on his own. Some state that as a compliment, others as an insult. As a compliment, it means that there was no one else more qualified than he. As an insult, it means that he was completely unworthy to be king, but he used his financial influence to buy the monarchy.]

  1. The second and third appear back to back (TB Megillah 12a):

"בהראתו את עשר כבוד מלכותו" אמר רבי יוסי בר חנינא: מלמד שלבש בגדי כהונה: כתיב הכא "יקר תפארת גדולתו" וכתיב התם "לכבוד ולתפארת."

"ובמלאות הימים האלה" וגו' רב ושמואל; חד אמר: מלך פיקח היה, וחד אמר: מלך טיפש היה. מאן דאמר מלך פיקח היה - שפיר עבד דקריב רחיקא ברישא, דבני מאתיה כל אימת דבעי מפייס להו. ומאן דאמר טפש היה - דאיבעי ליה לקרובי בני מאתיה ברישא, דאי מרדו ביה הנך - הני הוו קיימי בהדיה.

[Ahasuerus wore the Priestly Garments.

Rav and Shmuel debate: One opines that Ahasuerus was wise, the other, that he was foolish. The one who thinks he was wise observes his political decision to invite the outlying citizens to his party before inviting the citizens of Shusan as a wise decision. This was because he reasoned that he could appease the Shushanites at any time, but not so for the outlying citizens. The one who thinks he was foolish believes that he should have invited the Shushanites first, since if the outliers were to rebel, he’d be able to stave them off with loyal locals.]

  1. The first question is: Of what relevance is it for us to know whether Ahasuerus reigned because of money or because of any other reason? Why did he wear the Bigdei Kehunah? And finally, who cares whether he was wise or foolish, and why does that debate come immediately after his wearing the Bigdei Kehunah?[1]

 

  1. The overarching issue that the Gemara wishes to undertake is: What political conditions led to the rise of a Haman? To answer this question, we need to see who the political leader was at the time. The reason why this question is relevant is because there will be many iterations in Jewish history where we will find ourselves ruled by different kinds of government, and we need to know what to look out for.

 

  1. So the first issue is – how did Ahasuerus rise to power? Was it through the popular vote, or was it because he was cunning and Machiavellian, and knew how to exploit the system – either through financial means or through some other method – to rise to power? This is important, because on either side of this equation there can arise a charismatic anti-Semite who will be able to influence the king and thereby infiltrate all of society. If the king is clearly recognized as being the supreme leader, then whatever he says, goes. So we have to look out when we have someone who is extremely popular as a leader, someone like, say, Pres. Obama, in that since most of the country will listen to him because of his great talent, his stature as a statesmen, he’ll command great respect.

 

  1. On the other hand, even a king who is recognized to be unworthy of his title can sometimes command influence if he knows how to work the system. So if we find someone who buys his way in to the kingdom, we have to be wary that perhaps he, too, will allow an anti-Semite to gain power. Furthermore, when a political leader is in disfavor, sometimes the public just gives up and assumes that if he was cunning enough to beat the system, there’s no way for us to go up against him.

 

  1. Next: Why did Ahasuerus wear the priestly garments? Let’s recall that the previous Gemara had taught us that his rise to power was as a political outsider. What he was demonstrating by wearing these garments was to show that there are times when greatness was originally bestowed on one group of people, and then, because of their unworthiness, it was taken away from then and granted to the underdog, the person no one thought would rise to greatness. So, just as originally the Kehunah was given to the first-born, and yet it was taken away from them because of their complicity in the Golden Calf, I, too, as Ahasuerus, may have been the political outsider, but because the “business as usual” career politicians became corrupt, they’ve forfeited their Priestly Garments, and I now take up their mantle.

 

  1. This leads to our next issue, which is whether Ahasuerus was wise or foolish in inviting the more distant subjects to his party first, and then only afterwards inviting the citizens of Shushan to the party. This debate is about the king who rises to power through unconventional means and who has bypassed all the Washington insiders. The question then becomes: Whom should he warm up to first? Should he warm up to the populist vote, the farmers and the middle class who voted him in, or should he try to endear himself to all of those insiders and media elites in Shushan who spurned him and made fun of him?

 

  1. One opinion is that Ahasuerus was very smart in first inviting the outsiders. After all, they were the ones who voted him into power, and so he needed to keep his voter base happy. He already knew that the Shushanites were against him, so there was no point in going through all the effort of trying to endear himself to them. He therefore reasoned that it made more sense to continue his role as the outsider, the underdog, the populist candidate, and satisfy the voters who were like him.

 

  1. But the opinion that says he was a fool takes the opposite approach, the approach of Confucius, who said, “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer.” Ahasuerus should have made the first and supreme effort to endear himself to those who had spurned him, to show that there were no hard feelings and that he wanted to keep the entire empire together.

 

  1. But how does this relate to Haman and to the rise of anti-Semitism? The answer is that when anti-Semitism is on the rise under such a king, and the king says, “Everything is fine, and we condemn all hatred and all racism,” can you trust him, because he knows what he’s doing, and he’ll be able to be reasoned with and to control the forces of evil, or do you have to be concerned that he’s foolish and is going to allow his peaceful and benevolent kingdom to be overrun by hateful and destructive people?

 

  1. If we are going to make any further comparisons to the Esther story and our modern times, let’s also remember that just as Esther was responsible for preventing the Haman massacre, we also have an Esther in government today. Her name is Yael (Ivanka), who was also a strong biblical female figure, who emerged out of nowhere and brought great salvation by destroying the enemy of the Jews. I don’t think it matters whether it’s a daughter or a wife; as long as the Ahasuerus of our time has an Esther or a Yael in his court, we should feel secure, provided that we do our part in destroying the Amalek in our midst.

 

  1. One of the greatest threats that Amalek presents to us is that he divides us (As Haman said, “This nation is scattered and divided among the nations”) and makes us doubt our greatness. The Jewish people today are divided politically, religiously, economically and in many other ways. Some Jews love Ahasuerus, some hate him. Some love the fact that there’s an Esther in the king’s court, some Jews hate it.

 

  1. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Amalek is well-poised to strike today, but specifically because of our internal strife and divisions. We are experiencing rising threats of anti-Semitism. Hundreds of JCC’s and Jewish facilities have received bomb threats, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, and we have every reason to be concerned that there will be more to follow. However, just as Mordechai was able to say to Haman, “I’m not afraid of you, I won’t bow to you,” we, too, should hold our heads high, not be afraid, and place our trust in Hashem and in the strength and fortitude of the Jewish people.

 

  1. If the story of Purim teaches us anything, it’s that accompanied with Torah and mitzvos must come a political astuteness and an effort to conciliate with whatever government is currently reigning. For Canadians, that means that we need to work with the liberal government and show friendship and respect to the Prime Minister and his party. For Americans, it means that Jews are most unwise if they are at the forefront of all of these counter-productive protests that are taking place on the streets today. The president of the United States is the supreme leader and is in the position to either accept Haman’s offer or to reject it. Jews who publicly and loudly condemn the president and hurl insults at him are doing a grave disservice to the Jewish people – regardless of whether the president is a “pike’ach” (wise man) or a “tipesh” (fool).

 

  1. Finally, the very next piece of Gemara that follows the deliberation as to whether Ahasuerus was wise or foolish states from R’ Yochanan b. Zakai: You know why the Jews deserved to be killed in Persia? Because they bowed down to idolatry. There are many forms of idolatry in the world today. Sometimes idolatry is hyper-patriotism, but it can also be hyper-antagonism. If you place too much trust in our political leaders, that’s idolatry, and if you place too little trust in HKB”H to save us from bad leaders, that’s also idolatry.

 

  1. Let’s allow ourselves on Purim to shirk that extremism of our ideologies and place our trust only in Hashem. May we all celebrate Purim responsibly and spiritually, and may this Purim usher in the ultimate redemption and salvation from all the Haman’s of the world, bb”a.
 

[1] There’s a fascinating drush by R’ Yosef ben Hayim Zarfati in his Sefer Yad Yosef, written in the 17th century, who uses homily to explain what’s going on. Much of our explanation works off of his interpretation, found in his commentary to Parshas Tetzaveh, Drush 7.

Tue, April 7 2020 13 Nisan 5780