It has been difficult to balance our spiritual needs with our material desires ever since our first encounter with Hellenism. On the one hand, we yearn for a life of pleasure, comfort and security. On the other hand, if it comes at the expense of our moral and social responsibilities, we risk losing a sense of our values. Today, the endless pursuit of beauty and consumption may indeed be a staple of the American dream, but there are negative consequences to excessive materialism. Throughout Jewish history, there has been a recurring theme: as good as things are going for us (wealth, freedom of religion, political power, etc.), we’re reminded that we should never get too comfortable. So, what’s the secret to finding the right balance between a spiritual and material life? We find the answer via the narratives involving Achashverosh, Haman, and Esther.
From the start of Megillat Esther, the reader is presented with vivid imagery of the lavish banquets and excessive pleasures enjoyed by the Persian King, Achashverosh. His first feast (180 days long) was followed by a second feast (a mere seven days long), and this time, many Jews were in attendance. The Megillah describes its extravagant decor and glitzy atmosphere in great detail.
The second party was for the everyday people to indulge in hedonism and pleasure. A spirit of egotism and invincibility filled the air, as intoxication and carnality became a fixture of palace life. Achashverosh was able to seize anything his heart desired, from goods to wine to women. Since many of the Jews looked up to Achashverosh as their king, they emulated him by assimilating into the overindulgent culture. (Naturally, this created a spiritual distance between the Jews and their actual King, Hashem.)
Achashverosh’s desire for excessive materialism also spilled over into his romantic pursuits. To him, women were disposable commodities. Queen Vashti, royalty in her own right, refused to subject herself to public humiliation for the sake of Achashverosh’s entertainment. So after she was ousted, Achashverosh forcibly selected a harem of women to audition for the newly-vacant role of queen. In order to fulfill the king’s desires, these women were commanded to spend twelve months preparing their bodies with oil treatments and perfumes, while they waited to be summoned before him. While all the women were overzealous about beautifying themselves, Esther was not concerned with her looks. Nevertheless, the king loved what he saw and chose her to be his wife.
At the urging of her cousin Mordechai, Esther initially did not reveal her Jewish identity to the king, nor did she make any requests other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch, instructed. Once she had the love-stricken Achashverosh’s heart, she knew she also had his ear, and thus made her first request count: save my people from the hands of the scheming Haman. Sure, it was Esther’s beauty that initially led her to Achashverosh, but it was her humility, values, and courage that ultimately led to the redemption of the Jewish people. While Achashverosh symbolizes the quintessential taker, his Jewish queen acted as his foil; Esther represents the ultimate giver.
Much like Achashverosh, Haman, his second in command, seemed to have it all. However, that wasn’t enough, as he was a prisoner of his own desires, driven by jealousy and an unquenchable thirst for honor. He couldn’t handle the fact that one man, Mordechai, refused to bow down to him, so in the midst of his anger, he plotted to exterminate all the Jews of Persia. He was so consumed with resentment and hatred that he gleefully built the gallows on which to hang Mordechai. But as the old adage goes, “man plans and G-d laughs”. Haman’s demise was met by the hands of his own workmanship, as he was hanged on the same gallows shortly thereafter.
Our Sages taught “jealousy, desire, and honor remove a person from the world” (Avot 4:21). Haman was removed from his power and eventually from the world, all because he wasn’t satisfied with the opulent life he already had. Humility is the Jewish response to the Haman archetype, as our tradition teaches us: if one runs away from honor, honor will run after him. Conversely, Mordechai secretly helped the kingdom, avoiding fanfare, yet he ends up receiving only praise and honor.
In a fascinating and whimsical display of events, it is the Jews who end up victorious. But it is not without the finely calculated strategy of Queen Esther and, of course, the true Master behind the scenes, Hashem. Interestingly enough, His name is conspicuously absent from the Megillah, as He is only alluded to as “The King”. Although He continues to seem absent from us, the “signature” of The King is clearly evident in the story of the Jews, by virtue of the statistical improbability of our survival throughout the ages. The King, Hashem, provides us with the Jewish answer to the misguided opulence of Persia—altruism—as exemplified by Esther and Mordechai. They gave their lives for the sake of the survival of their people. Subsequently, the Jewish people reciprocated by giving back to one another. Achashverosh’s Persia is characterized by selfishness, whereas Judaism is exemplified by selflessness.