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Who Really Controls Ahashverosh?

Ahashverosh has a weakness, an Achilles heel, a secret point of vulnerability, which causes him a great deal of anxiety: his relations with women
Noam Zion, Steve Israel
Arthur Szyk, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Szyk, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Steve Israel

At first glance the Purim Megillah shows us a world in which, on a human level at least, power over women is held by men. Ahashverosh specifically seems to be the embodiment of absolute power, over all his subjects, but most specifically over women. Queens come and go throughout the text of the Megillah, and women are summoned and dismissed at the king’s whim. The king is seen as the embodiment of power, a veritable god in a godless world.

A closer look at the relations between the sexes suggests, however, a rather different reading, which is relevant for the world in which we live today. It seems clear that Ahashverosh has a weakness, an Achilles heel, a secret point of vulnerability, which causes him a great deal of anxiety. This is precisely his relations with women.

For all his mastery, for all his omnipotence and his rule over 127 different states, twice in the story he becomes very unnerved. One would expect this vulnerability to be exposed at the time of the unmasking of the palace plot by Bigtan and Teresh, but in both the places where the plot is mentioned, the king shows no real concern, (other than in the second case, over the question of Mordechai’s reward).

Ahashverosh’s ‘extra concern’

The two places where the king shows real anxiety are precisely those cases where he has reason to suppose that he has lost his control over two of his wives. His concern at Vashti’s refusal is couched in terms of anger, but there is no question but that underneath the surface there is a kind of panic betrayed by the subsequent discussion between the king and his courtiers. One might think that the concern here is only social, lest control over the population be undermined by the behavior of Vashti, but the second case suggests an extra dimension of concern.

In chapter 7, we have the wonderful scene in which the king misinterprets Haman’s begging Esther for his life, seeing it as a sign that the queen is betraying him and that his control over her has evaporated. He has lost control over his own queen in his own house (v.8). Rocked by the revelation, he condemns Haman to death.

Here it is clear that reasons of state are not at the top of the king’s list. His anger and fear here are far more raw and personal than reasons of state would justify. It is the second time that this all powerful king reacts to losing control over the people over whom in theory he should have most control – his own wives.

It is precisely at this moment that the king comes face to face with the reality of his own impotence. For all his wealth and his power over life and death, the king cannot even control his own wives.

It has happened now (he thinks) not once but twice. He has been bested by a woman, betrayed in his own bedroom. It is here that the king’s deepest vulnerabilities are perhaps called forth. He can order life and he can order death, but he cannot order love.

Ultimately, it can be suggested, Ahashverosh demonstrates in his own personal story that weakness and vulnerability to which even the most powerful men tend to be subject. Because his deepest need is for love and acceptance, like all of us, the rejection by those who are seen as the best guarantee or proof of that love, his wives, is the most painful blow of all.

Power’s limits

The understanding that his power has its limits among the very people who hold the key to his deepest needs, is the hardest blow he could possibly receive, harder even than the treachery of Bigtan and Teresh or of Haman. It is this disdain – or what he feels to be disdain – on the part of those who are responsible for affirming his success and supporting his ego needs, that undermines his confidence and emphasizes his vulnerability and his ultimate mortality.

Such a reading suggests an interesting shedding of light on another scene. Perhaps the strongest illustration of the king’s power in the whole of the story is the scene in which Esther approaches Ahashverosh in the knowledge that his refusal to forgive the breach of protocol will cost her her life.

Traditionally, we see the scene through Esther’s fear. She is shown as approaching the king with all the fear and trepidation of her own mortality. At any moment her life might end and it is hardly surprising that later sources added the idea of her swooning to the original biblical text.

From Esther’s point of view for sure, it is the moment at which the power relationship that she knows characterizes the relations of the king, not just with her but with all his subjects, is most clear.  Women can hurt him

She comes to him like a beggar at the door, and hopes desperately for a favorable outcome over which she believes she has little or no control. This moment of powerlessness represents one of the scenes in the story that has most exercised the imagination of artists through the ages. It is hardly surprising. The drama inherent in any meeting between power and powerlessness is compelling and fascinating.

If the king loves Esther in any way, then what we do not see underneath the externals of the scene is a very different dynamic, where the power to a large extent lies with Esther (whether she knows it or not).

She has the power to reject the king, and that ability gives a secret strength to the woman that overturns what looks like the external power relationship and replaces it with a reality where the man is dependent on the woman, and the woman holds a great deal of the cards.

The real power, we suggest, in so many male/female relationships lies with the woman, because the man, so often unused to real intimate relationships, becomes dependent on the woman for a feeling of confidence and self-worth where it really counts – on the inside.

Ahashverosh can swagger his way through the pages of the Megillah. His courtiers and his subjects might see him as the pinnacle of power and glory, but on the inside where it really counts, the people who hold the keys to his feelings of self-worth are the two women who can hurt him where it really counts and where he really cares.

If this is so, then it suggests that contrary to appearances, women have a lot more power than the externals of society would lead us to expect. Men, to a large extent, become the prisoners of their own need for intimate acceptance. In a heterosexual relationship, it will always be women who control that.

It also perhaps explains why to so many men, manliness is equated with the ability to “control your woman” and why, inside the traditional patriarchal family or couple relationship, so much energy is invested in creating the trappings of male control. Male control mechanisms are needed when the man is worried about his control of the situation, not when he is not concerned.

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