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Midrash Esther IV: Was Achashveirosh Capable of Change?

“Achashveirosh, this is Achashveirosh.” Rabbi Isaac and the Rabbis explained differently. Rabbi Isaac said: he was that Achashveirosh in whose days trouble came, as it says, “there was great mourning among the Jews.” This is Achashveirosh: in whose days all blessings came, as it says, “the Jews had gladness and joy, a feast and a good day.”

The Rabbis say: Achashveirosh before Esther went in onto him: “this is a Achashveirosh,” after Esther went into him, he did not have relations with women in the period of their separation.

I understand this debate between Rabbi Isaac and the rabbis as the question of whether Achashveirosh was capable of change. Rabbi Isaac insists that he was not called the same one who caused great trouble, was the one who allowed great happiness and blessings. He was no different when he was causing problems than he was when he was allowing his Jewish subjects to be happy. Rabbi Isaac reads this as a story of the king incapable of change. He is warning us not to judge a ruler by whether he allows us joy or whether he causes terrible suffering. Neither the joy nor the troubles will define the ruler. When dealing with a ruler we must always understand his essence. We should not look only at immediate results.

The Rabbis, on the other hand, find a hint in the text to the fact that Achashveirosh was actually capable of change: he was different after Esther went into his throne room then he was before. He lived at a higher moral level. He was changed by Esthers influence.

The Rabbis are saying that whatever followed the scene of Esther entering the king’s throne room was a result of a change caused by Esther’s influence. Achashveirosh agreed to the first party because he was a changed man. He agreed to the second party because he was further changed by exposure to Esther at the first party. It was Esther’s influence that caused Achashveirosh to grant Mordechai the great honor of being led through the city on the King’s horse by Haman. It was Esther’s influence that made the king take another look at Haman and perceive the risk he really was.

The Rabbis read the Book of Esther as dealing with a different Achashveirosh after each exposure to Esther. They seem to be arguing for the influence that good, righteous, and pious people can have on a king who is capable of change. They are not declaring every ruler as so capable; however, if we sense that someone in power is truly capable of change, we must use our goodness and piety to, step by step, influence him in for good.

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