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The Political Genius of Ahasuerus

He might’ve been a hedonist and a cad, but the king, rare among leaders, knew how to listen

Mark Oppenheimer
March 01, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset image: Wikipedia
Aert de Gelder, 'The Banquet of Ahasuerus,' c. 1680.Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset image: Wikipedia
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset image: Wikipedia
Aert de Gelder, 'The Banquet of Ahasuerus,' c. 1680.Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset image: Wikipedia

Didn’t have time to read the Megillah this Purim? No worries! To celebrate the holiday, we asked five writers to reflect on the story’s five leading characters.

Nobody really knows what makes a good leader. Growing up with nerdy aspirations to be a politician, I figured that my books would guide me, that he who had digested more knowledge would be fit to rule. Then came the day when I read, in one of those books, that one of our great presidents was a failed author who had to have somebody else write his own book for him—and yet John F. Kennedy struck everybody as great, somehow. Why? It had something to do with charisma, they said, and so maybe it was charisma that made great leaders. Then I read that Grant and Churchill were both great despite—or was it because of?—drink. Perhaps the great leader was a tortured, dipsomaniacal genius.

So nobody knows. It helps not to be too stupid or too cruel, of course. But what else helps? The Book of Esther suggests that the great leader may be the one who is unafraid to change his mind, the one who responds to new information with a new conclusion. (“When my information changes, I change my views,” the economist Paul Samuelson famously said, borrowing, he claimed, dubiously, from Keynes. “Don’t you, sir?”) For Ahasuerus, the key virtue is a little bit of humility, of knowing when to say, “Oh yeah—I guess I was wrong. You’re right.”

I mean, the man is no intellectual. He is a hedonist of the Robert Baratheon school, the kind of guy whose idea of power is following a year-long feast with a week-long feast—because why not? And he has a partner, Vashti, who shares his values: While he parties with the men, she (looking the other way, having resigned herself to his infidelities, as women of the time were required to) throws a party of the ladies of the realm. He is, of course, ethically abhorrent, if sadly typical for his time, eager to throw aside that well-matched partner when she refuses to sacrifice her dignity to become his showpiece.

We all know what comes next, and it ain’t pretty: He orders up a wealth of oil-slicked virgins (look it up—the oil is in the text), then, hobbled by his year-plus bender of booze and babes, heeds an advisor, Haman, who would have him murder all the Jews. The honor of the household, and the heads of the Jews, are saved only when Esther beseeches him to change his mind, to heed his yetzer hatov, his good inclination. And justice is served, and Shushan can sleep easy at night, only when Mordechai goads him to do the right thing, and allow the would-be murderers to swing from the gallows.

At every stage, Ahasuerus is listening to others. Whether killing the Jews or not killing the Jews, whether exalting Haman or sending him to die, the only consistent thing about the king is his captivity to whoever whispered in his ear last. As a model of leadership, it’s crudely amoral, and yes, we can all aspire to better. As the present leadership of our country attests, rudderless leaders are liable to be captured by men with names like Bannon and Manafort. On the other hand, Ahasuerus is no Trump, for Ahasuerus is, crucially, without ego. He’s a hedonist but not a narcissist. He could be made to see the light, and indeed was happy to. “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Ahasuerus,” we read at the end of the Megillah, “and great among the Jews.” Great among the Gentiles, too, it must be said, including the non-Jewish king who, for all his flaws, was happy to say, “Okay, so I got it wrong.”

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.